Activists slam plan to arm US police with military gear

US President Donald Trump is expected to revive a controversial programme that will give local police easier access to military gear such as grenade launchers, high-calibre weapons and armoured vehicles, despite widespread concerns over the militarisation of the force.

According to documents obtained by The New York Times and The Associated Press, Trump plans to sign an executive order undoing a directive by his predecessor, Barack Obama, following the August 2014 unrest in the city of Ferguson that limited police agencies access to camouflage uniforms, riot shields and other items.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions planned to make the announcement on Monday at a national convention of the Fraternal Order of Police, one of the groups that had urged Trump to revive the military programme.

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According to the documents, Trump’s new order will fully restore the programme under which “assets that would otherwise be scrapped can be repurposed to help state, local, and tribal law enforcement better protect public safety and reduce crime”,

Obama had issued an executive order in 2015 that severely limited the programme following the unrest in Ferguson, when St. Louis County Police, where 83 percent of the force is white, responded in full riot gear and pointed sniper rifles at peaceful demonstrators in broad daylight.

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The fatal shooting of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown by white Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson on August 9, 2014, triggered protests in Ferguson while drawing national scrutiny to police use of deadly force, especially against black men.

A review by the Justice Department found that deploying police with armoured vehicles, tear gas and dogs, had “inflamed tensions and created fear among demonstrators”.

“We’ve seen how militarised 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 at the time.

“It can alienate and intimidate local residents and send the wrong message.”

St. Louis County tactical police officers fired tear gas to disperse protesters after a police officer shot and killed unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, August 2014 [File: Robert Cohen /St. Louis Post-Dispatch/ EPA]

As of December, the agency overseeing the programme had recalled at least 100 grenade launchers, more than 1,600 bayonets and 126 tracked vehicles – those that run on continuous, tank-like tracks instead of wheels – that were provided through the scheme.

Trump had vowed to rescind the executive order in a written response to a Fraternal Order of Police questionnaire that helped him win an endorsement from the organisation of rank-and-file officers.

He reiterated his promise during a gathering of police officers in July, saying the equipment still on the streets is being put to good use.

‘Defies logic’

Groups across the political spectrum expressed concern over the lifting of the ban, with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund (LDF) saying it was “exceptionally dangerous and irresponsible” and encouraged confrontations with officers.

“Just a few summers ago, our nation watched as Ferguson raised the specter of increased police militarisation. The law enforcement response there and in too many places across the country demonstrated how perilous, especially for Black and Brown communities, a militarised police force can be,” the LDF said.

“The President’s decision to make this change in the wake of the tragedy in Charlottesville and against a backdrop of frayed relations between police and communities of color further reflects this administration’s now open effort to escalate racial tensions in our country,” it added.

Tensions are high after a white supremacist mowed down a crowd of anti-racists on August 12 in Charlottesville, Virginia killing anti-fascist protester – Heather Heyer – and injuring dozens.

Kanya Bennett, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, also slammed the move.

“We have an epidemic in the United States of police using excessive force, particularly against people of colour, with injuries and deaths mounting,” Bennett said.

“It defies logic to arm the police with weapons of war … instead of practical, effective ways to protect and serve everyone.”

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Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies