By Christi Parsons, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)
WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama plans to stop the federal government from distributing some military equipment to law enforcement agencies around the country, trimming back a practice that drew scrutiny amid concerns about the militarization of local police forces.
The decision follows a set of recommendations from a working group Obama set up after the unrest last year in Ferguson, Mo., where police wearing body armor and riding in armored trucks subdued protesters.
The federal government will stop providing weaponized aircraft, bayonets, grenade launchers, large-caliber firearms, and armored vehicles that run on tracks, according to White House officials.
Obama will make the announcement during an appearance Monday in Camden, New Jersey, where he will also talk about the community policing initiative of the Camden County police department and the city’s embrace of programs designed to improve the quality of life for children, youth and families.
The changes to the military equipment program practices are part of Obama’s broader effort to improve relations between law enforcement officials and their communities, the focus of growing concern about police brutality, especially against African-American men and boys.
Obama has expressed deep concern about the endemic social attitudes and problems that have stoked the simmering anger in many communities. He recently called it a “slow-rolling crisis.”
“We have seen too many instances of what appears to be police officers interacting with individuals, primarily African-American, often poor, in ways that raise troubling questions,” Obama said in April. “This has been going on for a long time. This is not new, and we shouldn’t pretend that it’s new.”
In December, Obama set up a task force to figure out how to reduce crime while building public trust. The group’s report recommends sweeping changes to officer training and police transparency, including adding body-worn cameras for police.
At the same time, a separate federal interagency working group reviewed programs that facilitate the distribution of military and other equipment to state and local law enforcement agencies. Obama is directing the government to implement the recommendations, starting with the ban on grenades, bayonets, and other equipment.
The president is also putting some gear on a “controlled” list, available only to police who get specific local approval and get special training. The controlled list includes non-track armored vehicles, tactical vehicles, riot gear, and specialized firearms and ammunition.
Some police departments who received Pentagon equipment in the past had gotten approval from local officials, who were persuaded by the “what-if” arguments of post-9/11 policing in efforts to prevent terrorism. The White House did not say how its new “controlled” list would help local governments decide what to approve or whether any restrictions would be put in place to match communities’ needs with the right equipment.
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Photo: Police officers in military-style equipment along W. Florissant Avenue on Tuesday, Aug. 12, 2014, in Ferguson, Mo. (David Carson/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/TNS)