The fearsome response by the Ferguson, Mo., police department in the aftermath of the shooting of Michael Brown was not only shockingly ill-conceived, but in many ways inevitable. This kind of stand-off, with police using tear gas and rubber bullets, and perched atop armored transport vehicles with high-powered rifles, is what happens when local police departments are given access to equipment that has no other function than to kill or terrify.
But military-grade weapons are dangerous not simply because they represent a war-like response so prevalent in security efforts in the post-9/11 era. They also violate the cardinal rules of security in the homeland: flexibility and a capacity to pivot are key.
Here, history is instructive. Until World War II, the American homeland had been relatively safe from foreign attacks. After Pearl Harbor, first responders had to contend with a new type of danger, but how to do so was not entirely clear. New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia wanted the federal government to adopt a war mentality in US cities, with sirens, neighborhood militias, and concrete bunkers. Community-engagement efforts, he once wrote, were “sissy stuff.”
It wasn’t until President Richard Nixon that the obsession with national security threats finally started to change. That change came because Hurricane Camille in 1969 and several other natural disasters exposed an inadequate and ineffective federal response. In reaction, Nixon authorized an important shift in policy: Domestic security funds could be used for any kind of threat. The new approach was called “dual use” and applied to planning, equipment, and training.
Dual-use has the benefit of being both efficient and effective. The firefighter who shows up at a burning building does not wonder, at that moment, whether an arsonist or a careless cigarette smoker is to blame. She just wants to put the fire out. The medics at the Boston Marathon finish line had no idea whether the carnage came from a terrorist attack or a gas explosion. They just implemented their well-honed plans for treating a sudden surge in injuries.
Dual-use planning was consistent with reforms occurring in many urban police departments, which were increasingly embracing community policing models.
And then 9/11 happened. And then we forgot. Once again, we started thinking that community-engagement strategies were “sissy stuff.” Enter Ferguson.
In 2007, when I was the state’s homeland security adviser, the Bush administration — which was facing an insurgency in Iraq — told the states that 25 percent of our federal security funding had to be spent on responses to IED explosives. The states pushed back, pointing out that that percentage was arbitrary and didn’t equate to the risks we faced. Boston, after all, is not Baghdad. Citing the need to support first responders regardless of the specific threat they faced, we echoed the dual-use mantra. The Department of Homeland Security relented in that instance, but it still has a long way to go.
It’s not that military equipment is absolutely unimaginable in a domestic setting, particularly when police are at risk. But two significant reforms should be made as we right-size our post-9/11 state.
First, don’t give a municipal police department single-use weaponry unless that department has a dedicated team trained for such weapons. Otherwise, the federal government should only provide those weapons to state agencies such as the National Guard or the state police. In most cases, that reform would mean that military weapons would ultimately be controlled by a governor, who presumably has better judgment than a small-town police chief.
Second, federal funding schemes should be altered to support well-established policing policies and response efforts. Currently, it’s all but impossible to use federal funding to hire new state or local employees. The thinking is that because policing is a local effort, jurisdictions should pay for their own personnel. But that sets up a strange system under which the purchase of “gizmos” is allowable, but the hiring of community-relations experts, bilingual police officers, and more diverse workforces isn’t. That needs to change.
These reforms are not “sissy stuff.” By refocusing on dual-use planning and limiting military weapons in domestic settings, we can learn from the past and build a safer future.