Riot police clear a street with smoke bombs while clashing with demonstrators in Ferguson, Missouri on August 13, 2014.

© 2014 Reuters

The United States Department of Defense’s program to provide military equipment to police departments –curtailed by the Obama administration – has been given a second life under President Trump.

Originally created to assist police in the war on drugs of the 1980s, the program was cut back in the wake of the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014. Police in Ferguson were widely criticized for using military hardware in heavy-handed efforts to intimidate and disperse protestors days after police fatally shot an unarmed 18-year-old African American, Michael Brown.

While the Trump Administration is arguing much of the equipment is “entirely defensive in nature,” the equipment now being greenlighted includes projectile weapons, such as rifles and other firearms.

Since 1997, the DOD has shared $5-billion of surplus military defensive equipment, ranging from aircraft to battering rams and riot gear, and, prior to the Obama-era reform, even bayonets and grenade launchers. It’s clear that police departments do not have proper training to handle many of these weapons, or systems in place to track the equipment or civilian complaints about the use of the weapons.

Lifting the restrictions in the aftermath of Charlottesville raises fears the weapons will lead to new abuses. The fears are justified. The announcement is just the latest in a series of policy steps that show far more concern for the prerogatives of police than for the people the police protect. It comes on the heels of an executive order to review the need for mechanisms to hold police accountable for unlawful use of force, and Attorney General Session’s policy embrace of the antiquated and rights-abusive tactics of the war on drugs.

For the last few years, Human Rights Watch has called on government to put in place some simple safeguards if military equipment is shared with local police:

  • Ensure local law enforcement agencies use military equipment only when necessary to deter or respond to likely violence, not to discourage the peaceful protest
  • Use the equipment in conformity with international law enforcement standards on use of force.
  • Bar transfer of military equipment to law enforcement agencies with a record of human rights violations.
  • Allow for a clearly accessible public complaint process about misuse of equipment under this program.

Now more than ever, the federal government should put these safeguards in place. One needs to look no further than Ferguson, Baltimore, or many other jurisdictions, to know that when abuses occur, lives can be lost and communities can be devastated.