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NY Times: Obama Offers New Standards on Police Gear in Wake of Ferguson Protests

Read the full article at the New York Times websiteThe following is an excerpt.

WASHINGTON — President Obama, grappling with how to respond to the racial unrest in Ferguson, Mo., and a wave of anger at law enforcement officials across the country, said Monday that he would tighten standards on the provision of military-style equipment to local police departments and provide funds for police officers to wear cameras.

But Mr. Obama stopped short of curtailing the transfer of military-grade gear to local law enforcement authorities and continued to put off a visit to Ferguson. Instead, the White House tried to channel the rage over the fatal police shooting of a black teenager there into a national debate about how to restore trust between the police and the public.

Administration officials said they concluded after a review that the vast majority of transfers of military-style equipment strengthened local policing, even after the police in Ferguson were criticized for heavy-handed use of such gear to quell protests last summer. But the officials said local authorities needed common standards in the types of hardware they requested and better training in how to use it.

With no legislation likely, Mr. Obama has instead focused on standardizing regulations across the multiple federal agencies — primarily the Department of Homeland Security — that supply this equipment to cities and towns. He would also seek to improve training and require “after-action” reports for incidents involving federal equipment.

The report, the White House said, found “a lack of consistency in how federal programs are structured, implemented and audited.” Criticism of the practices swelled after the police in full body armor, on heavily armed vehicles, confronted protesters in Ferguson with assault rifles.

But administration officials noted that only 4 percent of the surplus equipment transferred by the Pentagon is actually combat-ready hardware. Most of it is office equipment.

To bolster local policing, the government also announced a $263 million program that will provide up to 50,000 body cameras for police. The video footage from these cameras could clarify disputed incidents like the deadly encounter between the teenager in Ferguson, Michael Brown, and the police officer, Darren Wilson.

The president also announced on Monday the formation of a task force to improve local policing. Leading the panel will be Charles H. Ramsey, the commissioner of the Philadelphia Police Department, and Laurie Robinson of George Mason University, a leading criminal law scholar.

Criminal-law experts said the measures on military-style equipment were worthwhile, though would have a minor effect, given the unceasing demand by local police departments. Much of that equipment is bought by municipalities through grants made by the Department of Homeland Security, as opposed to directly from the Pentagon.

The police’s use of heavily armored vehicles and assault rifles came under criticism in Ferguson, but the White House press secretary, Josh Earnest, said it had proved valuable in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing — a contention some experts dispute.

The White House also faced skepticism in its choice of Commissioner Ramsey as a co-chairman of the task force. During his tenure as police chief in the District of Columbia from 1998 to 2007, he was criticized for the mass arrest of people protesting International Monetary Fund and World Bank meetings.

“We were just dumbfounded when we heard they had chosen Chief Ramsey,” said Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, executive director of the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund, which brought suits against Mr. Ramsey in Washington. “You’d be hard pressed to find a more inappropriate choice.”