Sanford opposes Trump's order expanding police access to military surplus gear, weapons

S.C. Congressman Mark Sanford opposes an order by President Donald Trump restoring expanded access to surplus military gear and weapons for law enforcement agencies (FILE PHOTOS)

Local police departments will soon have access to grenade launchers, high-caliber weapons and other surplus U.S. military gear after President Donald Trump signed an order Monday reviving a Pentagon program that civil rights groups say inflames tensions between officers and their communities.

President Barack Obama had sharply curtailed the program in 2015 amid an outcry over the heavily-armed police response to protesters after several police killings of black men in Ferguson, Missouri and other cities. The Trump administration maintains the program is needed to protect public safety and support state and local police.

Restoring the program will "ensure that you can get the lifesaving gear that you need to do your job," Attorney General Jeff Sessions told a cheering crowd at a national convention of the Fraternal Order of Police in Nashville, Tennessee. The group, America's largest organization of rank-and-file officers, endorsed Trump for president after he promised to revamp the program.

Sessions said restrictions imposed by Obama went too far. "We will not put superficial concerns above public safety," he said.

Trump has the support of South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster, as well.

“By fully restoring the 1033 military surplus program, President Trump has once again demonstrated his unflinching dedication to our nation’s law enforcement officers and their families,” Gov. McMaster said in a prepared statement Monday.

In issuing the order, Trump is fulfilling a campaign pledge made as he depicted crime as rampant and police forces undercut by unfair criticism, with Obama failing to support them sufficiently. Trump, feeling increasingly under attack in recent weeks, has been doubling down on appeals to core supporters. Last week, he pardoned the controversial former Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio, who had been found guilty of defying a judge's order to stop racially profiling Latinos.

Sessions has been steadily restoring tough-on-crime policies while reshaping the way his Justice Department enforces civil rights law, particularly in the areas of policing, in ways that have made advocates nervous.

Civil liberties groups and some lawmakers assailed Trump's order as a sign of the militarization of local police, arguing that the equipment encourages and escalates violent confrontations with officers.

"Tensions between law enforcement and communities remain high, yet the president and the attorney general are giving the police military-grade weaponry instead of practical, effective ways to protect and serve everyone," said Kanya Bennett, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union.

Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky called the plan a dangerous expansion of government power that would "subsidize militarization."

South Carolina Congressman Mark Sanford echoed Paul’s criticisms, saying the program "incentivizes the militarization of local police departments.”

Sanford also criticized the program’s fiscal responsibility, calling it a step back for taxpayers, and saying he’d like to see the free giveaway replaced by an auction where proceeds were returned to the federal government.

“Since the Defense Department started its 1033 program in 1997, over $5 billion of surplus military property has been transferred to police departments across the country free of charge,” Sanford said in a prepared statement.

“Police departments should certainly have what they need to accomplish their work on a day-to-day basis, but I think there are obvious flaws in trying to do this through the 1033 program. With nearly $20 trillion in debt, I don’t think that the federal government can afford to give away anything for free.”

Sanford claims he saw the program abused during his time as South Carolina’s governor.

“I will never forget the impression made when I walked into a small county sheriff's office and was told the sheriff was out taking helicopter lessons, so he could use one of the seven helicopters his office had gotten for ‘free,’” Sanford said.

But in Newberry County, Sheriff Lee Foster said his department wouldn't be able to afford equipment like night-vision goggles or ballistic helmets on its own without the surplus program. His deputies wouldn't need body armor or riot shields daily, he said, but the items could save their lives in a rapidly unfolding situation.

"I don't know of any police officer that would roam around with a Kevlar helmet on his head during routine situations," Foster said. "The right to have access to this stuff doesn't mean you've militarized your agency."

Congress authorized the program in 1990, allowing police to receive surplus equipment to help fight drugs, which then gave way to the fight against terrorism. Agencies requested and received everything from camouflage uniforms and bullet-proof vests to firearms, bayonets and drones. More than $5 billion in surplus equipment has been given to agencies.

Obama put limits on the program in 2015, partly triggered by public outrage over the use of military gear during protests in Ferguson, Missouri, following the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown. Police responded in riot gear and deployed tear gas, dogs and armored vehicles. At times, they also pointed assault rifles at protesters. The Justice Department under then-Attorney General Eric Holder blamed the militarized response for exacerbating tensions with the community.

Obama's order prohibited the government from providing grenade launchers, bayonets, tracked armored vehicles, weaponized aircraft and vehicles, and firearms and ammunition of .50-caliber or greater to police.

That frustrated some law enforcement groups who see the gear as needed to protect officers responding to active shooter calls and terrorist attacks. An armored vehicle played a key role in the police response to the December 2015 mass shooting in San Bernardino, California.

The Defense Logistics Agency, which manages the program, recalled at least 138 grenade launchers, more than 1,623 bayonets and 126 tracked vehicles — those that run on continuous, tank-like tracks instead of wheels. The agency declined to comment Monday, saying it had not yet received information on the order.

The new order largely lets local agencies set their own controls and rules governing use of the equipment.

Several states have enacted laws restricting police departments from obtaining surplus military equipment. Those state laws will remain in place even as Trump loosens federal rules.

The plan to restore access to military equipment comes after Sessions has said he intends to pull back on court-enforceable plans to resolve allegations of pervasive civil rights violations. Sessions they can malign entire agencies and make officers less aggressive on the street.

He has also revived a widely criticized form of asset forfeiture that lets local police seize cash and property with federal help.

(Associated Press writers Erik Schelzig in Tennessee, Meg Kinnard in South Carolina and David Lieb in Missouri contributed to this report. ABC News 4 compiled additional information, as well.)

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