Ferguson’s Militarization of Police is Just the First of Many
Though Darren Wilson, the police officer who shot and killed unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, confronted Brown in a standard-issue police cruiser before killing him with his standard-issue sidearm, the incident has touched off a huge outcry against the militarization of local police forces. It’s true Wilson was wearing a regular uniform and carrying a handgun, but this backlash has been centered around images of the heavily militarized Ferguson police department absolutely bungling the aftermath of the killing.
To fully understand just how poor of a decision it was for the Ferguson police to take to the streets looking like they were about to occupy a warzone, you have to first understand what so many were protesting against. Of course they all were upset about the killing of Michael Brown, but many viewed this one incident as just the tipping point of systemic police abuse by a department that wasn’t racially representative of Ferguson. In a town that is 67% black, Ferguson only has three black police officers on their force.
In a town with a stunning disconnect between the police and the community, it should come as no surprise that those in the community would react to a strong police presence as if they were resisting an unwanted occupying force. So what did the Ferguson police do to ease tensions and try to remind everyone that the police are there to serve the community, not control it? They rolled up in military-grade armored trucks, carrying assault rifles and decked out in camo. Unsurprisingly, the mood remains decidedly adversarial in Ferguson.
But just as Michael Brown was just one tragic example of the disconnect between the police and that particular community, the show of force happening right now in Ferguson is just one more example of local police departments receiving equipment meant for waging war. Ever since the National Defense Authorization Act gave permission for the federal government to give excess or unused weapons from the military to local police forces for “counter-drug” activities, there have been many departments in places like Ferguson equipped as if they were in downtown Baghdad.
And like anybody who gets a whole bunch of new expensive stuff, these police departments have proved more than willing to try it all out at any opportunity they get. Only this fascination with their new toys isn’t as harmless as a middle-aged man driving his Harley to work even if it’s below freezing outside – it’s directly related to an increase in no-knock SWAT raids to serve drug warrants.
That might sound like a good thing if you time-traveled here from 1985 and still think the War on Drugs is something that can or should be won, but these SWAT raids have an occasional tendency to end horribly, like when a 2-year-old took a flashbang grenade to the face. And even if SWAT could be useful for situations like mass shootings or hostage scenarios, the ACLU found that only 7 percent of SWAT deployments happened in high risk cases. 79% were done to search homes, usually for drugs, as was the case when that SWAT team threw a flashbang into a crib.
Even if you ignore the safety aspect of this whole thing – which you really shouldn’t – the truth is that this is just bad policing. What we’re seeing in Ferguson right now is what happens when the police stop being members of the community and start being an occupying army. It’s hard to recognize a police officer is a fellow human being when their face is behind a gasmask and the sights of a loaded rifle. And it’s hard for the police to remember their job isn’t to jump at every opportunity to fire at the “enemy” like a war-weary GI in Vietnam when they’re looking down at an angry crowd from an armored vehicle.
The militarization of the police turns communities into places where the phrase “us vs. them” holds sway. And in a situation where unity is more essential than ever, that’s just about the most destructive atmosphere we could have. Welcome to the new police state.
Image Credit: Ivan Bandura (via Creative Commons)
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