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Trump’s executive order on police militarization sends a chilling message—but we have the power to fight back

In mid-August, Donald Trump offended much of the country when he appeared to equate anti-fascist protesters with neo-Nazis. Last week, he pardoned the notorious Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who was convicted of criminal contempt after refusing to follow a federal judge’s order to stop illegally racially profiling Latinos. Speaking to a law enforcement group earlier this summer, Donald Trump told cops not to be “too nice” to people they arrest, comments that were widely interpreted—including by some in law enforcement—as an endorsement of police brutality. During the 2016 presidential election season, Donald Trump didn’t only refuse to apologize for his newspaper ads that obliquely called for the executions of the Central Park Five, Black men falsely accused and convicted of raping a white woman in the late 1980s. He actually doubled down on the lie that they are guilty, despite DNA evidence proving the contrary. According to someone who once worked for him, AG Jeff Sessions once joked that he thought the KKK “was O.K. until I found out they smoked pot.”

Meanwhile, in July we learned that the Government Accountability Office was able to obtain $1.2 million in equipment from the military by claiming to be a police department that doesn’t exist.

Listen to the ACLU’s Kade Crockford discuss the Trump executive order on WBUR’s Radio Boston:


It’s in this context that we must view Trump and Sessions’ decision this week to undo an Obama administration executive order on police militarization. That Obama executive order and attendant policy recommendations, issued in May 2015, barred the US military from giving grenade launchers, machine guns, tracked vehicles (a.k.a. tanks), and bayonets to state and local law enforcement, under a military-gifts-to-cops program known as 1033. The policy also required more extensive review for transfers of equipment like drones and riot gear. The Obama order did not end the 1033 program, but merely adjusted it.

In the civil rights and civil liberties community, the Obama order was a welcome move in the right direction, but many of us viewed it as insufficient. After all, in August 2014 the nation saw what decades of police militarization had wrought, when law enforcement in Ferguson, Missouri put down domestic protests against police brutality as if they were at war against their own people. An ACLU report from a few months earlier, published in July 2014, found that while law enforcement often justifies militarized policing by invoking rare instances of extreme violence like terror attacks and mass shootings, the overwhelming majority of SWAT deployments in the United States are related to routine war on drugs policing. A full 62% of the SWAT raids the ACLU examined were executed to serve drug related warrants—hardly emergency deployments in extremely violent, rare events. Unsurprisingly, the ACLU report also found that communities of color were disproportionately targeted by these militarized home raids.

Obama’s executive order, now undone by the Trump administration, didn’t go far enough to stop and reverse the trend of militarized policing. Nevertheless, it was a step in the right direction. And while Trump’s decision to kill the Obama policy certainly takes us backward as a nation, the good news is that there’s a limited role for the federal government to play in this space.

If you’re feeling frustrated and scared after Trump’s full-throated advocacy of militarized police, know this: In most places in the country, local and state law enforcement are squarely under local and state control. If you don’t want your police department to use militarized tactics and weapons, take it up with your local government. The elected leadership in your town or city—not the Trump administration—controls your police department. You elect them to office. If you want to see the police in your community move in a different direction, away from the type of militarized enforcement the Trump/Sessions regime appears to favor, you can demand that your local officials make it so. 

In Massachusetts, Senator Barrett and Representative Keefe have introduced legislation ( S.1277  and H.1276, respectively) that would require a robust public process before police departments can accept equipment from the military. Tell your state lawmakers to support it. 

© 2024 ACLU of Massachusetts.