How Police Unions Pushed Trump to Greenlight More Military Gear for Cops

Seth Kershner

Chuck Canterbury, center, national president of the Fraternal Order of Police, speaks with other law enforcement officials standing with him outside of the West Wing of the White House, after a meeting with President Donald Trump on Friday, June 2, 2017. (Cheriss May/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

This week, in an address to the bien­ni­al con­fer­ence of the Fra­ter­nal Order of Police (FOP), Attor­ney Gen­er­al Jeff Ses­sions announced that Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump had issued an exec­u­tive order allow­ing local law enforce­ment to, once again, receive bay­o­nets, tracked armored vehi­cles and grenade launch­ers from the Pen­ta­gon. For free.

Fed­er­al trans­fers of cer­tain types of mil­i­tary hard­ware, but cer­tain­ly not all, had pre­vi­ous­ly been banned as part of for­mer Pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s efforts to reform a con­tro­ver­sial Depart­ment of Defense (DOD) pro­gram known as 1033.

Since the 1990s, the DOD has dis­trib­uted sur­plus equip­ment to law enforce­ment agen­cies through its Law Enforce­ment Sup­port Office. While the major­i­ty of the equip­ment includes gear like com­put­ers and office sup­plies, the 1033 pro­gram also sup­plies weapons and tac­ti­cal vehi­cles to local police for just the cost of shipping.

The sys­tem of dis­trib­ut­ing sur­plus gear to local police large­ly flew under the radar until the sum­mer of 2014. That was when assault rifles and armored vehi­cles were used to con­front pro­test­ers in Fer­gu­son, Mo. fol­low­ing the killing of Black teenag­er Michael Brown. Although none of the armored vehi­cles used in Fer­gu­son had been obtained through the 1033 pro­gram, the spec­ta­cle sparked a nation­al debate over police mil­i­ta­riza­tion and led to new scruti­ny of the Pentagon’s part­ner­ship with local police. The Black Lives Mat­ter move­ment pushed the demand to demil­i­ta­rize police depart­ments into pub­lic discourse.

In May 2015, Oba­ma issued an exec­u­tive order that led to an out­right ban on fed­er­al trans­fers of cer­tain mil­i­tary-grade weapon­ry, includ­ing bay­o­nets, .50 cal­iber guns, and tracked armored vehi­cles. The order estab­lished a new list of con­trolled items” that police could obtain only after fol­low­ing an addi­tion­al pro­to­col. The restric­tions also applied to pro­grams admin­is­tered by fed­er­al agen­cies, such as the Depart­ments of Jus­tice and Home­land Secu­ri­ty, which also pro­vide sup­port to local law enforce­ment through grants or sur­plus equip­ment transfers.

Some argue that Obama’s restric­tions were large­ly cos­met­ic. In 2015, Peter Kras­ka, an aca­d­e­m­ic who has done exten­sive research on police mil­i­ta­riza­tion, crit­i­cized the decep­tive” pack­ag­ing of these reforms. After all, sev­er­al of the banned items — like weaponized air­craft — had nev­er been dis­trib­uted to local law enforce­ment to begin with.

Regard­less, the pow­er­ful FOP has vig­or­ous­ly opposed Obama’s exec­u­tive order from the out­set. In a press state­ment released this week, the FOP’s senior leg­isla­tive liai­son, Tim Richard­son, not­ed that the union had been work­ing to roll back these restric­tions since the day they were announced.”

The world’s largest law enforce­ment offi­cers’ union, the FOP rep­re­sents more than 330,000 mem­bers in the Unit­ed States and has staff who work full-time lob­by­ing Con­gress on issues of concern.

The FOP has not been shy about its oppo­si­tion to restric­tions on police weapon­ry. In a 2016 issue of the quar­ter­ly FOP Jour­nal, Jim Pas­co, a senior union offi­cial who spear­head­ed the lob­by­ing effort, slammed as offen­sive and absurd” the notion that some­thing like an MRAP would ever be strict­ly con­trolled” by the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment. Yet, the Oba­ma-era reforms are lim­it­ed, requir­ing, for exam­ple, that per­son­nel receive train­ing before han­dling mil­i­tary-grade equip­ment, like MRAPs.

In real­i­ty, the flow of con­trolled equip­ment” like MRAPs has hard­ly slowed down in the wake of the reforms. In con­trast to state­ments from police offi­cials and Attor­ney Gen­er­al Jeff Ses­sions, who some­times imply that 1033 had been evis­cer­at­ed” by Obama’s exec­u­tive order, the reforms made hard­ly a dent in the pro­gram. The most recent fig­ures, pro­vid­ed to In These Times by Defense Logis­tics Agency spokesper­son Susan Lowe, show that $460 mil­lion worth of excess DOD equip­ment has been trans­ferred to police depart­ments so far this year.

In Jan­u­ary, the FOP began push­ing for new leg­is­la­tion in Con­gress that would undo the Oba­ma-era restric­tions on the 1033 pro­gram. While the union was work­ing behind the scenes, it kept push­ing its mes­sage to union mem­ber­ship and the wider pub­lic. In May, the cov­er sto­ry of the FOP Jour­nal made the organization’s pri­or­i­ties per­fect­ly clear: Mod­ern­ized, Not Mil­i­ta­rized: Why Law Enforce­ment Needs Advanced Equipment.”

The FOP was not alone in its push to green­light police mil­i­ta­riza­tion. David Grif­fith, the edi­tor of one of the lead­ing trade pub­li­ca­tions in polic­ing, claimed last year that restrict­ing the 1033 pro­gram may cost lives.” Mean­while, a PoliceOne edi­to­r­i­al pub­lished in May 2015 spec­u­lat­ed that crowds would now be allowed to run amok because police don’t have the nec­es­sary pro­tec­tive equip­ment” to quell a riot.

Yet, research indi­cates that a mil­i­ta­rized police force — with its accom­pa­ny­ing garb and hard­ware — may lead to more aggres­sive encoun­ters with the pub­lic. Sup­port for this the­o­ry came last fall, when a heav­i­ly mil­i­ta­rized police force hosed, tear­gassed and tack­led water pro­tec­tors at Stand­ing Rock.

In case the leg­isla­tive path should fail, the FOP’s Pas­co held out hope for an exec­u­tive action on the mat­ter. But it was far from a sure thing. In May, when the FOP exec­u­tive board met with Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump, a range of top­ics was dis­cussed, but the 1033 pro­gram did not come up due to time constraints.

Com­ment­ing on the Attor­ney General’s speech this week, FOP Pres­i­dent Chuck Can­ter­bury expressed thanks for such good news” com­ing out of the White House.

Kanya Ben­nett, leg­isla­tive coun­sel for the Amer­i­can Civ­il Lib­er­ties Union, wrote on August 28 that, as a result of Trump’s action, Weapons of war will again be used to police our com­mu­ni­ties, no ques­tions asked.” She under­scored that con­cerned indi­vid­u­als can ask their elect­ed rep­re­sen­ta­tives to sup­port the Stop Mil­i­ta­riz­ing Law Enforce­ment Act, which would elim­i­nate fed­er­al trans­fers of MRAPs and oth­er gear to police. Accord­ing to Ben­nett, Com­mu­ni­ties must call out the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment for insti­gat­ing police militarization.”

Seth Ker­sh­n­er is a writer and researcher whose work has appeared in out­lets such as Rethink­ing Schools, Sojourn­ers, and Boul­der Week­ly. He is the co-author (with Scott Hard­ing) of Counter-Recruit­ment and the Cam­paign to Demil­i­ta­rize Pub­lic Schools (Pal­grave Macmil­lan, 2015).
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