Police overreaction to civil unrest in Ferguson, Mo., is a stunning example of all that can wrong when militarized law enforcement assumes an adversarial relationship with the civilians they are sworn to protect.
There is hardly any issue more fundamental to American freedom. Our revolution was fought and the U.S. Bill of Rights was drafted in large measure to end the abuses of a British army that crouched amid ordinary people and made their lives miserable. While the U.S. military has a sterling record of abiding by the rules, a few internal police agencies are drifting dangerously close to adopting military tactics and equipment that are ill suited to law enforcement.
It is a disturbing specter to see photos of police snipers armed with weapons that look like they belong in a science-fiction video game. It is doubly disturbing to have reporters arrested for legitimate news-gathering activity.
In the aftermath of more than a decade of warfare, the U.S. government is awash in surplus military gear, much of which is making its way at little or no upfront cost to policing agencies across the country.
The Pacific County (Wash.) Sheriff’s Office recently acquired an advanced armored vehicle for less than the cost of a used compact car. Agencies in both Clatsop and Pacific counties have received surplus assault rifles. Night-vision technology is in place in Pacific County. So far at least, according to The New York Times, neither county has received grenade launchers or body armor – though they doubtless would be able to if they made a convincing request. Some police and sheriff’s departments have even received military planes and helicopters – the nearest to us are in Pierce and King counties in Washington.
Thankfully, there is nothing to suggest that military supplies have been misused locally.
Problems with deadly high-tech equipment in domestic settings were anticipated earlier this year by a comprehensive study by the American Civil Liberties Union. (See tinyurl.com/lakqla6)
“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,” according to the report titled War Comes Home.
Local SWAT teams have been particularly aggressive in amassing arsenals of weaponry that are deployed in operations like executing search warrants in low-level drug cases. As was the case in Missouri, “The use of paramilitary weapons and tactics primarily impacted people of color,” according to the ACLU’s study.
In the wake of the unrest in Ferguson, lawmakers and leaders on every point of the political spectrum are calling into question the very issues raised by ACLU. When police are armed like stormtroopers, it is inevitable that some will begin acting like an occupying army rather than as partners with civilians in keeping the peace.
A police officer’s killing an unarmed teenager – the incident that sparked the unrest – is highly problematic in its own right. The facts are in dispute. But African-Americans have ample cause to believe that young black males are subjected to more than their fair share of rough handling.
Internal use of military tactics and weapons must be seriously curtailed. If not, our democracy faces an existential threat.