Three years ago, I wrote about the danger of the creeping paramilitarization of local police departments, with them acquiring military style clothing, weaponry, vehicles, and other hardware. The trouble in Ferguson, MO following the killing of an unarmed black man by police, shows just what can happen when you do that. It looks like the local police went full metal jacket on a civilian population as they protested the initial shooting, with snipers, armored vehicles, and all the other goodies that the Pentagon and Department of Homeland Security has been showering on police departments with. These photos show snipers, police in riot gear, and the like.
It is not hard to predict that if you give police massive hardware, they will itch to find an occasion to use it. And that seems to have happened in Ferguson. Rather than resort to community policing in which police get to know and mingle with the local populace, which should be a no-brainer in a town of about 20,00 people, they seem to have responded to the demonstrators like the US military confronting the Taliban. [UPDATE: Even members of the military say that the police in Ferguson were excessive in their appearance and tactics.]
Wesley Lowery, a reporter for the Washington Post describes what happened to him and Ryan Reilly of the Huffington Post as they covered the protests. A TV crew from Al Jazeera were also tear-gassed and shot at with rubber bullets. [UPDATE: Here is a video of some of what happened.]
Glenn Greenwald also writes about the militarization of the police and its consequences in Ferguson.
Reilly, on Facebook, recounted how he was arrested by “a Saint Louis County police officer in full riot gear, who refused to identify himself despite my repeated requests, purposefully banged my head against the window on the way out and sarcastically apologized.” He wrote: ”I’m fine. But if this is the way these officers treat a white reporter working on a laptop who moved a little too slowly for their liking, I can’t imagine how horribly they treat others.” He added: “And if anyone thinks that the militarization of our police force isn’t a huge issue in this country, I’ve got a story to tell you.”
Lowery, who is African-American, tweeted a summary of an interview he gave on MSNBC: “If I didn’t work for the Washington Post and were just another Black man in Ferguson, I’d still be in a cell now.” He added: “I knew I was going to be fine. But the thing is, so many people here in Ferguson don’t have as many Twitter followers as I have and don’t have Jeff Bezos or whoever to call and bail them out of jail.”
The best and most comprehensive account of the dangers of police militarization is the 2013 book by the libertarian Washington Post journalist Radley Balko, entitled “Rise of the Warrior Cops: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces.” Balko, who has devoted his career to documenting and battling the worst abuses of the U.S. criminal justice system, traces the history and underlying mentality that has given rise to all of this: the “law-and-order” obsessions that grew out of the social instability of the 1960s, the War on Drugs that has made law enforcement agencies view Americans as an enemy population, the Reagan-era “War on Poverty” (which was more aptly described as a war on America’s poor), the aggressive Clinton-era expansions of domestic policing, all topped off by the massively funded, rights-destroying, post-9/11 security state of the Bush and Obama years. All of this, he documents, has infused America’s police forces with “a creeping battlefield mentality.”