WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. President Donald Trump on Monday issued an executive order revoking limits imposed by predecessor Barack Obama on the transfer of surplus military equipment to local law enforcement agencies, the White House said.
Obama had curtailed the equipment transfer programme after law enforcement officers using military-style armoured vehicles and guns confronted protesters in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014 following the fatal police shooting of a black teenager.
Trump’s executive order said, “All executive departments and agencies are directed, as of the date of this order and consistent with Federal law, to cease implementing those recommendations and, if necessary, to take prompt action to rescind any rules, regulations, guidelines, or policies implementing them.”
The Republican president has reversed or cut back many of his Democratic predecessor’s policies since taking office in January.
The use of military equipment in Ferguson prompted a wider outcry over the use of war-fighting equipment by local law enforcement agencies in the United States.
After a review, Obama barred the military from transferring certain types of equipment to police or sheriff’s departments, including tracked armoured vehicles, armed aircraft or vehicles of any kind, .50-caliber firearms and ammunition, grenade launchers, bayonets and camouflage uniforms.
Obama also required law enforcement agencies to justify the need for items like helicopters and other aircraft, wheeled armoured vehicles, unmanned drones, riot helmets and “flash-bang” grenades.
“These restrictions that had been imposed went too far,” U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions told a meeting of the Fraternal Order of Police union in Nashville, Tennessee, earlier on Monday.
“We will not put superficial concerns above public safety. We will do our best to get you what you need.” Sessions did not specify what those superficial concerns were.
Sessions said helmets and body armour available through the Defense Department programme were the types of equipment that saved the life of a police officer during the 2016 Orlando, Florida, nightclub shooting. And helicopters and armoured vehicles are vital to emergency and disaster response, he said.
Monday’s order drew criticism from some of Trump’s fellow Republicans in Congress.
“It is one thing for federal officials to work with local authorities to reduce or solve crime, but it is another for them to subsidise militarization,” Senator Rand Paul said in a statement.
Paul promised to introduce legislation that would ban transfers of certain military equipment to local law enforcement agencies, improve transparency surrounding such transfers, and require the agencies to return equipment prohibited under the proposed law.
U.S. Representative Mark Sanford also condemned the executive order, criticizing the transfer programme as a potential waste of taxpayers’ dollars. He said in a statement that he had introduced a bill in 2016 to auction off military equipment instead of give it to local agencies.
The Defense Department’s law enforcement support programme 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, additional reporting by Makini Brice; editing by Alistair Bell and Jonathan Oatis