Attorney General Jeff Sessions struck a new blow in his war against police reform on Monday, announcing that President Donald Trump will rescind an executive order from his predecessor restricting local cops’ access to hardware designed for war zones.
The long-predicted move puts grenade launchers and bayonets back on small-town police department shopping lists. It also guts accountability measures for a much longer list of defensive equipment and military tools which had remained available to police under President Barack Obama’s reforms.
But the most striking thing in a speech riddled with falsehoods was Sessions’ presentation of the thinking behind the administration’s move — dismissing police reform efforts as harmful to public safety.
“These restrictions that had been imposed went too far,” the attorney general said before the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) in Nashville. “We will not put superficial concerns over public safety.”
Sessions was speaking to a receptive audience. Tennessee’s Commissioner of Safety and Homeland Security, David Purkey, opened by characterizing police as soldiers in a war for decency.
“You, my young friends, stand in the gap for this country. This country offers inspiration, and intimidation. We offer intimidation through our military,” Purkey quoted Marine Corps Gen. James “Mad Dog” Mattis as having told soldiers in the field. “When I look out on this crowd,” Purkey went on, broadening the warzone sermon to include the police audience in Tennessee, “I see a group of men and women who stand in the gap for this country.”
Sessions later characterized the new Trump order as part of its broader rejection of civilian complaints about police.
“We will always seek to affirm the critical role of police officers in our society, and we will never participate in anything that will give comfort to radicals who promote agendas that preach hostility rather than respect for police,” he said.
The rise of these so-called “radicals” and the spread of distrust for police from minority communities to a wider band of the American public is directly connected to the kinds of abuses of force that Sessions ignored in his remarks. While a new wave of public attention to individual police killings of unarmed black and brown people in recent years helped galvanize reform efforts, the drive for change draws on a long-running conversation about systematic rights violations by police.
Obama’s order came out of a deliberative process informed by input from police, civic leaders, private researchers, and Pentagon officials. Its new controls on military materiel were modest, flexible, and grounded in decades of police violence and unnecessary death.
Protests and violence in Ferguson, Missouri following the police killing of Michael Brown provided the immediate motivation for Obama’s reforms. The heavily armored police response in St. Louis County provided striking visuals of cops as an occupying military force — the tip of a counter-insurgency spear, not a shield that protects and serves.
But mass-protest crowd control is almost a more appropriate use of such heavy equipment than has been typical over the 25-year history of the “1033” program modified by Monday’s order. When a police agency obtains a new tool or stands up a new unit, its mere existence creates an imperative: Leadership must find some reason to use the new toys, send out the new tactical team. As paramilitary-style police thinking, tactics, and equipment found their way into even the smallest towns in America, where situations that actually require armored vehicles are rare, the imperative to justify equipment and personnel bred monstrous outcomes.
Sessions repeatedly depicted the now-canceled restrictions on Pentagon equipment dispersals to police as a cosmetic move born of a misguided focus on perceptions over reality. In his telling, concern about militarized policing inside U.S. borders is feckless posturing that endangers police and harms public safety.
Sessions was roasting a straw man. The actual argument is that police should act from a sense of unity with those they serve rather than from the mindset of an occupying military force. The claim Sessions sidestepped is that the cop-as-conquistador mentality actually brings more violence into communities, not less.
So-called “dynamic entry” police raids – the type of GI Joe police activity encouraged throughout the War on Drugs and enabled by Pentagon equipment – are deadly and prone to error. More than 120 civilians and dozens of police officers have died in such raids since the 1990s, including 94 such deaths from 2010 to 2016 alone. These numbers are almost certainly low, as statistics about police violence always are thanks to lax recordkeeping.
Raids that don’t go deadly can still inflict gore on innocents.When Georgia police burst into a family home before dawn in 2014, 19-month-old Bounkham Phonesavanh was sleeping in his playpen. An officer chucked a flashbang grenade in with him, tearing a massive hole in the toddler’s chest. The child survived, and the officer was acquitted on federal charges after state officials declined to prosecute any of the police involved in the raid.
When officers are trained to think like soldiers on foreign soil, they learn to regard the “natives” around them with constant suspicion. That disposition makes investigators sloppy, eager to have their gut belief that something fishy is going on confirmed by any means possible. It only takes one cunning jailhouse snitch, familiar with the rewards of giving an officer the basis for a warrant he wants, to get a SWAT team dispatched to a sleepy family home.
Sessions never mentioned actual paramilitary tactics like these drug raids in his speech. Instead, he pretended that the Obama restrictions had kept life-saving gear like bulletproof vests and helmets out of police officer hands. That is a lie.
Only five categories of equipment were flat-out prohibited from the police recycling system: grenade launchers, bayonets, high-caliber ammunition, track-driven armored vehicles, and certain types of camouflage.
All other materiel covered by the 1033 redistribution program – including the safety gear Sessions cited in Monday’s remarks – remained accessible to local cops as “controlled equipment.” Departments were required to provide specific justifications for their requests, to establish training and use protocols for the gear, and to more closely track how officers actually use controlled equipment.
“These guidelines were created after Ferguson to ensure that police departments had a guardian, not warrior, mentality. Our communities are not the same as armed combatants in a war zone,” Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights head Vanita Gupta said in a statement. The rules would have meant greater scrutiny for the kinds of reckless assaults on civilian homes that lead to flashbangs in baby cribs and needless firefights between startled, sleeping homeowners and the black-clad invaders they do not realize are police. They would not have sent first responders into harm’s way in flip-flops and Jimmy Buffett tee-shirts as Sessions insinuated.
Still, the FOP convention crowd ate it up.
The most prominent U.S. leaders are not just walking back policies that curb law enforcement’s institutional instinct toward dominance and hard power. They are actively decrying police critics as radical cop-haters, diminishing their nuanced observations about the incentive structures in our criminal justice system into simplistic notions of good and evil.
The remilitarization of American policing — seen in both Sessions’ speech on Monday and in Trump’s blithe endorsement of police brutality in July — is sold by the administration as simply deferring to what police say they need.
Yet the portrayal of Trump as an open ear and blank check for cops doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. When police’s experience in the field leads them to conclusions opposite to Trump’s own preferences, he is happy to ignore them. Cops across the country have made clear that the administration’s push to deputize them into immigration enforcement work does grave harm to public safety in communities where people fear deportation. They reject Trump’s desire to enlist them into his crackdown on undocumented immigrants, specifically because it makes people less likely to call 911 or cooperate with investigators.
If the administration were serious about promoting public safety, it would listen to the people who disagree with them about where safety comes from and what role police play in ensuring it.