The Trump administration’s plan to lift the ban on giving certain types of military equipment to local governments is unlikely to have major consequences in Kentucky and other states.
U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the policy change last Monday, telling members of the Fraternal Order of Police that the move would “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.”
But the Obama-era ban only applied to major pieces of military equipment like vehicles that have tank-style tracks, weaponized vehicles, guns with ammunition greater than .50 caliber, grenade launchers and bayonets.
“In actuality it was really inconsequential,” said Pete Kraska, chair of Eastern Kentucky University’s Graduate School of Justice Studies.
“I mean it was pure symbolic politics. No police departments want an armored vehicle that has tracks on it, it tears up roads. I think there were only three given out in the history of the program.”
The restrictions also applied to camouflage clothing and created a list of “controlled items” that law enforcement agencies could only get from the federal government with additional protocol.
But an NPR analysis in 2015 showed that President Obama’s restrictions would have little impact on the continued militarization of local police forces.
Between 2006 and 2014, Kentucky law enforcement agencies received nearly $49 million in military supplies ranging from socks to guns and armored vehicles from the U.S. Department of Defense’s 1033 program, which funnels surplus equipment to state and local police departments for no cost.
Several Kentucky law enforcement agencies received dozens of bayonets and camouflage clothing that were restricted through the program.
In 2014, the program was criticized in the wake of the police’s militarized response in Ferguson, Missouri, to demonstrations over an officer’s fatal shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed African-American teenager.
Sessions’ announcement fulfills a campaign promise by President Donald Trump to lift the 1033 restrictions imposed by Obama, but Kraska said the expansion is mostly a symbolic gesture.
“Now we have a situation where we have another layer of symbolic politics that wasn’t real to begin with,” Kraska said.
The program has distributed supplies to law enforcement to at least 90 of the state’s 120 counties, plus Kentucky State Police. Though local departments don’t have to pay for the items, they are responsible for shipping and repairing equipment.
Sen. Rand Paul criticized Sessions’ announcement and Trump’s plan to issue an executive order lifting the restrictions.
“The militarization of our law enforcement is due to an unprecedented expansion of government power in this realm,” Paul said in a statement.
“It is one thing for federal officials to work with local authorities to reduce or solve crime, but it is another for them to subsidize militarization.”
Paul said he planned to re-file a bill that would ban the transfer of equipment like armored vehicles, drones and “offensive equipment” to local governments.