Trump, DOJ reverse Obama restrictions on military gear for local police

The Trump administration on Monday revived a federal program curtailed by former President Barack Obama that allows local police departments to receive surplus military equipment.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the decision at a national convention for the Fraternal Order of Police, one of the groups that had long urged Trump to restore the program, a day after documents obtained by Fox News detailed the plan.

Obama largley ended the program following concerns that armored vehicles and other military surplus gear were inflaming confrontations between police and civilians, particularly after protests and riots in 2014 and 2015 in response to officer shootings of black males.

Sessions told the audience at the convention in Nashville that the restart will "ensure that you can get the lifesaving gear that you need to do your job and send a strong message that we will not allow criminal activity, violence and lawlessness to become a new normal." 

The White House later released an executive order formalizing the decision. The order could restore police agencies' access to bullet-proof vests and riot shields -- and also would further the administration's law-and-order agenda, a component of which is reducing violent crime by giving local police more resources.

The executive order restores "the full scope of a longstanding program for recycling surplus, lifesaving gear from the Department of Defense," according to the documents obtained by Fox News.

Many law enforcement agencies and policing organizations argued they need such equipment, particularly when trying to stop a terror attack. And they point out that an armored vehicle played a key role in the police response to the December 2015 mass shooting in San Bernardino, Calif.

However, critics say the program has resulted in the “militarization” of police, arguing that the equipment encourages and escalates confrontations with officers.

Congress authorized the Pentagon program in 1990, allowing police to receive surplus equipment to help fight drugs, which then gave way to the fight against terrorism.

Obama issued an executive order in 2015 that severely limited the program, after public outrage over the use of military gear during protests in Ferguson, Mo., following the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown, a black male.

Obama's order prohibited the federal government from providing grenade launchers, bayonets, tracked armored vehicles, so-called “weaponized” aircraft and vehicles, and firearms and ammunition of .50-caliber or greater to police.

"Those restrictions went too far," Sessions said Monday. "We will not put superficial concerns above public safety."

As of December, the agency overseeing the program had recalled at least 100 grenade launchers, more than 1,600 bayonets and 126 tracked vehicles -- those that run on continuous, tank-like tracks instead of wheels -- that were provided through the program.

Trump vowed to rescind the executive order in a written response to a Fraternal Order of Police questionnaire that helped him win an endorsement from the organization of rank-and-file officers.

He reiterated his promise during a gathering of police officers in July, saying the equipment still on the streets is being put to good use.

The NAACP Legal Defense Fund said in a statement Sunday night it is "exceptionally dangerous and irresponsible" for the administration to lift the ban.

Justice Department documents summarizing the order describe much of the gear as "defensive in nature," intended to protect officers from danger.

Fox News’ Jake Gibson and the Associated Press contributed to this report.