More than nine months after the paramilitary response to anti-police protests sent shockwaves around the world from the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, Barack Obama is taking matters into his own hands.
The president will ban the US government from providing certain types of military-style equipment to local police departments and sharply control other weapons and gear provided to law enforcement, White House officials announced on Monday.
The announcement coincides with the release of a long-awaited report from a task force on policing assembled by Obama in response to the turmoil in Ferguson following the death of teenager Michael Brown in August.
Obama’s policing taskforce releases recommendations – read the full report
The 116-page report recommends an even broader taskforce on criminal justice reform, alongside several proposals for local agencies around the US focused on how police can build trust in communities, especially those disproportionately affected by crime.
“Law enforcement culture should embrace a guardian – rather than a warrior – mindset to build trust and legitimacy both within agencies and with the public,” the report said.
The 21st Century Policing Task Force, made up of 12 members from academia and law enforcement, was asked to propose solutions to overcome racial bias in police operations and recommend ways to improve relations between agencies and the communities they serve.
The taskforce has now called for Obama to support the creation of a National Crime and Justice Task Force, which would be charged with examining all aspects of the criminal justice system and suggesting reforms.
It also recommends Obama support community-based initiatives as a way to address issues closely linked to crime, including poverty, education, and health and safety.
The crisis in Ferguson was just one in a series of police killings of unarmed black men – including Eric Garner and Akai Gurley in New York City, Tamir Rice in Cleveland and other civilians – that gave rise to a national protest movement. Earlier this month, Baltimore erupted in protest after the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray, apparently from injuries suffered while in police custody.
Obama has been slow to formally confront the long-simmering distrust between minority communities and police. Publicly he has straddled the line between official support for law enforcement and due process. Privately, with the debate compounded by emotional and historical weight, activists and civil liberties groups have pushed him to enact immediate reform.
“In addressing the issues in Baltimore or Ferguson or New York, the point I made was that if we’re just looking at policing, we’re looking at it too narrowly,” Obama said during a recent speech in New York City marking the expansion of his My Brother’s Keeper program. “If we ask the police to simply contain and control problems that we ourselves have been unwilling to invest and solve, that’s not fair to the communities, it’s not fair to the police.”
The lack of accurate data on killings of civilians by police is among the many points of public frustration laid bare by demonstrations. “It’s ridiculous that I can’t tell you how many people were shot by the police in this country last week, last year, the last decade – it’s ridiculous,” FBI director James Comey said recently.
The White House said 21 police agencies nationwide, including those of Camden, New Jersey, 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. Congressional reform on de-escalating militarized gear in local law enforcement has stalled.
Obama is due to speak on Monday about the report and his proposal from Camden, one of the most violent and poorest cities in the US. There he is expected to highlight some of the initiatives the Camden County police department has undertaken to improve relations between police and communities, working especially hard to built trust between officers and minority residents.
“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 address on Saturday.
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. From 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.
The images that emerged from the streets of Ferguson last August were striking. Police in Kevlar vests and camouflage, armed with pistols, shotguns, automatic rifles and teargas, squared off with unarmed protesters in jeans and T-shirts.
The issue of police militarization rose to prominence last year after Brown’s death. 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.
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 $163m 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 Department of Justice, 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.
“We are without a doubt sitting at a defining moment for American policing,” said Davis, a 30-year police veteran and former chief of the East Palo Alto (California) police department. “We have a unique opportunity to redefine policing in our democracy, to ensure that public safety becomes more than the absence of crime, that it must also include the presence of justice.”