Weapons of war that should never be used for domestic policing or necessary tools for the modern peace officer to effectively engage in suburban combat?
Take Ferguson, Missouri. A town of 21,000 on the northwestern outskirts of St. Louis rose up in violent and destructive rioting last weekend after an unnamed police officer shot and killed an unarmed African-American teen named Michael Brown. Why and how it happened is disputed.
The rioting included shots fired, a gasoline station torched, and a dozen businesses looted and/or vandalized.
The community was turned into a warzone as police with uniforms resembling the Marine's MARPAT camo, some of them carrying short-barrel 5.56 caliber rifles based on the military's M4 carbine, descended upon the scene.
Business Insider's Paul Szoldra reported that a man claiming to be former U.S. Army Ranger commented, “We rolled lighter than that in an actual warzone.”
One consequence of an entire community being put into martial law-type lockdown is that innocent civilians are necessarily caught up in the crossfire and their individual rights could be compromised.
Racial tensions can run high and civil/police relations strained to the breaking point. The temptation for police to respond with an impressive display of force capability may be overwhelming. Such situations are dangerous not only for police officers, but for innocent civilians who may be targeted for reasons such as their race.
The police mentality in many communities may grow militaristic and only serve to antagonize the situation. The viewpoint may shift from one of serving civilians by keeping the peace to one of wanting to impress authority on the populace by spreading fear, instead of fostering mutual respect.
What happened in Ferguson, Missouri is a stark example of a growing trend in the United States: The militarization of local police forces. According to an article by Peter B. Kraska called “Militarization and Policing: Its Relevance to 21st Century Police,” there is an increasing“blurring” of the lines between the military and the police in the United States as part of a long-term trend:
- “The significant erosion of the 1878 Posse Comitatus Act by the United States, which previous to the early 1980s prohibited the military involvement in internal security or police matters, except under the most extreme circumstances”;
- “ The advent of an unprecedented cooperative relationship between the US military and US civilian police at both the highest and lowest level of organization”;
- “A growing tendency by the police and other segments of the criminal justice system to rely on the military/war model for formulating crime/drug/ terrorism control rationale and operations”;
According to a report by Salon “11 chilling facts about America's militarized police force,” the longer term trend has escalated from the post-9/11 'war on terror' through the Obama administration:
A recent New York Times article by Matt Apuzzo reported that in the Obama era, “police departments have received tens of thousands of machine guns; nearly 200,000 ammunition magazines; thousands of pieces of camouflage and night-vision equipment; and hundreds of silencers, armored cars and aircraft.”
The result is that police agencies around the nation possess military-grade equipment, turning officers who are supposed to fight crime and protect communities into what look like invading forces from an army. And military-style police raids have increased in recent years, with one count putting the number at 80,000 such raids last year.
An ACLU report put the cost of military equipment being placed in the hands of local police departments in the “billions” per year. In Radley Balko's WSJ article “The Rise of the Warrior Cop,” he extends the trend back to the tumultuous 1960s.
Earlier this year, a Georgia toddler was critically injured by a flashbang that was used in a SWAT no-knock raid of a suspected drug dealer. The suspect in question didn't even live at that residence.
When an ongoing “war on drugs” turns America into open season, in violation of such constitutionally guaranteed rights as the Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable search and seizure, it only aggravates the public's perception that the state has turned against the population, and has ceased serving its will.
The broader “war on terror” has created a dilemma for police who want to serve the public interest by providing security, but may be obstructed in some situations by citizen's constitutional rights.
The destructiveness and volatility of the Ferguson rioting is illustrative of the kind of community uprising that can explode when potential instances of injustice are held up to be reflective of entire societies or cultures. Various media, politicians, and community organizations prey upon and agitate these situations for political benefit or even monetary gain.
This perpetuates injustice and misunderstanding among Americans. When entire communities react with outrage to cases of injustice, it puts police departments in an extremely difficult situation and fuels the trend towards militarization.
De-escalating the police/civilian hostility in American communities will require an informed public that seeks mutual understanding of the dilemmas police face protecting themselves and the public, as well acknowledging citizens' demands that their rights be respected.
Ultimately, the police exist for the benefit of the American people and serve their desire for peace and security.