The headline for The New York Times' story about the White House's just-released report analyzing the federal transfer of military equipment to local law enforcement agencies reads "Obama to Toughen Standards on Police Use of Military Gear." The headline isn't wrong, exactly, but a look at the actual report (pdf) from the White House indicates what they really want is to throw more paperwork at police departments for oversight and perpetuate the idea that abuse of military equipment by police agencies is a "training" issue, not a choice to be deliberately aggressive.
The White House promised to study police militarization in the wake of how various law enforcement agencies in Ferguson, Missouri, responded to the peaceful protesters, not just the aggressive or criminal ones. What comes out of the report is a call for better documentation and transparency, and an easily supportable demand that local governments must actually review and authorize acquisition of the "controlled property" military equipment (guns and vehicles) by law enforcement agencies.
What the report doesn't recommend is scaling back the programs in any notable or significant way. It appears as though the White House is trying to have it both ways on police militarization, calling for reforms without having to tackle the issues surrounding whether it's actually necessary. From BuzzFeed, which recently noted the failure of any sort recent efforts to scale back police militarization on the federal end:
The administration is keeping its hands off the bipartisan militarization debate, which imploded after a brief surge in interest on Capitol Hill. Administration officials noted repeatedly that "the vast majority" of surplus military equipment sent to local police forces is not former combat equipment and said they could not alter programs created by Congress.
Asked about proposed legislation to limit the availability of military equipment to local police, proposed by Democrats and Republicans in the House and Senate, the official said the White House had not reviewed the bills.
"I don't have a specific position for you," the official said.
"Our assumption is Congress has an intent here to support local law enforcement with the use of this kind of equipment," the official said on a conference call with reporters Monday. "Our focus is on what kind of protections are in place to make sure it's used properly and safely."
That only a small percentage of stuff given to the police is former combat equipment seems to be a big talking point for the administration. It's mentioned in the report as well. But the report does also show how big that four percent is in real numbers:
To date, approximately 460,000 pieces of controlled property are currently in the possession of LEAs. Examples of controlled property provided include: 92,442 small arms, 44,275 night vision devices, 5,235 high mobility, multi-purpose wheeled vehicles (HMMWVs), 617 mine resistant ambush protected vehicles and 616 aircraft.
This is not to say that it's wrong for the White House to acknowledge that Congress is responsible for scaling back or altering the federal programs, particularly given the Obama administration's reputation for executive actions. But not taking "a specific position" is actually taking a position. It should be read that the administration supports the transfer of military equipment to law enforcement agencies. In fact, the opening statement of the White House report describes the reasons why police have sought out the military equipment as "legitimate concerns."
What we should take away from today's announcement is that there will be no push to scale back these programs from the White House. It is up to Congress.
The White House does, however, want to offer millions in federal grants to help supply body cameras to police departments across the country. That's worth noting, too.