In waning days of August, President Donald Trump lifted an Obama-era ban on supplying local police departments with military surplus gear. Trump’s action received little attention given the non-stop flow of White House controversy and devastating hurricanes but is no less relevant or serious in its implications.
“An executive order that Trump issued [August 28] rescinds restrictions put in place in May 2015. That move by former President Barack Obama followed a national uproar over the police shooting of an unarmed man in Ferguson, Missouri, in August 2014, and the local police department’s response to protests and rioting by deploying armored trucks and military weaponry.”
US Attorney General Jeff Sessions praised the move as a positive step to protecting the police. According to a copy of his prepared remarks, Sessions said:
“‘We will not put superficial concerns above public safety. The executive order the president will sign today will ensure that you can get the lifesaving gear that you need to do your job and send a strong message that we will not allow criminal activity, violence, and lawlessness to become the new normal. And we will save taxpayer money in the meantime.'”
Jacklin Rhoads, Press Secretary for Senator Bob Casey (D-PA) said, via email:
“If the Administration wants to really help police officers then they should first take a look at their budget. The Administration’s budget proposes deep cuts to the Byrne Justice Assistance Grants program, which is a gut punch to law enforcement. Instead of sending battlefield equipment, like tanks, into our communities, Congress ought to fund the law enforcement programs that keep our communities and police officers safe.”
Many watchdog groups are concerned that reintroducing military surplus gear into policing will do more harm than good.
Eileen Reed, a Bucks County based activist said she’s very concerned with police becoming more militarized. “A line must be drawn between military and civilian police,” she said. “The reason you separate the military and the police is to protect the people from becoming the victims of the state that they are today.”
The American Civil Liberties Union has long held the view that police are seen as a threat when they come out in full riot gear. Per their Web site:
“The images on the news of police wearing helmets and masks, toting assault rifles, and riding in mine-resistant armored vehicles are not isolated incidents—they represent a nationwide trend of police militarization. Federal programs providing surplus military equipment, along with departments’ own purchases, have outfitted officers with firepower that is often far beyond what is necessary for their jobs as protectors of their communities. Sending a heavily armed team of officers to perform “normal” police work can dangerously escalate situations that need never have involved violence. Yet the ACLU’s recent report on police militarization, “War Comes Home,” found that SWAT teams, which were originally devised as special responders for emergency situations, are deployed for drug searches more than they are for all other purposes combined.”
Central Bucks Regional Police Chief James Donnelly encourages his police officers to be respectful, but firm when protecting the peace. “I don’t care what [people] protest, as long as they do it safely and within the law,” he said.
Donnelly said that in his 50 years of policing, which includes heading up the Philadelphia SWAT and starting the Bucks County SWAT, the police have solved more crisis situations with negotiations, than with armament. But when it comes to using tactical gear, it depends on the situation.
The regional police officers carry patrol rifles, he said. And the county has the use of an armored Bearcat for rescuing people and protecting personnel.
When it comes to using the military surplus for policing, Donnelly said training is needed more than anything. “I would prefer [officers] wear patrol uniforms or plain clothes with an armband that says ‘Police,'” he said. “Our responsibility is to calm the scene not escalate it. As long as it’s legal, people have their First Amendment Rights.”
When it comes to protesting in Doylestown, the county seat of Bucks County, Donnelly is a firm believer in working with organizers to make sure everyone is safe.
“If I know what you’re going to do to express your views,” he said. “As long as your peaceful, I’ll do my best to help you.”
Marlene Pray, a Doylestown based leader, and activist said she is also very concerned with the growing militarization of the police.
“The Central Bucks Regional PD has a Bearcat armored vehicle, which was actually deployed and parked nearby (in the parking lot of OLMC) during an Occupy Doylestown peaceful demonstration in 2011. It is alarming to me that they even considered a militarized vehicle as potentially necessary for one of our local expressions of free speech. The chief had made it clear to me personally that his priority is the protection of the US and PA Constitutions. I am grateful for that. It matters a great deal. Militarizing our PD is not the way to do that.”
Ron Strouse, the Mayor of the Doylestown Borough said the town is lucky that the protests and gatherings have been peaceful.
“We’ve been in the eye of the World because we’re the county seat and a swing area during elections,” he said. “We play a significant role that is beyond our size politically.”
Doylestown is a very involved community, Strouse said. As a country, people need to communicate more, and sometimes we have to do it in different ways.
“Our police will never be clad in riot gear,” he said. “We focus on community policing. It’s at the core.”
The police department’s job is to keep the peace but also protecting people’s First Amendment rights to protest and have their voices heard, Strouse said. The police need to be nimble and communicate and work with organizers to make sure everything stays safe.
Regarding police using surplus military gear, the mayor said it doesn’t create a sense of security for anyone– protesters or the police.
“The federal government has grants for local departments to acquire surplus equipment,” he said. “We recently obtained a generator. These programs encourage departments to purchase equipment that isn’t usually a top priority, but helpful.”
Because of these grants, the Central Bucks Regional Police were able to outfit the entire department with body cameras at once, which was very useful, Strouse said. But it’s a misuse of resources when police use these grants to get equipment that is not appropriate for most departments. It’s often not necessary if policing is done right.
The Pennsylvania Attorney General’s office had no comment on the issue. Senator Patrick Toomey (R-PA) and Representative Brian Fitzpatrick could not be reached for comment.