School Climate & Safety

School Police May Once Again Get Military Equipment Under Trump Policy Reversal

By Evie Blad — August 28, 2017 2 min read
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President Donald Trump rescinded Obama-era restrictions on local police agencies’ ability to acquire surplus equipment from the Department of Defense Monday, a change that clears the way for school police to once again obtain military equipment like grenade launchers and mine-resistant armored vehicles through the program, known as 1033.

School district police agencies in at least 22 states used 1033 to acquire such equipment before the rules went into effect, public records show.

Those rules prohibited the transfer of tracked armored vehicles, bayonets, grenade launchers, large-caliber weapons, and ammunition to local law-enforcement agencies. While they allowed qualifying local agencies to acquire certain other equipment from the Pentagon, they prohibited such aquisitions by police departments that exclusively serve K-12 schools.

President Barack Obama implemented the restrictions in 2015 at the recommendation of an interagency task force after concerns that St. Louis-area police agencies equipped with military gear were too heavy handed in their response to protesters in Ferguson, Mo. Trump rescinded those restrictions in an executive order Monday that was originally announced by Attorney General Jeff Sessions in a speech to the Fraternal Order of Police.

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

Sessions did not mention public schools in his address.

Public records requests show that, before the rules went into place, school police agencies around the country had used the 1033 program to obtain equipment like powerful rifles and armored vehicles, which raised concerns from civil rights groups who’ve long questioned the role of law enforcement in schools, Education Week reported in 2014:

A database from the Defense Department shows that tactical gear and weapons from the 1033 program have been provided to school police departments in at least 22 districts in eight states—California, Florida, Georgia, Kansas, Michigan, Nevada, Texas, and Utah. Surplus equipment provided to police in districts as large as the 654,000-student Los Angeles school system includes M-14 and M-16 rifles, extended magazines, automatic pistols, armored plating, tactical vests, SWAT gear, Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected, or MRAP, vehicles, and grenade launchers, which are used by police agencies to deploy tear gas and smoke in crowd-control situations. School-based police agencies that received equipment from the Defense Department said most of it would only be used in the event of a mass shooting. A spokesman for the Defense Department said some school agencies may have acquired equipment they would likely only use in cooperation with other law-enforcement agencies outside of the school environment."

The revelations that the Los Angeles Unified district’s police department had used 1033 to acquire grenade launchers, semi-automatic rifles, and a mine-resistant vehicle sparked protests from community activists, leading the agency to return its equipment.

And many school districts without their own agencies staff school resource officers who are licensed through local police and sheriff’s departments, which may give them access to such equipment.

‘Lifesaving Gear’

Sessions told police gathered at the Fraternal Order of Police event that Trump’s executive order “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.”

“One sheriff told me earlier this year about how, due to the prior administration’s restrictions, the federal government made his department return an armored vehicle that can change the dynamics of an active shooter situation,” Sessions said. “These are the types of helmets and gear that stopped a bullet and saved the life of an officer during the Orlando nightclub shooting. This is the type of equipment officers needed when they pursued and ultimately killed terrorists in San Bernardino.”

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 previously acquired such vehicles through a Pentagon surplus equipment program.--Steven Valenti/The Republican-American/AP-File

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