Senate Kills Broad Curbs on Military Gear for Police, Thwarting Push to Demilitarize

Mr. Johnson has tried without success to place restrictions on the program since 2013, after he marched in a Christmas parade in his district and was shocked to see the town’s mayor riding in a military-grade utility vehicle ahead of him. On the heels of the Ferguson protests, Mr. Johnson said, he hoped his colleagues would seize the moment and back his bipartisan bill, which would require local governments to sign off on the equipment before a police department tried to obtain it. But he found little support.

“I don’t think what people saw in Ferguson was a wake-up call,” Mr. Johnson said in an interview. “That picture of police officers with riot gear and helmets on and assault weapons and military vehicles — I don’t think people took note of it. I think they just assumed, that’s the way policing is in America.”

Changes to the program instead have largely been mandated by presidential orders. Struck by images of heavily armed police officers in armored vehicles confronting unarmed protesters in Ferguson, Mr. Obama signed an executive order in 2015 prohibiting the transfer of certain weapons and equipment, including tracked armored vehicles, bayonets, grenade launchers and camouflage uniforms. Even then, administration officials resisted more expansive changes, arguing that the program helped bulk up law enforcement’s counterterrorism efforts. Even so, police unions condemned Mr. Obama’s restrictions as a threat to officer safety.

When Mr. Trump took office he rolled back the curbs, fulfilling a campaign promise he had made to the Fraternal Order of Police, a powerful national law enforcement union that for years had lobbied against restrictions to the program. Jeff Sessions, then the attorney general, announced the move at the union’s headquarters in Nashville. Mr. Trump heralded it as a significant change to military policy.

“You know, when you wanted to take over and you used military equipment — and they were saying you couldn’t do it — you know what I said? That was my first day: ‘You can do it,’” Mr. Trump told law enforcement officers in a 2017 speech. “In fact, that stuff is disappearing so fast, we have none left.”

Some equipment that was banned by the Obama administration has since made it into the hands of local police officers following Mr. Trump’s rollback. The Cypress-Fairbanks police department in Texas serving a K-12 school district, for example, obtained 60 bayonet knives through the program in 2019, according to a Pentagon database. A spokeswoman for the school said in a statement to The Times that the bayonets “did not have functionality and are scheduled to be returned to the military.”

But a RAND Corporation study found in 2018 that the defense and state officials running the program “reported little change in operations or in the equipment” that police departments obtained from the program as a result of the executive order. And Pentagon officials overseeing it groused that many of the items that the Obama administration prohibited, like grenade launchers, had not been distributed through the program for years, anyway.