Pres. Donald Trump was swept into office largely due to campaign promises that he would dismantle a number of his predecessor’s signature programs. Although his efforts to reverse Obama-era reforms to health care and immigration policy remain a very gradual work in progress, Trump recently revoked a 2015 executive order limiting the availability of surplus military gear—tracked vehicles, grenade launchers, bayonets and certain other equipment—to state and local law enforcement agencies.
Trump’s August 28 executive order is “a big deal symbolically” because it reverses a big part of the approach to policing adopted during the Obama administration’s second term, says Michael White, a professor of criminology at Arizona State University. The order “is another example of this administration’s focus on getting tough on crime as opposed to the previous administration’s interest in community policing,” White says.
Both the Trump and Obama executive orders focus on the so-called 1033 Program created by the National Defense Authorization Act for 1997, which authorized the Secretary of Defense to transfer military gear to help with state and local counterdrug and counterterrorism enforcement. Between the program’s inception and the end of 2014, more than 8,000 agencies had received upward of $5.1 billion worth of Defense Department property, according to a December 2014 Congressional Research Service report (pdf). Some of the most commonly obtained items included ammunition—along with more mundane supplies such as cold-weather clothing, sandbags, medical supplies, sleeping bags, flashlights and electrical wiring. “There’s no question that [military style] equipment has its uses and that a department would be happy to have it in a situation where it’s needed, such as in the  San Bernardino attack or during [last year’s] shooting of police officers in Dallas,” White says. During the Dallas incident the local department used a remote-control bomb disposal robot with a claw and arm extension—made by military supplier Northrop Grumman—to deliver the C4 explosive device that killed Micah Xavier Johnson after he had fatally shot five officers.
Then-President Barack Obama’s May 2015 order limiting the 1033 Program was to a large degree prompted by images broadcast after protests broke out over the August 2014 police killing of unarmed teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. News footage showed law-enforcement snipers in military-style uniforms—including green camouflage fatigues—perched atop armored vehicles and pointing high-powered rifles into large crowds. “I think everyone acknowledges that is not the way that equipment is intended to be used,” says Darrel Stephens, executive director of the Major Cities Chiefs association, a professional organization through which U.S. and Canadian police executives share information and strategies.
The Obama administration set up a committee representing various police associations to discuss restrictions on weapons and equipment available to local and state law enforcement via the 1033 Program. The result was a compromise—a list of items that could no longer be bought by police using federal funds and were no longer available through 1033, says Stephens, who started out as a police officer in Kansas City, Mo., in 1968 and later served as police chief of North Carolina’s Charlotte–Mecklenburg Police Department. “A few people grumbled” about no longer having access through the military to ammunition for .50-calliber and higher weapons, he says. “Those are big bullets that some departments used for their tactics teams. [Still,] given the environment at the time and the concerns of the president and some members of the community, the feeling was that we could work with [these new restrictions].”
Despite those limitations, the Obama White House did not cancel the 1033 Program; many military items were still available to law enforcement free or at specially affordable prices. Other federally supplied surplus military equipment—including wheeled armored vehicles, drones, helicopters, firearms and riot gear—were likewise fair game. But they now required assurances from state and local police that officers would be trained in using them, and that officers would adopt strict rules governing when they would be used.
The Ferguson protests lasted more than two weeks, and what the public saw in the news and on social media left many with an indelible impression that local U.S. law enforcement had become much like a military force. Other deadly and high-profile encounters between police and the public followed in subsequent months—including the deaths of Eric Garner in New York City and Freddie Gray in Baltimore—provoking Obama to issue the executive order limiting 1033 and launching programs that scrutinized police conduct. These included the Task Force on 21st Century Policing and the Police Data Initiative, a research program to study the efficacy of law enforcement early warning systems—also referred to as early intervention systems (pdf)—and to determine how they might be improved.
With the Obama-era restrictions now lifted, lingering concerns remain as to whether officers are being properly trained to use the equipment—and whether their departments have clear policies that guide how it is used. “Overall, citizens are generally not that concerned with the limited use of military style equipment and tactics by police,” says William Sousa, director of the Center for Crime and Justice Policy at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “Most recognize that there are times when military-style tactics and equipment would be appropriate,” he adds. “Citizens become a little more concerned about overt use of military tactics or that the police are relying on these things during a routine patrol or when serving a search warrant.”