Image after image show police officers clad in Kevlar vests, helmets, and camouflage, armed with pistols, shotguns, automatic rifles, and tear gas backed up by armored mine-resistant, ambush protected vehicle with sharpshooter and their rifles on the roof. The officers were not uniformed in a way that made them identifiable by police force, by locality, and certainly not by name. We already know that police cars in Ferguson do not have dashboard cameras. Anonymity makes the doing of violence so much easier to consider.
This would be one thing if Ferguson were in a war zone, or if protesters were carrying guns, or were engaged in acts of violence toward the police that could were wide ranging and seriously threatening. But an episode of looting, some thrown cans and rock and anonymous threats do not justify this level of armed resistance. Ferguson police aren’t dealing with any particular danger. Still, they’re treating demonstrators—and Ferguson residents writ large—as a population to occupy, not citizens to protect.
In his book The Rise of the Warrior Cop, journalist Radley Balko notes that since the 1960s, “law-enforcement agencies across the U.S., at every level of government, have been blurring the line between police officer and soldier. Driven by martial rhetoric and the availability of military-style equipment—from bayonets and M–16 rifles to armored personnel carriers—American police forces have often adopted a mind-set previously reserved for the battlefield.”
Racial and anti-war tensions set the stage in the 1960's and early 70's. The process ramped up with the “war on drugs” in the 1980s and 1990s, as the federal government supplied local and state police forces with military-grade weaponry to clamp down on drug trafficking and other crime. And it accelerated again after the 9/11 attacks and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, when the federal government had—and sent—billions in surplus military equipment to state and local governments.
Since 2006, according to an analysis by the New York Times, police departments have acquired 435 armored vehicles, 533 planes, 93,763 machine guns, and 432 mine-resistant armored trucks- $4.3 billion worth of equipment. The value of military equipment used by these police agencies has increased from $1 million in 1990 to $324 million in 1995 (shortly after the program was established), to nearly $450 million in 2013.
Matching this growth in equipment, there has been a similar increase in the number of Tactical/SWAT Units and in military style advanced training for officer.
At the same time as crime has fallen to its lowest levels in decades, police departments have more and more heavy duty equipment and more and more officers trained in and assigned to units where heavy handed tactics are expected. To justify all of this police action has changed dramatically. According to an American Civil Liberties Union report released this summer, 79 percent of SWAT deployments from 2011 to 2012 were for search warrants, a massive overreaction that can have disastrous consequences, including injury and death. That was the case for Aiyana Stanley-Jones, who was killed during a SWAT raid by the Detroit police department. Serving a search warrant for an occupant of the house, Detroit police rushed in with flash bangs and ballistic shields. When one resident tried to grab an officer’s gun, it fired, striking Aiyana. She was 7.
SWAT deployments are used disproportionately in black and Latino neighborhoods making up 50 percent of all such actions. Of these deployments, 68 percent were for drug searches. A substantial number of drug searches—60 percent—involved violent tactics to force entry, which lead predictably and avoidably to senseless injury and death.
The fact that police are eager to use their new weapons, vehicles and training isn’t a surprise. As the New York Times notes, “The ubiquity of SWAT teams has changed not only the way officers look, but also the way departments view themselves. Recruiting videos feature clips of officers storming into homes with smoke grenades and firing automatic weapons.”
The small town of Medford, Oregon with a population of 76,462 has spent millions of dollars to militarize their police. They have their own Swat Team, yet no incident in its history of a major shooting, public disorder, or gang threat of such a nature to warrant a Swat Team. Medford Police bought a new assault vehicle which they used to go after a mere carjacker.
Another Medford in New Jersey with a population of just 23,033 also has a Swat Team. They rushed in and held two white kids on the ground at gun-point for shooting potatoes into a lake setting hair spray as the propellant.
The Second Amendment was meant to guard to guard against the threat of standing armies. We are seeing the abuse of force at every level.
There are more and more cases of officers on ordinary duty taking very aggressive steps, moving quickly to the use of their firearm rather than using passive restraints, pepper spray or tasers. The result is an alarming increasing in the number of reports of serious injury to citizens, shots fired, dangerous vehicle pursuits etc. This iconic image from the 2009 Occupy Protest at UC Davis is a reminder of how easily even ordinary police action can become overly violent.