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Obama limits police access to military-style equipment

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President Obama is beginning to curb police access to military-style weapons, vehicles, and equipment. In a series of rules announced today in a long-awaited response to the protests in Ferguson, Obama is prohibiting the federal government from providing select military-style equipment to local police. Other military-style weapons and vehicles are having their access limited, with requirements that police forces first explain in detail why they're needed, obtain approval from the local mayor or other governing body, adopt basic policing standards, and agree to collect data about their use.

"The idea is to make sure that we strike a balance."

Banned items include "tracked armored vehicles, weaponized aircraft and vehicles, bayonets, grenade launchers, and large-caliber firearms." Controlled items include "armored vehicles, tactical vehicles, riot gear, and specialized firearms and ammunition." That still leaves access to quite a bit of military-style equipment — which the White House has argued is necessary, such as for responses to an incident like the Boston Marathon bombing — but it does limit access to some of the more extreme weaponry that police can obtain. Police will, however, still be able to acquire that equipment using state, local, or other funds.

"The idea is to make sure that we strike a balance in providing the equipment, which is appropriate and useful and important for local law enforcement agencies to keep the community safe, while at the same time putting standards in place," says Cecilia Muñoz, director of Obama’s Domestic Policy Council, according to The New York Times. Obama ordered the development of these rules back in January, acting in response to a review of military-style equipment in police forces, which was created following public outcry over the surprisingly militarized police force that pushed back on protestors in Ferguson.

The new rules were developed by a federal group with representatives from the Justice Department, the Department of Defense, and Homeland Security. The group released its final report today, and Obama has instructed agencies to adhere to its recommendations. Regarding the prohibited equipment list, the group writes, "the substantial risk of misusing or overusing these items, which are seen as militaristic in nature, could significantly undermine community trust and may encourage tactics and behaviors that are inconsistent with the premise of civilian law enforcement."

Obtaining controlled equipment requires adopting basic policing standards

While the federal government is still allowing police to obtain some military-style equipment, requirements surrounding its acquisition is designed as a way to improve policing standards. Law enforcement agencies acquiring controlled equipment "must adopt robust and specific written policies and protocols," the group writes, including policies that promote developing trust with a community, adhering to the Constitution, and using the equipment in an appropriate and supervised manner. It's not clear how effective these policies will be — and it's bewildering that some of them should even be necessary — but it appears to be an attempt to drive reform.

Police who use or authorize the use of controlled equipment will have to receive annual training on these standards. They are also required to create a record of every "significant incident" where controlled equipment was used, keeping those records for at least three years afterward and providing them to the federal agency that supplied the equipment upon request. While these are basic record-keeping requirements, they could prove to be a critical asset should issues with these weapons occur in the future. Already, there are broader issues with police record keeping, and this should at least track some police encounters with civilians.