Over the past two weeks, Americans have been transfixed and horrified by the surreal images of police donning camouflage and gas masks and pointing sniper rifles at unarmed demonstrators in Ferguson, Mo. Why have police departments become so enamored with tools more associated with war than with walking the beat? One answer is receiving precious little attention: America’s gun culture.
America is a nation awash in firearms. It’s simply impossible to talk incisively about what’s happening in Ferguson without talking about guns and the ease with which ordinary citizens and criminals can get access to them.
Police today are much better armed because it’s the only way they can keep up with criminals. When powerful semi-automatic and military-style weapons started to appear on the streets, police departments began moving from six-shot revolvers to semi-automatic weapons. That trend accelerated after several high-profile incidents where officers were simply outgunned by criminals, the most infamous being a 1997 shoot-out at a North Hollywood bank in which the robbers were toting automatic weapons and wearing body armor.
According to David Kennedy, director at the Center for Crime Prevention and Control at John Jay College, though these types of events are as rare as a “meteor strike” for most communities, police departments increasingly have come to believe that “they should have the technology ready in case one occurs.”
So while police once carried shotguns in their vehicles, today their weapon of choice is just as likely to be an assault rifle. Last year, Boston police pushed for greater access to such weapons in response to the Sandy Hook shooting. There, they were following the lead of departments across the country. “When you increase the availability of assault weapons for criminals and glamorize them in movies and popular culture, police departments have an obligation to provide their officers with the weaponry to protect themselves,” says Jim Bueermann, the president of the Police Foundation, which promotes effective policing.
With assault weapons and high-capacity handguns making up an increasing share of gun sales and being heavily marketed by gunmakers — and with politicians refusing to limit the lethality or availability of such weapons — an arms race is being spurred between the citizenry and police.
The dangers of that are evident on the streets of Ferguson. While the overheated reaction of police to peaceful protests is an outlier, the increased utilization of military-style weapons is not.
“If you give a police department a SWAT team, they will want to use it,” says Bueermann. “And if you’re not clear on the appropriate times to utilize it, then you will begin to normalize its deployment.” Indeed, according to a recent ACLU report, nearly 80 percent of the SWAT raids they examined were conducted to serve search warrants, which was rarely the case in the past.
When you combine these weapons with a police culture that has officer safety as its top priority, it should hardly come as a surprise that police departments will exercise an abundance of caution in protecting their officers — and an abundance of firepower.
At the root of the problem is that policing in America is unlike anywhere else in the developed world. Elsewhere, it’s a highly unusual, and controversial, event when a police officer uses deadly force. British police officers, for example, fired their weapons in just three incidents in 2013, with no fatalities.
While few American police officers will ever encounter an armed individual or even unholster their weapon, in a high-crime area like Chicago, where police seized 6,800 illegal guns last year, the potential for an ordinary encounter to develop into an armed confrontation is all too real — and that can’t help but affect the interaction between police and citizen. Although rates of violent crime are historically low, police killings are not declining. In Massachusetts, for example, the number has gone up every year from 2008 to 2013.
Michael A. Cohen is a fellow at the Century Foundation. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.