WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama ordered the federal government Monday to stop distributing a limited inventory of military equipment to local law enforcement agencies across the country because, he said, it makes police seem like an "occupying force" instead of public servants.
Speaking to a crowd in Camden, N.J., Obama argued that the heavy use of war-zone equipment gives people the wrong impression about the role of police and fuels a sense of fear and anger.
"We've seen how militarized gear can sometimes give people a feeling like there's an occupying force, as opposed to a force that's part of the community that's protecting them and serving them," Obama said. "It can alienate and intimidate local residents and send the wrong message."
But while the change stops the government from handing over some equipment, including weaponized aircraft, bayonets, grenade launchers and armored vehicles that run on tracks, it still allows police departments to acquire riot gear, specialized firearms and armored trucks with tires, as long as they get training and special permission from local authorities.
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who testified in December before the President's Task Force on 21st-Century Policing, welcomed the order Monday. Despite the unrest in Baltimore that followed the death of Freddie Gray, she said, the city's police were never militarized.
Rawlings-Blake said the city's reluctance to militarize its police helped bring the unrest to an end sooner than otherwise would have occurred.
"We have seen what has happened in other jurisdictions that have had an immediate militarized response to public unrest, and we've seen how that led to days and days of looting and rioting and unrest," Rawlings-Blake said. "What we saw in Baltimore was much different, and I'm sure that there are many cities that have experienced rioting, looting and unrest that would have loved to have just a few hours of unrest like we had here in Baltimore."
Police departments in Maryland have received more than $12 million in excess equipment from the Defense Department's Excess Property Program since 2006.
Items include a $400,000 "mine-resistant vehicle," more than 2,000 assault rifles, 873 semiautomatic handguns and 220 12-gauge shotguns, according to Pentagon data.
The transfer of military gear to police became an issue in Maryland's Senate race on Monday, with the two Democratic candidates trading barbs over their records on the issue.
Rep. Donna F. Edwards of Prince George's County noted that she was one of a minority of House Democrats to support unsuccessful language that would have limited the sharing of that equipment.
Her opponent, Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Montgomery, voted with a majority of Democrats — including most of the state's congressional delegation — in opposing that measure.
"Militarization of police is a problem created by politicians who took positions out of expediency, not out of principle," Edwards spokeswoman Benjamin Gerdes said in a statement. "Congressman Van Hollen went along to get along on this issue. He refused to stand on principle and vote against police militarization before the political winds changed."
Van Hollen's campaign noted that the Democrat had co-sponsored bipartisan legislation last year — long before the race to replace retiring Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski began — that would restrict how the equipment is transferred and prohibit sharing large-caliber weapons, armored vehicles, drones and other gear. He has also backed legislation to expand the use of police cameras.
The Van Hollen campaign also took a swipe at Edwards, noting that she had missed a vote on the issue on Thursday because she was attending a dinner for Carroll County Democrats. In that instance, Van Hollen opposed legislation to expand the transfer of military equipment to local law enforcement for border security efforts.
"Congressman Van Hollen's support for the demilitarization of state and local police, increased transparency, and police accountability is clear," Sheila O'Connell, Van Hollen's campaign manager, said in a statement. "To suggest otherwise is simply not accurate and is sadly playing politics with an important issue."
Grenades and bayonets, on Obama's banned list, are not in widespread use by police, analysts say, and armored vehicles with tires are more common in police departments than tanks with tracks.
One analyst called the president's order a "half measure" that does little to change the perception that the police are a military organization working against the people they've sworn to protect.
"The symbolic aspect is really important," said Pete Kraska, chair of the graduate program in justice studies at Eastern Kentucky University, who writes on and studies the militarization of police. "They wanted to change the ethos from a warrior mentality to a public servant mentality. But allowing the discards of war to still be transferred, albeit with some new restrictions, to our local police, sends them the message that they're engaged in this warlike endeavor where they need warlike machinery."
The caches of local weaponry came under scrutiny last summer, when police wore body armor and rode atop armored vehicles during confrontations with protesters after a white officer shot an unarmed black man in Ferguson, Mo.
The jarring images prompted Obama to order his administration to review its equipment-transfer policies. His decision to cut off supplies comes as part of a recommendation from officials at the departments of Justice and Homeland Security.
The discussion arose again last month, as scenes of thousands of National Guard soldiers in Baltimore spread across the country. Those images followed others of police officers in riot gear confronting mostly peaceful protesters.
The protesters gathered in reaction to the death of 25-year-old Gray, a Baltimore man who died after sustaining a severe spinal cord injury while in the custody of police.
Rioting and looting broke out on the day of Gray's funeral and continued into that night. Gov. Larry Hogan called in the National Guard and Rawlings-Blake placed the city under a curfew.
The new requirement that police get approval from local officials to acquire more commonly used equipment from the Pentagon is unlikely to usher in a new era of close oversight. Departments that received the equipment in the past often won easy approval for all types of gear from local officials, who were persuaded by the "what-if" arguments of post-9/11 policing efforts to prevent terrorism.
To announce his new orders, Obama went to Camden, an impoverished city that has embraced community policing, the movement in law enforcement in which police develop ties within the community and do their jobs partly by knocking on doors and talking to people.
Community policing is far more effective at keeping streets and neighborhoods safer, Obama said after a visit with Camden County police officers.
The officers told him them they're getting more help from residents because officers have established relationships, Obama said.
"It's not just crisis response," he said. "It's, 'We're here all the time, and hopefully we can prevent those shootings from happening in the first place.'"
Rawlings-Blake said many of the things Obama said about Camden could be said of Baltimore, which has also taken up community policing initiatives.
"Both cities struggle with violent crime and the need for more economic opportunity," she said. "However, both cities have also shown proactive commitment to building trust between the community and the police.
"Like Camden, we have made reforms that put more officers on the street during peak periods of time. We've also accepted the My Brother's Keeper community challenge, and our city is aggressively moving forward with reforms outlined in the task force recommendations, such as police body cameras."
Rawlings-Blake said a pilot program for body cameras on Baltimore police officers will begin by the end of the year.
"What I have tasked my administration to do is to remove every piece of bureaucratic red tape that would prevent us from moving forward with it," she said. "We want a thoroughly considered program but we also want it to be done swiftly, so I've asked them to look at everywhere we could cut some time off of the process."
Speaking to a crowd at a community center in Camden, Obama talked about the changes society must make to confront the deep social problems that fuel the simmering anger that keeps boiling over in communities around the country, a point he made repeatedly after last month's riots in Baltimore.
Obama argued that police practices can't solve all the problems in Baltimore, Ferguson and elsewhere.
"We can't ask the police to contain and control problems that the rest of us aren't willing to face or do anything about," he said.
Kraska said it's good that the Obama administration wants to promote community policing. But when community policing is pitted against a paramilitary model, he warned, it tends to lose out.
Chuck Canterbury, president of the national Fraternal Order of Police, said the union was "very disappointed" in the order and felt the union's input in the review of the equipment program was "drowned out" by the input of other groups.
"We ought not to be distracted by thinking the problem is with the types of equipment or how the equipment is procured," Canterbury said in a statement. "Instead, we need to focus on better command decision-making at the local and State level with respect to how and when the equipment is deployed in the field. This, and of course appropriate training for the officers who are directed to use the equipment, is critical."
Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat, said Obama's changes are a step in the right direction. She opposes cutting the weapons transfer programs entirely.
The programs need change, she said, but "this federal equipment and funding saves lives."
The American Civil Liberties Union applauded the new rules as "a critical step towards rebuilding trust between police and the people they have pledged to serve" and urged Congress to enact them into law.
"Grenade launchers, high-caliber weapons, armored vehicles," said Kanya Bennett of the ACLU, "this equipment never belonged in our neighborhoods."