This week, US Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced President Trump’s intention to lift restrictions on the use of military weapons by local police officers.
The move, to be enforced through a new executive order, is a grave mistake and could easily lead to more human rights violations.
Police officers should be equipped to facilitate the right to peaceful assembly and protect public safety, but this policy would instead arm them for a battlefield and could escalate tensions.
History of police using military equipment
A law passed in 1996 meant that military grade equipment including vehicles and weapons were transferred to local law enforcement agencies such as police and sheriff’s departments and used in normal operations. After the attacks on 11 September 2001, the transfers of such equipment to local law enforcement agencies surged.
However the unrest that followed the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old African-American man, by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri led to a viral outbreak of images showing local police with military grade weapons while policing protests.
This led to an emotive national debate on the issue and the Stop Militarizing Law Enforcement Act was rolled out by President Obama later that same year, prohibiting the transfer of some types of equipment that are inappropriate for local policing.
Why Trump’s new order is a serious problem
The use of heavy-duty riot gear and military-grade weapons and equipment to police largely peaceful demonstrations intimidates protesters who are practicing their right to peaceful assembly.
Equipping officers in a manner more appropriate for a battlefield may put them in the mindset that confrontation and conflict is inevitable rather than merely possible. The result, as has been seen in many countries, is often an escalation in violence and disorder, rather than a reduction in tensions.
In Ferguson we witnessed a local police force armed to the teeth with military-grade weapons facing a crowd of protesters, including elderly people and young children.
We cannot allow military equipment to erode the right to peaceful assembly. President Trump must reconsider this order immediately.