School Climate & Safety

Obama Order May Result in More Training for School Police Who Get Military Gear

By Evie Blad — December 01, 2014 2 min read
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President Barack Obama is poised to require federal officials to develop additional oversight and required training for local police departments, including school police departments, that receive surplus military supplies from the Pentagon and other federal agencies.

A White House review of programs that provide equipment to local agencies released Monday details a patchwork of inconsistent regulations.Obama has directed staff to prepare an order “directing relevant agencies to work together and with law enforcement and civil rights and civil liberties organizations to develop specific recommendations” about issues like training, oversight, and approval of acquisitions requests in the next 120 days, the White House said in a news release.

Among the programs included in the review was the U.S. Department of Defense’s 1033 program, which has provided surplus equipment including military grade armored vehicles, grenade launchers, and weapons to school police departments in at least 22 districts. Civil rights groups sounded the alarm about the defense program in September, saying the use of such heavy equipment by school police further inflamed fears about police infringing on students’ civil rights. From a story I wrote then:

Since the 2012 shooting deaths of 20 children and six adults at a Newtown, Conn., elementary school, districts around the country have stepped up security measures, adding new equipment, police officers, and armed guards. But civil rights and student organizations have said the role of school police too often extends beyond securing buildings and into routine student discipline matters that should not involve law enforcement, especially for minority students and students with disabilities, who bear a disproportionate share of such punishments. Concerns about overly harsh discipline are intensified by the presence of intimidating military equipment in and around schools, which 'only exacerbate existing tensions,' civil rights groups said in a September letter to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, and U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel."

The 1033 program does not require any civil rights training for recipient agencies, which also include state and local police, the White House report says.

Concerns were sparked by Ferguson

Activists initially uncovered the use of military equipment in schools following the criticism of the heavily militarized police response to protests in Ferguson, Mo., following the killing of an unarmed black teen there by a white police officer in August. Obama ordered a review of all federal programs that provide equipment and support to local law enforcement in response to those concerns. On Monday, he also met with a variety of stakeholders to discuss concerns about police raised in Ferguson since the shooting.

From the White House report:

Federal equipment programs provide for the reuse of valuable equipment and have contributed to the protection of the public and to reduced operational risk to peace officers, who put their lives on the line every day to keep the American people safe. At the same time, when police lack adequate training, make poor operational choices, or improperly use equipment, these programs can facilitate excessive uses of force and serve as a highly visible barrier between police and the communities they secure. When officers misuse equipment, the partnership, problem-solving and crime prevention collaboration with citizens that is at the heart of effective policing can be eroded. With significantly improved coordination and oversight, these programs can provide more effective and efficient contributions to public safety. In light of these initial findings, the President should consider issuing an Executive Order directing relevant agencies to address the issues related to equipment acquisition."

What new requirements might come of this?

The White House didn’t say exactly what may result from the discussions required by the executive order, but it did provide some examples of possibilities. Among them:

  • Agencies may develop an approved list of equipment available for aquisition that has “a legitimate civilian law enforcement purpose.”
  • Agencies may require civilian review and authorization (by a non-police group like a city council or school board, for example) before a local agency can acquire “controlled equipment” like weapons.
  • Agencies may mandate that local agencies receiving equipment have “training and policies in place that address appropriate use and employment of controlled equipment, as well as protection of civil rights and civil liberties.”
  • Agencies may require “after-action analysis reports” for “significant incidents” involving federal equipment.

Photo: A Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle, or MRAP, sits in front of police headquarters in Watertown, Conn. The Los Angeles school district police department is among those that acquired such vehicles through a Pentagon surplus equipment program. -Steven Valenti/The Republican-American/AP-File

A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.