WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump has decided to lift restrictions imposed by his predecessor on the transfer of surplus military equipment to local police agencies, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions said on Monday.
Sessions said Trump would sign an executive order rescinding restrictions that were put in place by former President Barack Obama after police using armored tactical vehicles confronted protesters in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014 following the fatal police shooting of a black teenager. The presence of heavy-armored police in Ferguson was criticized by civil rights advocates.
After a review, Obama decided to bar the military from transferring certain types of equipment to police, including tracked armored vehicles, armed aircraft or vehicles of any kind, .50-caliber firearms and ammunition, grenade launchers, bayonets and camouflage uniforms.
Obama also required police agencies to justify their need when seeking items like helicopters and aircraft, wheeled armored vehicles, unmanned drone aircraft, riot helmets and pyrotechnics like “flash-bangs.”
USA Today reported on Sunday that the U.S. government may soon lift the ban.
“These restrictions that had been imposed went too far,” Sessions told a meeting of the Fraternal Order of Police in Nashville on Monday. “We will not put superficial concerns above public safety. We will do our best to get you what you need.”
It was not immediately clear how far Trump’s executive order would go in rescinding Obama’s restrictions, which barred some items not commonly used by police.
But Sessions said “good equipment saves lives” and the executive order Trump plans to sign would “ensure that you can get the life-saving gear you need to do your job.”
Sessions said one sheriff had told him the restrictions had led the Defense Department to make his office return an armored vehicle that could been helpful if they had to confront someone involved in a shooting rampage.
Sessions said helmets and body armor available through the Defense Department program were the types of equipment that saved the life of a police officer during the 2016 Orlando nightclub shooting. And helicopters and armored vehicles are vital to emergency and disaster response, he said.
Despite the restrictions imposed during the Obama administration, the Defense Department’s law enforcement support program has transferred more than $6 billion worth of equipment to police agencies since its inception 25 years ago, Pentagon figures show.
Reporting by David Alexander; Editing by Alistair Bell