The circumstanceS leading to the shooting death of an unarmed teenager in Ferguson, Mo., by a local police officer remain under investigation. But the violent aftermath of the shooting clearly revealed a police force that sees itself more like an occupying army than part of the community.
Demonstrators took to the streets of Ferguson after the Aug. 9 shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown. Some troublemakers were on hand. But the nearly all-white police force made little or no effort to distinguish peaceful demonstrators from rioters in the small city comprised predominantly of African-Americans. Instead, police responded reflexively with military-style weapons, tear gas, and rubber bullets. Shocking images of police sharpshooters in body armor atop heavily armed trucks were beamed around the world.
The poor performance of the Ferguson police is a local issue. But the federal government bears much responsibility for putting military hardware in the hands of this backwards police force, and others like it. In the years after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, the Department of Homeland Security poured money into police departments large and small for the purchase of heavy body armor, mine-resistant vehicles, and other equipment that serves little purpose other than to counter bombings and other military-style attacks. As Ferguson shows, such war materials are more likely to be used by police to terrorize local populations than to fight actual terrorists.
Civil liberties groups have been warning for months about the arms build-up in local police departments. The ACLU of Massachusetts has met with consistent resistance from police in its effort to get information on heavily armed SWAT teams that are increasingly called on to perform routine police duties, such as serving warrants. The ACLU rightly warns of the “federally orchestrated militarization of local police forces.” National political leaders from both parties are echoing these sentiments.
It is especially dangerous when Homeland Security and the US Justice Department put military-grade equipment or weapons in the hands of police departments that have slept through decades of lessons on community policing. Modern, well-run police departments concentrate on building relationships and treating residents as partners in the fight against crime. When incidents such as a police shooting occur, officers and community leaders join forces to calm the citizenry while the investigation proceeds. Such relationships were nowhere to be seen in Ferguson.
Calm did not return to the streets of Ferguson until the Missouri governor, Jay Nixon, ordered the well-trained state highway patrol to take command of the situation. Those officers succeeded by communicating with residents, not unleashing powerful weapons. Meanwhile, federal security officials should stop handing out military weaponry to police forces without restrictions on how it can be used, and against whom.