The 1033 program, which allows government agencies to acquire surplus military equipment either for free or damn cheap, has become more controversial as the public’s trust in domestic law enforcement has dwindled. Obama, to his credit, attempted to curtail the program. But his efforts were undone by the new administration:
Mr. Sessions said that President Trump would sign an executive order on Monday fully restoring the military program, called 1033, and that the president was doing “all he can to restore law and order and support our police across America.”
Mr. Sessions has rolled back a number of Obama-era efforts toward police reform. In April, he ordered a sweeping review of federal agreements with dozens of law enforcement agencies, including consent decrees with troubled police departments nationwide.
Mr. Obama ordered a review of the Pentagon program in late 2014 after the police responded to protests with armored vehicles, snipers and riot gear. The images of police officers with military gear squaring off against protesters around the country angered community activists who said law enforcement agencies were reacting disproportionately.
In addition to the prohibitions on certain military surplus gear, he added restrictions on transferring some weapons and devices, including explosives, battering rams, riot helmets and shields.
The Pentagon said 126 tracked armored vehicles, 138 grenade launchers and 1,623 bayonets had been returned since Mr. Obama prohibited their transfer.
Not surprisingly, opinions on Trump’s decision are split down party lines. His opponents are up in arms over the return of militarization of law enforcement while his supporters are cheering the restoration to law and order that they perceive will come from this. But granting access to surplus military hardware isn’t the problem in of itself and this decision won’t restore law and order.
The motto commonly attribute to law enforcement is to serve and protect. Granted, the job of law enforcement is to enforce the law, not serve or protect, but let’s consider that motto. The ability to serve and protect members of a community depends heavily on those members trust in their protectors. If they don’t trust their protector, they are going to go out of their way to avoid them, which makes their protector’s task difficult.
Obama’s decision to curtail the 1033 program was more about signaling than anything else. It signaled the fact that he acknowledge the widening gap of mistrust between law enforcers and the communities they operate in. Demilitarizing law enforcers would likely go a long ways towards reducing that gap since part of the distrust people have in law enforcement is their heavy reliance on violence. While Obama’s order wasn’t enough to restore the public’s trust in law enforcement, it could have saved as the beginning of a strategy to do so. Trump’s decision to reverse Obama’s order eliminated that strategy altogether.
At this rate the public is going to see less and less of a difference between the police and military. At some point there really will be no difference except the military generally has more restrictions when it comes to utilizing violence.