Local sheriffs OK Trump’s about-face on military gear

George Hunter
The Detroit News

When former President Barack Obama issued an order two years ago confiscating repurposed military equipment from local police departments, Macomb County Sheriff Anthony Wickersham said police had to spend taxpayer money to replace it.

Now President Donald Trump has signed an executive order undoing Obama’s directive, which would allow police to use the military gear again.

“I’m glad to see that law enforcement will still have access to this equipment to keep officers, deputies and the public safe,” Wickersham said.

The Obama administration said in May 2015 that it planned to recall the equipment, after objections were raised following standoffs between citizens and police during rioting in Ferguson, Missouri, where a police officer had fatally shot 18-year-old Michael Brown.

But Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard has said Obama was disingenuous about the recall. Bouchard, who is head of government affairs for the Major County Sheriffs of America, said he tried unsuccessfully to persuade Obama during meetings that the equipment was needed.

“(Obama) made a big deal about police using tanks, but I tried to explain: they don’t have weapons mounted to them; they’re basically big, safe boxes,” Bouchard said. “Armored vehicles are used to protect money, but they can’t be used to protect police and citizens? Police use armored vehicles all the time; why not a tank with the weapon removed?

“The former president used perception as evidence why police didn’t need military equipment, rather than explaining to people what the equipment was used for,” Bouchard said.

Wickersham said after an M-1 tank was confiscated, Macomb County taxpayers shelled out more than $250,000 to purchase a new Bearcat vehicle used during high-risk raids and during barricaded gunman situations.

“The weapon had been removed, and we just used it to get deputies and members of the community out of dangerous situations,” Wickersham said.

Kenneth Reed, spokesman for the Detroit Coalition Against Police Brutality, criticized Trump’s decision to return the military equipment to local police.

“It just looks bad,” Reed said. “It’s intimidating having police using military equipment. And the question is what’s to prevent them from retrofitting them with offensive weapons? It may sound a little far-fetched but these things were meant to be offensive weapons, and I’m afraid they could be used to go on the offense again. I think the Obama administration made a proper call.”

The Obama administration identified eight categories of military gear and equipment for recall, including tracked armored vehicles, grenade launchers, bayonet knives and armed aircraft.

Bouchard said Obama should have instead explained how the equipment was being used by police.

“You hear ‘bayonet’ and people thought we were using them on citizens,” he said. “Well, we used them with our Honor Guard at (deputies’) funerals. There was nothing intimidating about the way we used those at all, and Obama should have explained that to people.”

Attorney General Jeff Sessions led the charge to reverse the ban and announced the executive order Monday during a speech in Nashville, Tennessee.

“We will not put superficial concerns above public safety,” Sessions said, according to a copy of his prepared remarks. “The executive order the president will sign today 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 the new normal. And we will save taxpayer money in the meantime.”

The recall last year sparked angry responses from many in and outside law enforcement, including Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel, the county’s former sheriff, who stressed such vehicles could be life-savers for first responders involved in many situations.

National police organizations have long pushed Trump to hold his promise to once again make the equipment available to local and state police departments, saying it is needed to ensure officers aren’t put in danger when responding to active shooter calls and terrorist attacks. An armored vehicle played a key role in the police response to the December 2015 mass shooting in San Bernardino, California.


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Twitter: @GeorgeHunter_DN

Bloomberg News contributed.