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Trump executive order fails to boost flow of military gear to local police departments

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In this April 18, 2018 photo, President Donald Trump listens during a news conference with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at Trump's private Mar-a-Lago club, in Palm Beach, Fla. The Democratic National Committee on Friday sued President Donald Trump's campaign, Trump's son, his son-in-law, the Russian Federation and WikiLeaks. The Democrats accuse the defendants of conspiring to help Trump win the 2016 presidential election after breaking into DNC computers and stealing tens of thousands of emails and documents. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

By John Fritze, USA TODAY

The amount of surplus military equipment sent to local police departments across the nation has sharply declined in recent months despite an executive order President Trump signed that was intended to increase those transfers, a USA TODAY analysis has found.

Shipments of military gear in the first three months of 2018 fell by half compared with the same period last year, Department of Defense data show. The amount of armored vehicles, high-caliber rifles and other equipment measured by dollar value also slid.

President Trump’s executive order, signed last August, rescinded limits imposed on the program by the Obama administration after the battlefield-style response to the Ferguson, Mo., riots in 2014 caused an uproar. Some police officials said they are approaching the program cautiously despite robust support from Trump.

“If you have a long rifle or you have a military vehicle, it looks bad,” said Sgt. Stephen Wells, a spokesman for the Kern County Sheriff’s Office in California, which ordered about 90 military items from the Pentagon in 2015 but only one last year. “We’re not an occupying force.”

Since 1991, the program has recycled some $6.8 billion in military equipment purchased by federal taxpayers.

It came under scrutiny amid the riots in Ferguson that followed the fatal shooting of Michael Brown by police. Images of officers wearing tactical gear standing alongside armored vehicles flashed across network news and drew bipartisan criticism in Congress.

In response, Obama placed limits on some kinds of equipment in 2015. The show of force, Obama said then, opened a rift between the police and the community at a time when both would have benefited from better relations.

But Trump administration officials said the restrictions went too far, limiting police from obtaining equipment that could help them meet modern challenges. Trump’s order was touted by those officials at the time as a way to increase the flow of “life-saving gear” to police.

Announcing the order last year, Attorney General Jeff Sessions criticized Obama for the limits and vowed that the Trump administration would not “put superficial concerns above public safety.”

The data show a bump in shipments in September, the month immediately following Trump's action, but that appears to have been an anomaly. The average monthly value of military gear shipped to local departments in 2016 was just over $17 million. So far this year, the average monthly value stands at $5.2 million.

A White House spokeswoman referred questions to the Justice Department. A spokeswoman at Justice referred questions to the Defense Department.

A spokeswoman for the Defense Logistics Agency, which oversees the program, said this year's decline is “likely due to those … items not being available.”

The spokeswoman, Michelle McCaskill, described the change ushered in by Trump's executive order as "minimal."

But while some police departments are more aware of the public relations concerns associated with the equipment, Wells and others suggested that local law enforcement is unlikely to abandon the program entirely. The equipment, he said, remains critical for dangerous situations such as an active shooter. 

By far the most common item transferred to police last year were military rifles, followed by weapon sights and night-vision goggles. 

Attention to appearances

James Pasco, executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police, said he believes Trump’s order has put police across the nation in a stronger position. Both Trump and Sessions closely aligned with rank-and-file police during the presidential campaign.

Pasco speculated that the recent drop-off is a coincidence, though he also acknowledged that some local political leaders have been reluctant to embrace the program with zeal.

“If there’s a spate of additional unrest, then I predict that there’ll be a greater demand,” he said.

Critics pounced on the program again last year when the Government Accountability Office created a fictitious agency and obtained more than 100 military items worth $1.2 million, including night-vision goggles and simulated pipe bombs.

USA TODAY’s analysis focused exclusively on equipment the Department of Defense altered, or “demilitarized,” before transferring it to a local government. That means rifles, armored trucks, night vision sniper scopes and other war-fighting equipment was included, but not radios, boots and printers.

The Project on Government Oversight, a Washington-based watchdog group, predicted last fall that Trump’s order would have little effect on the shipments. The more significant change, experts said, has been on how the government oversees the program.

“Trump did not make a huge difference in what is or is not allowed, despite statements from some in the administration,” said Peter Tyler, a senior policy analyst with the group. “Mostly what the Obama-era order did was put in some very helpful accountability steps.”

Rick Myers, executive director of the Major Cities Chiefs Association, said he was not surprised Trump's order didn't result in a sustained increase in demand. The problem with the program isn't the equipment, he said, but how some departments used it.  

“Police chiefs across the country are a little more sensitive to the optics," Myers said. "I think we’re just maybe a little smarter about it."

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