Mike Brown shooting: Images of militarized police bring out critics

The scenes following the Mike Brown shooting, some say, offer Americans a look at one consequence of federal programs that supply even tiny towns and small cities with heavy military equipment.

Jeff Roberson/AP
Police in riot gear watch protesters in Ferguson, Mo., Wednesday, Aug. 13, 2014.

A militarized response to a fourth night of protests may have fueled more unrest rather than quelling it in Ferguson, Mo., where a police officer on Saturday shot and killed an unarmed black teenager.

Images from Ferguson taken Wednesday night show some protesters using the hands-up-don’t-shoot gesture as local police, clad in camouflage uniforms with small “POLICE” badges, pushed people off the street with tear gas and rubber bullets.

As police assembled Wednesday, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported, they attached what the paper called "high-caliber automatic weapons" on top of armored vehicles and aimed them at the throngs of some 350 protesters.

After watching the police response, Gov. Jay Nixon (D) indicated he would take St. Louis County police out of the situation, according to Rep. William Lacy Clay (D) of Missouri. However, Ferguson police have also been part of the response.

Critics say that the scenes in recent days from Ferguson are offering Americans an unvarnished look at one consequence of federal programs that supply even tiny towns and small cities with heavy military equipment designed not for US streets, but for foreign battlefields.

Since the late 1990s, a Pentagon program known as “1033,” whose motto is “From Warfighter to Crimefighter,” has provided $4.3 billion worth of used and surplus equipment – including small tanks, night scopes, and high-powered rifles – to thousands of small towns and cities, including Ferguson, worried about terrorism. 

While arguably well intended, the impulse to put the equipment into use in the absence of terror attacks, critics say, has helped to shift the nature of American policing, especially in minority communities, from a protect-and-serve mind-set to a soldier-at-war mentality.

Documenting a dramatic increase in the use of heavily armed SWAT teams for nonviolent crimes like gambling or pot dealing, a recent report by the American Civil Liberties Union argued that “American policing has become unnecessarily and dangerously militarized, in large part through federal programs that have armed state and local law enforcement agencies with the weapons and tactics of war, with almost no public discussion or oversight.”

The majority of SWAT team raids on nonviolent lawbreakers, the ACLU report points out, happen in black neighborhoods. But when the teams are used for hostage-and-rescue situations, the subjects are usually white, according to the report, which is based on Freedom of Information Act requests.

Ferguson (pop. 21,000) is a black suburb with a predominantly white police force.

To be sure, Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson has said the law-and-order approach in recent days is warranted to protect police and the community from injury and damage. Still, Ferguson police officials said they will review their tactics following Wednesday night’s clashes.

President Obama interrupted his Martha’s Vineyard vacation to receive briefings from Attorney General Eric Holder about the escalating clashes.

“There is never an excuse for violence against police or for those who would use this tragedy as a cover for vandalism or looting,” Mr. Obama said Thursday in Edgartown, Mass. “There’s also no excuse for police to use excessive force against peaceful protests or to throw protesters in jail for lawfully exercising their First Amendment rights.”

There were conflicting reports about what started the police assault on protesters Wednesday night. “Bottles were being thrown ... and we had a police officer break an ankle from a thrown brick,” Brian Schellman, a spokesman for St. Louis County police, told the British newspaper the Guardian. Police “acted with great restraint,” he said.

The teenager shot on Saturday was Mike Brown, who witnesses said had his hands raised in surrender.

According to Drexel University policing expert Robert Kane, Ferguson is seeing “nothing short of an urban rebellion against the justice system” as police have not provided answers as to why the officer engaged with the teen and how the altercation turned deadly. Police have not released the officer’s name, citing safety concerns, and have not revealed details of an autopsy that would indicate the number of bullets the teen took.

The scenes this week of local police looking like soldiers and attacking protesters has begun to disturb US officials.

Rep. Justin Amash (R) of Michigan tweeted late Wednesday, “Images & reports out of #Ferguson are frightening. Is this a war zone or a US city? Gov’t escalates tensions w/military equipment and tactics.”

The decision to meet the protesters with a “heavy hand” has “made the situation worse,” added St. Louis Alderman Antonio French, who was arrested by police Wednesday after he didn’t move fast enough when ordered away. He was released Thursday morning.

And in a piece in Time magazine, Sen. Rand Paul (R) of Kentucky wrote: "There is a legitimate role for the police to keep the peace, but there should be a difference between a police response and a military response. The images and scenes we continue to see in Ferguson resemble war more than traditional police action."

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.