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US cracking down on 'militarization' of local police

The federal government will no longer provide heavy military equipment like tanks and grenade launchers to local cops.
In this Aug. 11, 2014 file photo, police wearing riot gear walk toward a man with his hands raised in Ferguson, Mo. (Photo by Jeff Roberson/AP)
In this Aug. 11, 2014 file photo, police wearing riot gear walk toward a man with his hands raised in Ferguson, Mo.

The federal government will no longer provide heavy military equipment like tanks and grenade launchers to local cops following weeks of backlash against officers who confronted protesters in Ferguson, Missouri, in armored vehicles and camouflage last year, President Barack Obama will announce Monday.

And if they want other, less-imposing military equipment, local law enforcement agencies will have to submit to stringent federal oversight and restrictions, according to guidelines Obama will outline during a visit to discuss police reform in Camden, New Jersey, for years one of the most dangerous cities in America.

A White House official told NBC News that the Justice Department is seeking to strike a balance by making only appropriate equipment available, and with clear operating standards, training and safety procedures.

The measures are the followup to an executive measure Obama issued in January to crack down on the intimidating image presented by local agencies patrolling the streets bristling with advanced military weaponry.

The controversy was fueled when Ferguson police took to the streets in camouflage with military gear after the police shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown, who was unarmed. But complaints about paramilitary-style equipping of local police have been widespread at least since protests over the World Trade Organization exploded into riots in Seattle in 1999.

Local law enforcement agencies have been eligible to receive surplus military equipment through a Defense Department program enacted in 1997.

The equipment that's being banned Monday includes tanks and other tracked armored vehicles, weaponized aircraft and vehicles, firearms and ammunition measuring .50-caliber and larger, grenade launchers and bayonets, the Justice Department said.

Restrictions and conditions will be put on other types of equipment — including armored tactical vehicles like those used in Ferguson, as well as many types of firearms, ammunition and explosives.

The conditions are likely to rankle some local agencies.

Besides having to give the feds a "clear and persuasive explanation of the need for the controlled equipment," local law enforcement agencies won't be eligible unless they've adopted what are known as General Policing Standards. Those include so-called community policing programs, with foot cops on the beat interacting with the public and regular consultation with community groups — a different approach from the "zero tolerance" policies adopted in recent years by many big-city police agencies.

Algonquin, Illinois, Police Chief Russell Laine, president of the International Association of Police Chiefs, said adopting community policing philosophies "allows law enforcement agencies to develop a partnership with their community to create a safer environment while combating traditional crimes, supporting homeland security and providing services to our community."

But their adoption has been slow in many police departments.

In December, a month after a Cleveland officer shot Tamir Rice, an unarmed 12-year-old African-American boy, a Justice Department report heavily criticized the city for having inadequately implemented community policing, resulting in what it called a "level of distrust between the police and the community [that] interferes with CDP's ability to work the various communities it serves."

And in its investigation of Ferguson police in March, the Justice Department said the abandonment of community policing principles had "resulted in practices that not only violate the Constitution and cause direct harm to the individuals whose rights are violated, but also undermine community trust, especially among many African Americans."

Agencies in more conservative communities suspicious of federal authority may have a particular problem with the new rules. Another primary condition of getting military equipment will be acceptance of close federal oversight and monitoring overseen by a new federal agency with the power to conduct local compliance reviews.

They'll also have to collect and retain data whenever such equipment is involved in a "significant incident" and make those data available to the federal government and, in some cases, the public.

One of the things the new agency will specifically be looking for, according to the White House: "protection of civil rights and civil liberties."

This story originally appeared on NBC News