‘Put away the toys, boys’

Killing high­lights mil­i­tari­sa­tion of US po­lice

CityPress - - News - NAU­REEN KHAN news@city­press.co.za Michael Brown

Can­is­ters of tear gas thrown in­dis­crim­i­nately into crowds, ar­moured ve­hi­cles rolling through city streets and men in cam­ou­flage wield­ing ma­chine guns – it seems like a scene from Fal­lu­jah or Kabul, or per­haps from the dark days of the US civil rights move­ment.

But as the world knows, this is Fer­gu­son, Mis­souri, in 2014.

Even as the com­mu­nity strug­gles to come to terms with the tragic shoot­ing and death of yet another un­armed young African-Amer­i­can man, the events un­fold­ing in Fer­gu­son have thrown a spot­light on a sec­ond alarm­ing trend: the in­creas­ing mil­i­tari­sa­tion of lo­cal po­lice de­part­ments.

In re­sponse to pro­test­ers ex­press­ing out­rage over the killing of 18-year-old Mike Brown, the St Louis County and Fer­gu­son po­lice de­part­ments have turned the streets of this pre­dom­i­nantly African-Amer­i­can sub­urb into a ver­i­ta­ble war zone, fir­ing rub­ber bul­lets, men­ac­ing demon­stra­tors with dogs and in gen­eral dis­play­ing ex­ces­sive force for the pur­poses of se­cu­rity and crowd con­trol.

“This mil­i­tari­sa­tion that we are wit­ness­ing – po­lice of­fi­cers dressed as soldiers, us­ing mil­i­tary ve­hi­cles and mil­i­tary weapons to en­gage largely un­armed pro­test­ers – is out­ra­geous,” said Tom Nolan, chair of the de­part­ment of crim­i­nal jus­tice at the State Univer­sity of New York at Platts­burgh, who served for 27 years in the Bos­ton po­lice de­part­ment. “It’s a dis­grace.”

But as jar­ring as the im­ages com­ing from Fer­gu­son are, ex­perts say the tin­der­box sit­u­a­tion on the ground was also in­evitable, given how the fed­eral govern­ment has read­ily handed over mil­i­tary-grade weapons, ar­mour and equip­ment to lo­cal law en­force­ment with scant over­sight or train­ing.

It be­gan with the war on drugs. Fac­ing a de­te­ri­o­rat­ing sit­u­a­tion, Congress passed the Na­tional De­fense Au­tho­riza­tion Act in 1990, which al­lowed the Pen­tagon to give lo­cal law en­force­ment “small arms and am­mu­ni­tion”.

A quar­ter of a cen­tury later, the 1033 pro­gramme, as it’s called, con­tin­ues and has dis­bursed $4.3 bil­lion (R45.5 bil­lion) worth of mil­i­tary equip­ment to state and lo­cal agen­cies, ac­cord­ing to the web­site of the De­fense Lo­gis­tics Agency, which ad­min­is­ters the pro­gramme within the US de­fence de­part­ment.

Con­se­quently, po­lice forces across the US are start­ing to re­sem­ble small armies, said Kara Dan­sky, se­nior coun­sel at the Amer­i­can Civil Lib­er­ties Union and the pri­mary au­thor of a mil­i­tari­sa­tion re­port, War Comes Home: The Ex­ces­sive Mil­i­ta­riza­tion of Amer­i­can Polic­ing.

“There are al­most no con­straints on the abil­ity of lo­cal law en­force­ment to ob­tain mil­i­tary weaponry from the de­fence de­part­ment,” she said.

Mike O’Con­nell, the spokesper­son for the Mis­souri de­part­ment of pub­lic safety, con­firmed that the St Louis County and the Fer­gu­son po­lice de­part­ments par­tic­i­pate in the pro­gramme. Ac­cord­ing to in­ven­to­ries, the Fer­gu­son po­lice have pro­cured 12 ri­fles and six pis­tols, as well as more mun­dane items like first-aid kits and lap­tops, through the pro­gramme. St Louis County has ac­quired eight util­ity trucks (which could in­clude Humvees), night vi­sion de­vices and cargo trail­ers.

But O’Con­nell noted that some of the equip­ment seen in im­ages of the protests has been ac­quired com­mer­cially and that the po­lice pres­ence in­cludes of­fi­cers from other units in the re­gion. Equip­ping po­lice of­fi­cers with the trap­pings of war in­evitably in­flu­ences the psy­che of law en­force­ment officials, ex­perts said.

“When the po­lice adopt this mil­i­taris­tic trope, they adopt with it this war­rior men­tal­ity,” Nolan said.

For now, he added, cool­ing down the sit­u­a­tion is cru­cial. “I am some­one who had rocks and bot­tles thrown at me in sit­u­a­tions very much like this, and I didn’t break out a sound can­non or tear gas or flash bang grenades or smoke bombs. I ducked,” he said. “Let’s put away the toys, boys. Let’s get rid of the mil­i­tary garb and the ma­chine guns and let’s be­gin a di­a­logue.”

The sil­ver lin­ing might just be that the un­rest in Fer­gu­son ap­pears to have drawn the at­ten­tion of pol­icy mak­ers to the grow­ing prob­lem. “At a time when we must seek to re­build trust be­tween law en­force­ment and the lo­cal com­mu­nity, I am deeply con­cerned that the de­ploy­ment of mil­i­tary equip­ment sends a con­flict­ing mes­sage,” At­tor­ney-Gen­eral Eric Holder said this week. – Al Jazeera Amer­ica

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