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Obama To Regulate Police Use Of Some Military-Style Hardware


Camden, N.J., has long been seen as one of the most dangerous cities in America, but this afternoon, President Obama tried to show the city in a different light. He held Camden up as a model of what's possible when police make a concerted effort to rebuild trust with the communities they serve. NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: President Obama toured a police operations center in Camden with police Chief Scott Thompson, who explained his department's proactive effort to address concerns before they become problems. The visit coincides with the final report from the president's task force on 21st-century policing. Nine months after a police shooting in Ferguson, Mo., touched off riots and a martial law-style crackdown, Obama is looking to encourage a kinder, gentler style of law enforcement. He ordered new restrictions on the transfer to police of certain military equipment, including tanks, grenade launchers and bayonets.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We've see how militarized gear can sometimes give people a feeling like there's an occupying force as opposed to a force that's part of the community that's protecting them and serving them.

HORSLEY: One of the president's top domestic policy advisers, Cecilia Munoz, says police agencies will also have to justify and document the use of other military hardware, including riot gear and specialized ammunition.

CECILIA MUNOZ: The idea is to make sure that we strike a balance in providing the equipment which is appropriate and useful and important to keep the community safe, while at the same time putting standards in place so that there's a clear reason for the transfer of that equipment.

HORSLEY: The International Association of Chiefs of Police issued a statement saying it understands the need for appropriate safeguards, but the association added there are times when military equipment is necessary to keep people and communities safe. The White House is also encouraging police departments to release more data about things like traffic stops. Camden's one of more than 20 cities that's now doing that. Obama notes the city's also been working to break down barriers between cops and the neighborhoods they patrol.


OBAMA: The approach that the chief has taken in getting them out of their squad cars, into the communities, getting them familiar with the people that they're serving - they're enjoying their jobs more.

HORSLEY: And Obama says officers are getting more cooperation now from the community. That's important because the administration has limited influence over local policing. The White House needs a success story in places like Camden to persuade other departments to adopt the community policing model. Civil rights attorney Constance Rice, who served on the White House task force, warns it won't be easy.

CONSTANCE RICE: As one cop told me, lady, that's women's policing (laughter). Another cop told me, look, I'm not a social worker. So there is resistance, and it's understandable and it's expected.

HORSLEY: Rice says overcoming such attitudes and building bridges between police and those they patrol will take strong leadership on both sides.

RICE: The community doesn't get to just sit back and watch the police do all the work. It takes two to tango here.

HORSLEY: Ultimately, Obama says the challenge is bigger than just law enforcement. He says Americans can't ask police to contain problems such as urban poverty that the rest of us aren't willing to face. Scott Horsley, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.