Ferguson MO in context: The militarization of the police

military police gearWhen a Ferguson, Missouri police officer shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed teenager, the neighborhood erupted, and area police departments were quickly on the scene–transported in heavily armored vehicles. Their appearance is another instance of a national trend toward the militarization of local police forces. In 2011, we posted the following article on this topic, which we think bears reposting, in light of developments in Ferguson:

Instead of walking the beat and communicating with residents, police are wearing bulletproof vests, riot gear, dark goggles, and masks even for routine work. S.W.A.T. teams are no longer used for extreme situations, but are used for everyday policing, including serving warrants. Instead of connecting with the community, the police are separating themselves psychologically from the communities they serve. As they become more like the military, they take on a dangerous mindset reserved for soldiers—one that is focused on killing an enemy.

Rizer and Hartmann report that we are witnessing a fundamental change in the nature of law enforcement. When a police officer takes someone into custody, they  consider him or her innocent until proven guilty. They are expected to protect the civil liberties of all citizens, even the vilest of criminals. Lethal violence is an absolute last resort.  Soldiers, on the other hand, are trained to identify two groups—the enemy and the non-enemy. Once identified, they kill the enemy. The blurring of the line between police and military is influencing, in a negative way, how the police engage with people in their communities.

This blurring also opens up the country to other dangers. With local police being given military equipment, weapons and training, there is little difference between them and the military itself. Thus, it makes it easier for an administration, if it so choses, to bypass the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878 effectively eliminating the need to declare martial law. This is not a good trend. In mid November, 18 cities coordinated attacks on Occupy encampments. The origin of those coordinated attacks is not known at this time.

Glenn Greenwald, writing at Salon, sees a relationship between the growing militarization of the police and the growing economic unrest in the country:

It was only a matter of time before a coordinated police crackdown was imposed to end the Occupy encampments. Law enforcement officials and policy-makers in America know full well that serious protests — and more — are inevitable given the economic tumult and suffering the U.S. has seen over the last three years (and will continue to see for the foreseeable future). A country cannot radically reduce quality-of-life expectations, devote itself to the interests of its super-rich, and all but eliminate its middle class without triggering sustained citizen fury.

The reason the U.S. has para-militarized its police forces is precisely to control this type of domestic unrest, and it’s simply impossible to imagine its not being deployed in full against a growing protest movement aimed at grossly and corruptly unequal resource distribution. As Madeleine Albright said when arguing for U.S. military intervention in the Balkans: “What’s the point of having this superb military you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?” That’s obviously how governors, big-city Mayors and Police Chiefs feel about the stockpiles of assault rifles, SWAT gear, hi-tech helicopters, and the coming-soon drone technology lavished on them in the wake of the post/9-11 Security State explosion, to say nothing of the enormous federal law enforcement apparatus that, more than anything else, resembles a standing army which is increasingly directed inward.

Chi Birmingham and Alex S. Vitale, in a recent art Opinion piece in the The New York Times, provide a visual diagram charting the evolution of police uniforms over the last decades. To view it, click here. The days of “Officer Friendly” visiting a local grade school appear to be over.