White House

Obama: Put cameras on cops, but let them keep military hardware

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio listens to President Barack Obama during a meeting to discuss how communities and law enforcement can work together to build trust to strengthen neighborhoods across the country during a meeting at the White House on Dec. 1, 2014 in Washington, D.C.
New York Mayor Bill de Blasio listens to President Barack Obama during a meeting to discuss how communities and law enforcement can work together to build trust to strengthen neighborhoods across the country during a meeting at the White House on Dec. 1, 2014 in Washington, D.C. TNS

President Barack Obama is asking Congress for $75 million to buy 50,000 more body-worn cameras for local law enforcement following the national uproar over the shooting of an unarmed black teenager by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo.

At the same time, Obama said Monday he will not make significant changes to a federal program that provides military equipment to law enforcement, despite complaints after police with riot gear and assault-style weapons responded to protesters of the Ferguson shooting.

“I think Ferguson laid bare a problem that is not unique to St. Louis or that area, and is not unique to our times,” Obama said Monday. “And that is a simmering distrust that exists between too many police departments and too many communities of color.”

The announcement came as Obama spent much of Monday in meetings on continued unrest a week after a St. Louis County grand jury decided against indicting Officer Darren Wilson in the August death of Michael Brown.

Obama met separately with his Cabinet, young civil rights leaders and then a group of elected and law enforcement officials and civil rights and religious leaders from across the nation. No members of Congress were invited, though they would have to approve the money.

The package announced Monday by the White House also includes a task force aimed at building trust between police and minority communities.

“The president and his administration are very focused on the underlying issues that have been uncovered in a pretty raw way in Ferguson,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest told reporters. “These kinds of issues – the nature of the relationship between law enforcement agencies and the communities they’re sworn to serve and protect – is something that a lot of communities across the country are dealing with.”

In total, Obama will ask Congress to spend $263 million over three years to increase use of body-worn cameras, expand training for law enforcement and increase the number of cities where the Department of Justice works with local police. The $75 million camera program calls for state and local funding matches.

Individual cameras can cost in the range of $800 to $1,200. Thirty-nine percent of agencies responding to a Justice Department-funded study of police cameras by the Police Executive Research Forum identified price as a primary reason for not ordering the cameras.

It’s unclear how many law enforcement agencies currently deploy officers with cameras. The study included a survey with responses from 254 law enforcement agencies, 63 of which reported using body-worn cameras.

Analysts identified benefits of cameras that include better documentation of evidence, increased police accountability and a reduction in the use of force.

“I’ve found widespread agreement that body cameras protect police and civilians alike,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo.

“If widely implemented, that single change would not only establish real transparency when force is used during a police incident, it would also substantiate the fact that the vast majority of police officers carry out their duties with bravery and integrity,” said Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-Mo.

Obama, the nation’s first black president, has stressed that the United States has work to do to resolve the tension between law enforcement and minority communities. In recent years, Obama started a program called My Brother’s Keeper to empower young black men.

Obama said he knows that people are often wary of additional task forces, but that he plans to take action after the studies are complete. “In the two years I have remaining as president,” he said, “I’m going to make sure we follow through.”

In August, after the shooting, Obama ordered a review of federal programs that provide military equipment to local police. Among other things, the review was supposed to examine “whether these programs are appropriate.”

But a senior administration official with knowledge of the review but who was not authorized to speak publicly as matter of policy said Monday that the review did not examine whether the equipment should be used.

“Our assumption is Congress has an intent here to support local law enforcement with the use of this kind of equipment,” the official said. “Our focus is on what kind of protections are in place to make sure it’s used properly and safely.”

Earnest said later that the program serves its purpose, citing the successful use of military equipment by Boston police after the marathon bombing in April 2013.

“What is needed, however, is much greater consistency in oversight of these programs,” he said. “Primarily in how these programs are structured, how they’re implemented, and then how the programs themselves are audited.”

Obama will sign an executive order that will direct agencies to work with law enforcement, civil rights leaders and civil liberties organizations to make recommendations involving training, review and transparency of the program within 120 days.

“Our local police officers and law enforcement deserve the best tools and training available to protect and serve our communities,” said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo. “But we should not turn our cities into war zones. Today’s announcement is a positive first step.”

Obama’s task force on 21st Century Policing – chaired by Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey and former assistant attorney general Laurie Robinson – will look at reducing crime while increasing public trust. It will prepare a report within 90 days.

Lesley Clark, David Lightman and Lindsay Wise of the Washington Bureau contributed.