UPDATE: Attorney General Eric Holder released a statement this afternoon that did address the militarization of police
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 and vehicles sends a conflicting message. At my direction, Department officials have conveyed these concerns to local authorities. Also at my direction, the Department is offering – through our COPS office and Office of Justice Programs – technical assistance to local authorities in order to help conduct crowd control and maintain public safety without relying on unnecessarily extreme displays of force. The local authorities in Missouri have accepted this offer of assistance as of this afternoon.
The full statement is here.
President Barack Obama, who has been on vacation at Martha’s Vineyard, delivered a statement on US military operations in Iraq and what has been happening in Ferguson, Missouri since Michael Brown, an unarmed black teen, was shot and killed by police.
His remarks on Ferguson avoided any acknowledgment of the military-grade equipment that has been employed by police in shocking acts, which have led the community to be transformed into a war zone.
“There is never an excuse for violence against police or for those who would use this tragedy as a cover for vandalism or looting,” Obama declared. “There’s also no excuse for police to use excessive force against peaceful protesters or to throw protesters in jail for lawfully exercising their First Amendment rights.”
Obama continued, “Here in the United States of America, police should not be bullying or arresting journalists who are just trying to do their jobs and report to the American people what they see on the ground. Put simply, we all need to hold ourselves to a high standard, particularly those of us in positions of authority.”
“Here in the United States of America…”—as if it would somehow be more acceptable in other countries to bully, arrest or shoot tear gas at journalists.
No specifics were given. Everything that had precipitated the need for this statement was discussed in the abstract without details so he could ensure whatever he said was as uncontroversial as possible. Even his mention of Brown was surrounded by meaningless jargon.
“We lost a young man, Michael Brown, in a heartbreaking tragic circumstance,” Obama stated. “He was 18-years-old. His family will never hold Michael in their arms again.”
Obama could not even bring himself to acknowledge that Brown was shot and killed by police or that he was black and that the fact that he was black may have had something to do with why he was shot and killed because in this country a black person is killed just about every 28 hours by police or vigilantes.
There was no recognition of the racism fueling the scenes of warfare by police who have been out on the streets of Ferguson.
However, Obama argued, “And when something like this happens, the local authorities, including the police, have a responsibility to be open and transparent about how they are investigating that death and how they are protecting the people in their communities.”
Police in St. Louis County have not been open and transparent. Specifically, the community still does not know who the person is that killed Michael Brown. They also don’t know why officers chose not to take a statement from Dorian Johnson, an eyewitness.
The ACLU of Missouri has filed a lawsuit [PDF] on behalf of two Missouri residents seeking copies of the “incident report for the shooting of Michael Brown on August 9.” The lawsuit argues the Ferguson police are violating Missouri’s Sunshine Law and preventing access to files that are open records.
Returning to the issue of military-grade equipment being used in Ferguson, if there is to be calm in the community, one of the first things that could be done is St. Louis County Police could stop deploying these war toys.
Missouri Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill at a community meeting at Christ the King United Church of Christ suggested that the county needed to “demilitarize the police response.” The crowd cheered, and later she told reporters, “The police response has been part of the problem.”
McCaskill’s comments are actually a bit surprising, given the fact that Democrats mostly have ignored the issue of police militarization. It is libertarians, like Senator Rand Paul, who have been the most outspoken in recent years.
The images or video from Ferguson have in the past couple of days not been scenes of “clashes,” as Obama put it, but of police using shock and awe paramilitary tactics to scare residents into submission.
Many of the photos of featured armored personnel carriers (APC) or a Ballistic Engineered Armored Response Counter Attack (BearCat) vehicles. As described in the ACLU’s report on the militarization of local law enforcement, this popular armored vehicle was created to “transport infantry and provide protection from shrapnel and small arms fire on the battlefield.” Police departments can obtain these through Department of Homeland Security grants.
Though “terrorism” is often invoked to justify the acquisition of such military equipment by local law enforcement, most officers recognize they will never have to deploy the equipment against actual terrorists. How the police are using the vehicles against residents in Ferguson is how equipment, as well as the weapons used to fire tear gas, smoke bombs and rubber bullets, are more likely to be used—to control and stifle dissent, especially dissent against police.
In a community like Ferguson that is predominantly black, it is even more likely that law enforcement will use such equipment against the community. Officers already dehumanize black lives when they stop and frisk them at a greater rate than white residents. They already set themselves up to be able to pull the trigger, shoot and leave their bodies lying on the street for someone else to pick up. It is not difficult to see how they could justify becoming warriors committed to aggressively restoring the quiet after a community becomes incensed by their actions.
Missouri Democratic Governor Jay Nixon has indicated that the “tone” of policing might shift and units of police from the St. Louis County might be pulled out. But Ferguson police chief Thomas Jackson said in a press conference, “The tactical units will be out there. If [there are] firebombs, property getting destroyed…we have to respond to deadly force.”
Jackson appears to suffer from a warrior mentality. The fact is authorities have a greater responsibility and obligation to de-escalate than Ferguson residents. They aren’t the ones prowling around the streets in BearCats like the community is an area of Baghdad.
If law enforcement continues to maintain what looks like a military occupation, the environment will remain ripe for violence.