The militarization of small town police

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.

Ferguson 1

Ferguson 2

Ferguson 3

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.”


  1. doublereed says

    Here’s a very detailed article from the ACLU about the militarization of the police: To Terrify and Occupy.

    Report by report, evidence is mounting that America’s militarized police are a threat to public safety. But in a country where the cops increasingly look upon themselves as soldiers doing battle day in, day out, there’s no need for public accountability or even an apology when things go grievously wrong.

    If community policing rests on mutual trust between the police and the people, militarized policing operates on the assumption of “officer safety” at all costs and contempt for anyone who sees things differently. The result is an “us versus them” mentality.

  2. smrnda says

    Cops in the US are little more than pea brained thugs handed nice new toys to play with. Their level of maturity when asked for accountability really tells a lot – it’s the playground bully who finally got some military hardware, without having to put their lives on the line like being in the actual military.

    All said, an out of control paramilitary force acting like this in Ferguson should be detained and jailed, until the human rights violation are sorted out.

    And having lived around the world, the level of militarization of our cops beats things in the People’s Republic of China. With cops like this, the pretense that we are a nation of ‘free people’ is laughable.

  3. JPS says

    A couple of days ago Chris Hayes put up the second photo above and commented on the officers wearing camo and desert boots; Rachael Maddow reacted at their hand-off. I’ve had a hypothesis about the camouflage-patterned apparel for a while.

    Several decades ago our state was first exploring restrictions on assault-styled weapons. My colleague commented that there wasn’t anything that that an assault weapon could do that his semi-auto hunting rifle couldn’t (not completely accurate, but close enough). I realized that the bad guy wasn’t likely to get all dressed up and take a hunting rifle to off to commit mayhem. The assault weapon was a necessary part of the whole package.

    Likewise the camouflage clothing is part of that package. I proposed (no further than a couple of friends) that since we couldn’t do anything about limiting access go weapons of all sorts, we should ban the sale of camouflage-patterned apparel.

    I was considering the mindset of the bad guys. They must have the complete package: weaponry, clothing, accessories, etc., to commit mayhem. Perhaps it’s the same for law-enforcement officers.

  4. lochaber says

    Even when they aren’t suppressing a protest or terrorizing a neighborhood, it pisses me off seeing cops wearing camo.

    If they really want to play soldier-boy, they should enlist, and spend a few years working 60-80 hour weeks for ~20K a year. They might even learn some actual riot-control tactics and some fire discipline while they are at it.

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