Can Obama curb police militarisation?

Six years after Barack Obama’s speech in Philadelphia decrying the “racial stalemate”, it seems “more entrenched than ever”, says Josh Lederman in the Associated Press.

Earlier this week, the president took a two-day break from his summer holiday to “plead for calm and understanding” in Ferguson, Missouri, where the unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown, was fatally shot by a police officer on 9 August.

As he made his speech, the president seemed “trapped” between a need to stand up for law and order, and an inclination to empathise with those who say that blacks are treated differently by the police.

Brown was shot dead by an officer from a police force of 53, serving a population of 21,000. Just three of those policemen are black, although 70% of the population is African-American.

There has been unrest in Ferguson since his death, with police using tear gas and stun grenades, says Dan Roberts in The Guardian. In his speech, Obama urged restraint and called for a reassessment of the militarisation of local police departments. It’s about time, says Jon Swaine in The Guardian.

The police response has resembled the “deployment of an army in a miniature war zone”, with large armoured units carrying officers with sniper-style rifles. According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), there are no meaningful limits on the equipment local police forces can acquire.

In June, Alan Grayson, a liberal Democrat congressman from Florida, sponsored an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act, that would have forbidden the Department of Defense from transferring so much military equipment to local police.

It failed, says The Economist: “not a single House leader of either party voted for it”. Why? Since the September 11th attacks, police forces have been awash with cash. The ACLU put the value of military equipment used by American police departments at $450m in 2013. In 1990 it was just $1m.

“America’s defence industry donates millions of dollars to politicians and spends even more on lobbyists. Those who opposed Mr Grayson’s bill received, on average, 73% more in defence-industry donations than those who voted for it.”