In the aftermath of Ferguson, President Obama will issue an executive order designed to improve a federal program that allows local police departments to obtain military surplus equipment, according to reports.

Currently, through Section 1033 of the National Defense Authorization Act, Congress has authorized the transfer of excess military equipment to local law enforcement officials to assist them with the execution of law enforcement activities.  Additionally, the Department of Homeland Security has issued anti-terrorism grants to cities and towns enabling them to buy armored vehicles, aircraft and other military-grade equipment.

Although the White House has reported that the bulk of equipment coming from the Defense Department pursuant to the 1033 program is not military-grade equipment, 4 percent of it is, including small arms, Humvees, mine resistant vehicles and aircraft.  As Heritage has previously stated, such equipment, if not utilized appropriately, can pose unnecessary threats to public safety and to the public’s psyche.

Significantly, if these reports are correct, the president will not call a halt to the Section 1033 program, but rather will call for guidelines that ensure that such weapons and equipment are utilized appropriately for legitimate law enforcement purposes.  These guidelines would require submitting after-action reports following “significant” instances when such equipment is used, as well as for training for those officers authorized to use such equipment; for local, civilian reviews of decisions to acquire such equipment; and for developing a database to keep track of such equipment (following some disturbing reports of missing equipment that was acquired through the 1033 program).

None of this is bad per se. However, it would be a mistake if the end result was an effective termination of a valuable program just because a few police officers exercised poor judgment and overreacted to an admittedly bad situation. As Heritage has previously argued:

We need to take steps to scale back the use of military hardware and tactics in contexts where they are plainly inappropriate while ensuring that law enforcement can still respond with overwhelming force when necessary.  …  The problem is that, once federal regulatory agents and local police officers are given and empowered to use military hardware, everything looks like a great white shark to them. To solve this problem, we must pursue reforms that enable shark hunters to distinguish big fish from small fish and act accordingly.

Now is the time for sober reflection, not hasty decisions.  The equipment provided to local law enforcement officials pursuant to the 1033 program can serve a useful, indeed vital, purpose on those rare occasions when public safety is best served by a rapid and overwhelming response from law enforcement.  Guidelines and training may prove useful, but sound judgment, leadership and accountability by local officials are what are most needed.