Proposal Would Curb Police Department's Use Of Militarized Gear

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President Obama announced restrictions on military-style hardware police may get from the federal government. Critics say the rules will have little impact on the trend toward military-style raids.

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Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

When he was in Camden yesterday, President Obama announced new policies meant to curb the use of militarized gear by police departments. That gear became part of the national controversy during the protests in Ferguson, Mo. And it is often donated or funded by the federal government. The president said heavy equipment can, quote, "alienate and intimidate local residents and send the wrong message."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: So we're going to prohibit some equipment made for the battlefield that is not appropriate for local police departments.

(APPLAUSE)

MONTAGNE: NPR's Martin Kaste reports that critics of police militarization aren't convinced that new restrictions on gear will fix the deeper problem.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: The White House says the government will no longer provide police with the really heavy gear. For instance, no more 50-caliber rifles, no more grenade launchers and no more armored personnel carriers that run on tracks instead of wheels. That's a tank to the layman. The thing is tanks were never really much of an issue.

PETE KRASKA: I have never run across an instance of a police department with a track-driven APC.

KASTE: That's Pete Kraska. He's a criminal justice professor who's spent 25 years studying police use of military gear. He points out that the government will still be donating or funding armored vehicles that run on wheels, as well as other, more mundane equipment such as M-16 rifles. And he says banning the exotic stuff doesn't do anything to cut down on military-style behavior by police, such as this police raid on a house in Evansville, Ind., in 2012.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLICE RAID)

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER: Police department, search warrant - police department, search warrant.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLASH GRENADE)

KASTE: That's what cops sometimes call a quick-knock raid, just burst in, toss a flash grenade and don't give the occupants a chance to react. In this case, the homeowner got a rare apology from the police chief, but Kraska says his research shows that these paramilitary raids have become normal. He figures they're 20 times more common than a generation ago.

KRASKA: And that's the kind of policing that has really started to grate on the nerves and the sensibilities of the communities that it's targeted at.

RICHARD BEARY: Unfortunately, yes, we have had to change some of our tactics. But that's because we're responding to the threats that we have to deal with.

KASTE: Richard Beary is president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police. He says these tactics are needed in a society that's as heavily armed as America. He doesn't object to the new ban on the more exotic equipment, but he's worried about the second half of President Obama's announcement. The gear that the government will still give to police departments - the rifles and shields and armored vehicles - that gear will be subject to a tighter approval process. Beary's not sure he likes the sound of that.

BEARY: What are those requirements going to be, and how long is that going to delay putting some of that material in the hands of the officers that need it?

KASTE: So far, the White House says it just wants police departments to explain why they need the gear and to get approval from local officials. Norm Stamper thinks that's a fine idea. He's a retired police chief who doesn't like the overuse of military tactics, but he doesn't blame the gear. In fact, he wishes the heavier equipment were available back in 1984, when his colleagues in San Diego faced a massacre at a McDonald's.

NORM STAMPER: It was an act of rampage violence. He killed 20 people before one of our SWAT snipers was able to take him out. And that would've been a wonderful occasion to have an armored personnel carrier filled with fully-equipped SWAT officers who could go in and end that threat much earlier.

KASTE: You'll hear this even from the most reformed-minded police executives. In a crisis, they're glad to have that armored personnel carrier. They say the real reform is knowing when not to use it. Martin Kaste, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.