‘Put away the toys, boys’
Killing highlights militarisation of US police
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