AILSA CHANG, HOST:
President Trump is reversing yet another rule from the Obama administration. This time, the White House is making it easier for local police departments to get surplus military gear. As NPR's Martin Kaste reports, this gear from the Pentagon has become a controversial symbol of what's been called the militarization of police.
MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: This move is a reward for rank-and-file cops, many of whom backed Donald Trump in the election. And Attorney General Jeff Sessions delivered the news to them in person yesterday at the annual conference of the Fraternal Order of Police.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
JEFF SESSIONS: He is rescinding restrictions from the prior administration that limited your agency's ability to get equipment through federal programs, including lifesaving gear.
KASTE: That's a standing ovation. And the FOP's president, Chuck Canterbury, says of course the cops are happy to hear this.
CHUCK CANTERBURY: That equipment can save their lives.
KASTE: Canterbury's quick with the examples of lifesaving equipment from the military. There's the boats and the other special vehicles, some of which are being used right now in Houston, and there's personal protective gear.
CANTERBURY: You know, the Pulse nightclub - one of the officers with a ballistic helmet took a round to his head and survived.
KASTE: But this is where things get kind of fuzzy because President Obama never banned cops from getting ballistic helmets, or boats or even most kinds of guns. The ban applied only to a few items such as grenade launchers and armored vehicles with tank treads. For the rest of the military gear, the police just had to show a need and abide by a few rules in how they used it.
Those limits are now gone, but it's the symbolism of Trump's order that may be even more consequential. It has the police celebrating and reformers howling. Phillip Atiba Goff is a criminal justice professor and president of the Center for Policing Equity.
PHILLIP ATIBA GOFF: Yeah, so I mean, there is a kind of political orthodoxy that military equipment is universally bad, and it makes for more aggressive policing and that - on the political left. And on the political right, we should give law enforcement whatever tools they need to keep themselves safe. And I think sometimes that political orthodoxy misses the point a bit.
KASTE: Goff says the simple reality is, we just don't know whether military gear makes cops more aggressive, or more effective or both. There's just not enough good data. But he says there is something else to consider - the impression that the gear makes on the public.
GOFF: I do know that the more militarized law enforcement become, the greater the concern they'll be used as an occupying force, and the greater a message is being sent from the people who are most concerned about how law enforcement is being used in their community.
KASTE: For many reformers, the phrase police militarization is more about mindset, especially a certain gung-ho attitude that sometimes seems to accompany the gear. For instance, over the past couple of decades, there's been rapid growth in law enforcement's use of tactical raids. This is an infamous police assault on a house in Evansville, Ind., from a couple of years ago.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER: (Yelling) Police department, search warrant. Police department, search warrant.
(SOUNDBITE OF CRASH)
KASTE: As it turned out, it was the wrong house. Sue Rahr is not one of those who blames scenes like this on the gear. She runs the police academy in Washington state. And when she was sheriff of King County, she says military surplus equipment was invaluable, especially during the recession. She says if the gear is being used poorly, you should really be looking at the people.
SUE RAHR: It's the leadership and the policy decisions that really need to have more scrutiny. And I think the equipment has become a little bit of a red herring for what the real problem is.
KASTE: After all, if local police are really set on a piece of tactical gear, this is America. She says the departments can usually buy what they want on their own. Martin Kaste, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.