Obama’s police militarization reforms won’t make much difference

On Monday, President Obama announced new restrictions on federal transfers of paramilitary gear to local police departments. Effective immediately, federal bureaus like DOD and DHS can no longer provide local police tracked armored vehicles, grenade launchers, and bayonets. Other items like explosives and riot gear will continue to be made available but with stricter federal scrutiny.

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While this is certainly a step in the right direction towards demilitarizing America’s increasingly aggressive police force, civil libertarians should not celebrate prematurely. As NPR pointed out yesterday, Obama’s reforms do not apply to the vast majority of paramilitary transfers:

— The distribution of firearms .50-caliber or higher is now banned. But the 1033 program didn’t distribute a single such weapon to local authorities during the time period.

— All 84,258 rifles — including assault types such as M16s and battle types such as M14s — that were distributed to police departments would still be made available to local agencies. These rifles fall below the .50-caliber threshold.

— “Tracked armored vehicles” are now banned. But very few of 1033’s mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles (or MRAPs) distributed to local agencies had tracks. In fact, nearly 87 percent of them have wheels.

— The new rules also prohibit “weaponized aircraft.” But of the aircraft listed in the data, none was specifically listed as having weapons. Ninety-seven percent of helicopters were listed as utility, observation, trainer, medevac or search and rescue — the other 3 percent were simply listed as “aircraft, rotary wing.”

While a lot of questions are up in the air as to the scale of the reforms, Radley Balko points out that they will likely reap positive results regardless: “We’ll either get less use of this military-issued equipment, or we’ll get more and better information about how it’s used. Either outcome is progress.” Nevertheless, much more reforms will undoubtedly be needed until the country can redraw a clear line of separation between cop and soldier.

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