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Obama restricts police military gear, says it can alienate

CAMDEN, N.J. — President Barack Obama says the use of militarized gear by local police departments can give the public the feeling that law enforcement is like “an occupying force.”

He says such an image can “alienate and intimidate” people and send the wrong message to the community the police is trying to protect.

Obama is cutting back on shipments of military equipment to local police because he says some equipment made for the battlefield is not appropriate for policing.

The announcement came nine months after complaints about officers using riot gear and armored vehicles to confront protesters in Ferguson, Missouri.

Before announcing his new policies to counter the “militarization” of local law enforcement, Obama visited Camden police headquarters Monday to commend the way officers have improved their relationship with a poor community struggling with violence. He also stopped briefly in nearby Philadelphia to praise its police and fire officials for their quick response to last week’s deadly Amtrak wreck.

Obama is banning the Pentagon and other federal agencies from providing police with certain military-style equipment, such as grenade launchers. Other types of military gear will only be sent to local departments under new, stricter guidelines.

The surprise announcement comes after the White House cited public safety issues in suggesting last year that Obama would maintain programs that provide military-style equipment like that used to respond to racially charged demonstrations in Ferguson.

But an interagency group found “substantial risk of misusing or overusing” items like tracked armored vehicles, high-powered firearms and camouflage uniforms, and said that could undermine trust in police.

With police under increased scrutiny over highly publicized deaths of black suspects nationwide, Obama also is unveiling the final report of a task force he created to help build confidence between police and minority communities.

In Camden, Obama visited the police Real-Time Tactical Operational Intelligence Center and watched live video displays of city neighborhoods being monitored by officers.

“It’s to address things before they become problems,” Chief John Scott Thomson told the president.

Obama also planned to visit a community center to meet with youth and law enforcement before giving a speech on policing.

“I’ll highlight steps all cities can take to maintain trust between the brave law enforcement officers who put their lives on the line, and the communities they’re sworn to serve and protect,” Obama said in his weekly radio address Saturday.

In previewing the president’s trip, the White House said that effective immediately, the federal government will no longer fund or provide armored vehicles that run on a tracked system instead of wheels, weaponized aircraft or vehicles, firearms or ammunition of .50-caliber or higher, grenade launchers, bayonets or camouflage uniforms. The federal government also is exploring ways to recall prohibited equipment already distributed.

In addition, a longer list of equipment the federal government provides will come under tighter control, including wheeled armored vehicles like Humvees, manned aircraft, drones, specialized firearms, explosives, battering rams and riot batons, helmets and shields. Starting in October, police will have to get approval from their city council, mayor or some other local governing body to obtain it, provide a persuasive explanation of why it is needed and have more training and data collection on the use of the equipment.

Programs that transfer surplus military-style equipment from the Pentagon and other federal agencies have been around for decades, but Congress increased spending to help departments acquire the gear in the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks.

The issue of police militarization rose to prominence last year after a white police officer in Ferguson fatally shot unarmed black 18-year-old Michael Brown, sparking protests. Critics questioned why police in full body armor with armored trucks responded to dispel demonstrators, and Obama seemed to sympathize when ordering a review of the programs that provide the equipment.

“There is a big difference between our military and our local law enforcement and we don’t want those lines blurred,” Obama last in August.

But he did not announce a ban in December with the publication of the review, which showed five federal agencies spent $18 billion on programs that provided equipment including 92,442 small arms, 44,275 night-vision devices, 5,235 Humvees, 617 mine-resistant vehicles and 616 aircraft. At the time, the White House defended the programs as proving to be useful in many cases, such as the response to the Boston Marathon bombing. Instead of repealing the programs, Obama issued an executive order that required federal agencies that run the programs to consult with law enforcement and civil rights and civil liberties organizations to recommend changes that make sure they are accountable and transparent.

The report from the 21st Century Policing task force has a long list of recommendations to improve trust in police, including encouraging more transparency about interactions with the public. The White House said 21 police agencies nationwide, including Camden and nearby Philadelphia, have agreed to start putting out never-before released data on citizen interactions like use of force, stops, citations and officer-involved shootings. The administration also is launching an online toolkit to encourage the use of body cameras to record police interactions. And the Justice Department is giving $163 million in grants to incentivize police departments to adopt the report’s recommendations.

Ron Davis, director of the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services at the Justice Department, told reporters he hoped the report could be a “key transformational document” in rebuilding trust that has been destroyed in recent years between police and minority communities.