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Trump rescinds Obama ban on giving military gear to police

Sheriff Michael Bouchard of Oakland County, Mich., with the two armored Humvees his office received from the federal government in Pontiac, Mich., Jan. 13, 2016. The county does not have to return these military surplus vehicles because they have wheels, but other armored vehicles, with tracks, must be, angering some law officers. (Sarah Rice/The New York Times)

President Donald Trump undid another Obama-era initiative, lifting his predecessor's ban on giving military-grade equipment like armored vehicles, search-and-rescue equipment and grenade launchers to local police departments.

An executive order that Trump issued Monday rescinds restrictions put in place in May 2015. That move by former President Barack Obama followed a national uproar over the police shooting of an unarmed man in Ferguson, Missouri, in August 2014, and the local police department's response to protests and rioting by deploying armored trucks and military weaponry.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions led the charge to reverse the ban and announced the executive order earlier Monday during a speech in Nashville, Tennessee.

"We will not put superficial concerns above public safety," Sessions said, according to a copy of his prepared remarks. "The executive order the president will sign today 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. And we will save taxpayer money in the meantime."

Trump's order restores a program created in the 1990s to recycle Defense Department gear no longer needed by the military, including clothing, small arms, ammunition, armored vehicles, riot shields, rescue equipment and computers. The so-called 1033 program has resulted "in the transfer of more than $5.4 billion in surplus military gear to state, local, and tribal law enforcement agencies," according to the Justice Department statement.

State and local police also will be able to acquire military-grade equipment through other federal programs under the new executive order. The Justice Department said the equipment has been used to save lives, protect law enforcement officers and improve community relations.

"Much of the equipment provided through the 1033 program is entirely defensive in nature, such as armored vehicles that protect officers in active shooter scenarios and other dangerous situations," the Justice Department said in a statement. "By recycling that surplus gear, law enforcement agencies are able to do more with their limited budgets, including more training, community policing, intelligence sharing, and other key public safety functions."

When Obama announced the ban in May 2015, along with new rules for holding police departments accountable, he said doing so would "make sure police departments are being smart about crime and there's enough data for them to be accountable as well."

"We've seen how militarized gear can sometimes give people a feeling like there's an occupying force," Obama said at the time, adding that the heavy equipment could "alienate and intimidate local residents."

Lifting the ban is "exceptionally dangerous and irresponsible," said Janai Nelson, a lawyer with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc.

"Just a few summers ago, our nation watched as Ferguson raised the specter of increased police militarization," Nelson said in a statement. "This action puts more fire power 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."