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WASHINGTON — Reversing an Obama-era policy, President Donald Trump Monday removed restrictions on the kinds of surplus military gear the Defense Department can turn over to local police departments.
The issue has been a sensitive one since the Justice Department concluded that tactics used by police during 2014's violent street protest in Ferguson, Missouri inflamed tensions and created fear among demonstrators.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the change, first reported by USA Today, in a speech to the Fraternal Order of Police in Nashville on Monday.
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The executive order "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," he said.
The Obama limitations hurt law enforcement, Sessions added.
"One sheriff told me earlier this year about how, due to the prior administration's restrictions, the federal government made his department return an armored vehicle that can change the dynamics of an active shooter situation," he said.
Jim Pasco, the police organization's executive director, said the change "is President Trump making good on a campaign promise." Pasco said he and other police officials discussed the issue with the president and attorney general two times during meetings at the White House.
The NAACP Legal Defense fund called the move "exceptionally dangerous and irresponsible."
Janai Nelson, the group’s associate director counsel, said the policy change "puts more firepower in the hands of police departments that remain largely untrained on matters of racial bias and endangers the public. Inviting the use of military weaponry against our domestic population is nothing short of recasting the public as an enemy."
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., laid out his opposition to Trump's move in series of tweets.
Kanya Bennett of the ACLU said: "We have an epidemic in the United States of police using excessive force, particularly against people of color, with injuries and deaths mounting. It defies logic to arm the police with weapons of war."
Since 1990, the Defense Department has been allowed to transfer surplus military equipment and supplies to federal, state, and local law enforcement. Though the program was originally intended for counter-drug operations, it was later expanded to include all police missions.
Large-scale protests broke out in Ferguson in 2014 after Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, was shot and killed by a white police officer. TV cameras and social media users documented the heavily armed response by law enforcement.
The striking images that resulted drew national attention to the program — though the Pentagon said at the time little of the gear was military surplus.
After the Justice Department concluded that the use of military-style equipment made matters worse in Ferguson, President Obama put some equipment off limits — including tracked armored vehicles, bayonets, and grenade launchers — and required a showing of need for tactical vehicles with wheels.
Law enforcement officials said Monday that many police departments used the bayonets as utility knives and did not mount them on rifles. And grenade launching tubes were used to fire non-lethal projectiles such as tear gas and bean bags.
The Justice Department cited two studies by economists which concluded that the use of military-style equipment can have positive effects, reducing citizen complaints and assaults on officers.
A Justice Department official said the executive order would take effect immediately.