Obama to set new limits on police use of military equipment

Obama to set new limits on police use of military equipment
A police SWAT Team in California with armoured vehicles.

WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama plans to put in place new restrictions on the use of military equipment by police departments, following unrest in US cities over the deaths of black men at the hands of police officers, the White House said on Monday.

Obama will ban police use of equipment such as explosive-resistant vehicles with tracked wheels like those seen on army tanks, the White House said in a fact sheet.

For other types of equipment, such as MRAP (mine-resistant ambush protected) vehicles and riot shields, departments will have to provide added justification for their use.

Obama will announce the steps, which are the result of an executive order, during a visit later on Monday to Camden, New Jersey, where he plans to push efforts to encourage trust-building between police and the communities they serve.

The fatal shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown by a Ferguson, Missouri police officer in August was followed by a string of highly publicized fatal encounters between police and black men, including Walter Scott who was shot by an officer while fleeing the scene of a traffic stop in North Charleston, South Carolina.

Last month, violent protests erupted in Baltimore after 25-year-old Freddie Gray died after sustaining spinal injuries while in police custody.

Protesters in Ferguson felt the methods use by police to prevent the demonstrations from turning violent were excessive, and the Justice Department has since launched a review of St. Louis County law enforcement's response to the unrest.

The turmoil in Ferguson and Baltimore also highlighted divisions between black and white Americans.

In a Reuters/Ipsos poll taken after the protests in Baltimore, 69 per cent of respondents said America has a serious issue with race. Nearly three-quarters said there is more racism in the United States than the country is willing to admit.

In the aftermath of the Baltimore riots, Obama has been speaking out more about race, including in a speech in the Bronx on increasing opportunity for young minority men and during a panel discussion on poverty in Washington.

"Race issues have been more present over the past year for this country. We've seen, since Ferguson, issues that have been bubbling up in communities becoming much more present," said Rashad Robinson, executive director of colorofchange.org, a group that aims to strengthen the black community's political voice in America.

Robinson has met with Obama to discuss the issue.

DIFFICULT BALANCING ACT

Obama's remarks in Camden will be the fourth time in as many weeks that he has held an event to discuss his ideas for improving life for poor black communities.

Obama, the country's first black president, has often been reticent about discussing race issues.

Following the shooting of unarmed black teen Trayvon Martin by a volunteer neighborhood watchman in 2012, Obama discussed the issue in personal terms, saying that if he had a son, he would have looked like Martin.

In response to a question in 2009, Obama said he thought police in Cambridge, Massachusetts, had acted "stupidly" when they arrested Henry Louis Gates, a black Harvard professor who was mistaken for a burglar at his own home.

Obama faced a backlash from law enforcement groups who accused him of commenting before he knew all the details of the case.

Obama later said he wished he had chosen his words more carefully and invited the professor and the police officer to the White House for a beer.

Michele Jawando, vice president for legal progress at the left-leaning Washington think tank Center for American Progress, said Obama faces a difficult balancing act on race.

"For a long time in this country we've had a hard time developing a narrative around poverty, around race, so when there are incidents like this that sit at the apex of both, different people are going to have different reactions to that,"Jawando said.

The Reuters/Ipsos poll is measured with a credibility interval. In this case, the poll has a credibility interval of plus or minus 1.8 percentage points.

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