Blog: Policing Reform—Good News at Last!

Joan Neal
May 19, 2015

In an effort to stem the increasing militarization of police, the Obama administration announced yesterday that the federal government will no longer transfer certain military-grade gear and weaponry to local police departments and will severely restrict access to other equipment without stringent assurances of its proper use. We applaud the president for taking these positive steps forward in addressing the deteriorating relationship between police officers and the communities they have sworn to protect and serve, especially communities of color.

When Americans turned on their television sets on August 9, 2014 many were shocked to see members of the Ferguson, Missouri police department in full military gear. They resembled an invading army. It might well have been a scene from Iraq or Afghanistan. This was perhaps the first time that many of us became aware of a growing trend in U.S. law enforcement – the increasing militarization of local police forces. It was unbelievable that police would use military force against fellow Americans. What happened to Officer Friendly – the persona that police departments across the country have promoted for so many years? How did weapons of war become standard issue on the streets of U.S. cities?

Unwittingly, the federal government has contributed to this situation. The federal 1033 program, which authorized the transfer of excess military equipment to local police departments, was initiated in the wake of 9-11 to help build the capacity of local police jurisdictions to combat drug wars and keep community residents safe in the event of a terrorist attack. But, somehow it went wrong along the way.

The president’s executive order is one of a number of initiatives the administration is undertaking to address this situation. In addition, over the next three years, the White House will purchase about 50,000 body cameras to be worn by officers and will assist local jurisdictions to implement technology designed to increase transparency as well as build trust with their communities. These and other community policing recommendations from the Task Force on 21st Century Policing will form the administration’s strategy to help reform police departments and restore the public trust in communities across the country. This is indeed good news.

Now, Congress needs to follow the president’s lead and end the transfer of military equipment to local law enforcement altogether. With both the executive and legislative branches of government focused on this issue and with increased attention to community policing initiatives that work, perhaps communities and the police who serve them can once again be in ”right relationship.” Who knows? Maybe Officer Friendly will make an encore appearance.