Under a new policy announced today by the White House, the Pentagon will no longer give some of its military-style weapons to police forces. Local police forces will no longer get tanks, missile launchers, grenade launchers, and some of the largest automatic rifles. Armed aircraft are also on the list of prohibited equipment, though I am not aware of the Pentagon giving a bomber or an attack helicopter to a city police department anywhere.
The policy officially comes from a cabinet committee, but the careful tactical wording suggests it must be the result of a study done at the Pentagon. It is important to note that the new policy does not control what local police do, and only limits the actions of the federal government. A police force could, in theory, buy an attack helicopter with its own money, but not from the Pentagon.
This policy change is sure to be controversial, with culture-war pundits moaning about “disarming the police” while libertarians applaud the news that your local police force will no longer look like an invading army. The ultimate effects won’t provoke much controversy, though. If we heard, for example, that the Philadelphia police were planning to use missile launchers at the next national political convention, almost anyone would respond by saying, “Surely that’s not really necessary” (and I know more than a few people who would say something stronger than that).
Very little will change immediately, but the announcement rolling back the militarization of local police is important symbolically. Since Nixon, every U.S. president has participated in and voiced support for the trend of turning the United States into a police state. Today’s policy change is the first substantial move in the opposite direction.