Police militarization in Ferguson, Missouri

by Walter Olson on August 13, 2014

Why armored vehicles in a Midwestern inner suburb? Why would cops wear camouflage gear against a terrain patterned by convenience stores and beauty parlors? Why are the authorities in Ferguson, Mo. so given to quasi-martial crowd control methods (such as bans on walking on the street) and, per the reporting of Riverfront Times, the firing of tear gas at people in their own yards? (“‘This my property!’ he shouted, prompting police to fire a tear gas canister directly at his face.”) Why would someone identifying himself as an 82nd Airborne Army veteran, observing the Ferguson police scene, comment that “We rolled lighter than that in an actual warzone“?

As most readers have reason to know by now, the town of Ferguson, Mo. outside St. Louis, numbering around 21,000 residents, is the scene of an unfolding drama that will be cited for years to come as a what-not-to-do manual for police forces. After police shot and killed an unarmed black teenager on the street, then left his body on the pavement for four hours, rioters destroyed many local stores. Since then, reportedly, police have refused to disclose either the name of the cop involved or the autopsy results on young Michael Brown; have not managed to interview a key eyewitness even as he has told his story repeatedly on camera to the national press; have revealed that dashcams for police cars were in the city’s possession but never installed; have obtained restrictions on journalists, including on news-gathering overflights of the area; and more.

The dominant visual aspect of the story, however, has been the sight of overpowering police forces confronting unarmed protesters who are seen waving signs or just their hands.

If you’re new to the issue of police militarization, which Overlawyered has covered occasionally over the past few years, the key book is Radley Balko’s, discussed at this Cato forum:

Federal grants drive police militarization. In 2012, as I was able to establish in moments through an online search, St. Louis County (of which Ferguson is a part) got a Bearcat armored vehicle and other goodies this way. The practice can serve to dispose of military surplus (though I’m told the Bearcat is not military surplus, but typically purchased new — W.O.) and it sometimes wins the gratitude of local governments, even if they are too strapped for cash to afford more ordinary civic supplies (and even if they are soon destined to be surprised by the high cost of maintaining gear intended for overseas combat).

As to the costs, some of those are visible in Ferguson, Mo. this week.

[edited to add/update links and to clarify the issues of military surplus and the un-interviewed witness; cross-posted at Cato at Liberty]

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Ferguson Erupts » Right Thinking
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08.14.14 at 2:03 pm
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{ 11 comments }

1 nevins 08.13.14 at 12:27 pm

A St.Louisan comments on some misconceptions in the article.
Ferguson is not a sleepy little town of 22,000, but a municipality on the contiguous urban and sub-urban environment of St. Louis County. It borders on the rougher north side municipalities, some of which are severely blighted, with school districts taken over by the state for utter failure, broken and bankrupt municipal governments and urban decay. Ferguson has some pockets where things are still in order, but many areas share the urban battle zone of its neighbors.

Lots of accusations yet on the police shooting, but no substantive evidence yet. Yes, the young adult was unarmed, but in a close up confrontation with an officer, any move he made that looked like he was trying to go for the officer’s gun can provoke an affirmative response, such as shooting. There are scripts that we all follow in various social interactions. When interaction with an armed officer, one should always adhere to methods that do not make the officer want to reach for their gun.

And for the militarization, once hundreds of ‘law abiding citizens’ go on a spree of smash and grab, fires, looting, random gunshots in the night, then it is time for some heavy show of force. The citizens of Ferguson, most of whom are not in the lawless mob, deserve and expect a strong police presence until the hooligans can be brought under control

Militarization under this circumstance, general civil unrest and open lawlessness, is appropriate and should be differentiated from militarization at times of peace. This is way different than using a SWAT team for a no knock raid on a sleeping household.

2 Hugo S Cunningham 08.13.14 at 1:31 pm

Dashboard cameras for police cars should be mandatory. The Feds can help pay in towns that genuinely lack the money. And demand at the “consumer” end could be increased if juries were routinely instructed to treat lack of a dashboard camera as reason to disbelieve police and police-department defendants.

3 scoop888 08.13.14 at 3:31 pm

Interesting piece. For more on how the U.S. Department of Homeland Security is arming cops and expanding into local police jurisdictions check out this in-depth series by the Albuquerque Journal: http://www.abqjournal.com/390438/news/homeland-security-a-runaway-train.html

4 Melvin H. 08.14.14 at 12:58 am

Hugo, that argument has more holes than a golf course front nine! Who says that the PLAINTIFF(S) are always telling the truth? Without cameras in THEIR car(s), shouldn’t the jury disregard that evidence too? Are you suggesting that the Fed should require dash-mounted cameras–which still won’t see everything, by the way (i.e. at 90 degrees to either side, below the car’s doors, etc.)–in all civilian cars too? After all, it’s the plaintiff who has to prove the defendant guilty, not the defendant prove himself/herself innocent.

5 William Nuesslein 08.14.14 at 4:55 am

I was appalled by the slant of Mr. Olson’s post that a policeman willy-nilly shot to death an unarmed black youth and left the body in the street for 4 hours. Such yarns have great appeal among our black communities, but they make little sense. There are thousands of encounters of police with black youths every day. One would expect willy-nilly shootings to have some positive rate if any at all. On the contrary, such events make CNN readily and hours of analysis follow. My understanding is that the policeman in the instant case was treated for facial injuries, so that willy-nilly is problematic. A reasonable man would want some indication as to how the policeman’s gun got out of its holster before passing any judgement at all. How did the routine encounter turn violent?

We saw this problem in Florida vrs. Zimmerman. Martin was not shot willy-nilly as accused by Professor Ogletree. The evidence was clear that Martin punched Zimmerman in the nose knocking him to the ground Martin mounted Zimmerman and was beating the man when Zimmerman’s gun came into play. It is interesting that prosecutor Guy said that Martin was a child who was scared to death of the menacing Zimmerman. Two grown men could have intervened to save Zimmerman from the possible severe injury to him from having his head pounded against the sidewalk. Mr. Day’s child, a fully developed athlete, kept the grown men from acting.

The neighborhood where the instant shooting occurred was volatile as indicated by the social upheaval noted by Mr. Nevins above – an excellent comment. Recall that several people died and millions of dollars in damages resulted from the Rodney King riots. That is why Mr. King asked why we can’t all get along. Getting along is made difficult when rules of inference are set aside for political expediency.

6 marco73 08.14.14 at 7:03 am

Well, all that military gear has worked out so well; now the cops are arresting reporters for just being in the area.
http://www.upi.com/Top_News/US/2014/08/13/Reporters-covering-Ferguson-Mo-protests-arrested/9601407979976/

Oh, yeah, and there was more rioting and tear gas Wednesday night.
This is going to end very poorly.

7 En Passant 08.14.14 at 2:12 pm

William Nuesslein wrote, on 8.14.14 at 4:55 am:

I was appalled by the slant of Mr. Olson’s post that a policeman willy-nilly shot to death an unarmed black youth and left the body in the street for 4 hours. Such yarns have great appeal among our black communities, but they make little sense. There are thousands of encounters of police with black youths every day. …

Had you read Walter Olson’s report carefully, you would have found this:

Since then, reportedly, police have refused to disclose either the name of the cop involved or the autopsy results on young Michael Brown; have not managed to interview a key eyewitness even as he has told his story repeatedly on camera to the national press;

If you follow the link to the eyewitness story, you will find the following key facts asserted:

Both young men started running. Johnson managed to duck behind a car, but Brown kept on running, advising his friend Johnson to “keep running.”

A second shot was fired.

Brown put his hands up in the air, begging the officer to stop shooting, and shouting that he did not have a gun, Johnson told MSNBC.

It didn’t matter.

The officer was face-to-face with Brown, according to Johnson, and he still kept on shooting.

“After seeing my friend get gunned down, my body just ran,” he said.

He ran back to his apartment and vomited. At that point, when he returned to the scene, he saw his friend, lying lifeless in the street.

The exclusive interview comes a day after it was revealed that the FBI is planning to conduct an investigation into the shooting of the unarmed Ferguson teen.

While one might debate about the length of time Mr. Brown’s corpse lay in the street, or whether the unnamed officer was justified in killing him, if one places any credence in the eyewitness account, it is apparent that Mr. Brown’s body lay in the street for long enough for the witness to run home, vomit, and return; and that Mr. Brown had his empty hands up, shouting that he was unarmed, and thereafter was shot.

What you call a “yarn” may “make little sense”, but it was not a yarn spontaneously created by people who did not witness the event.

8 Pervak 08.14.14 at 2:33 pm

Another aspect of militarization is important, here. Even in a war zone, most U.S. military personnel wear nametags so that they can be clearly identified. (Special Forces personnel involved in counter-terrorism missions usually don’t wear nametags).

What are we to make of cops not wearing any identification markings? Do they believe they are fighting terrorists or are involved in counter-insurgency operations in America? Very strange and odd that the State of Missouri allows this complete abrogation of the need for transparency in policing. No wonder the local communities don’t trust the police — the police think they are fighting heavily armed domestic terrorists.

9 HFB 08.14.14 at 3:19 pm

I would agree that there is something that doesn’t make sense here. But, I’m trying to be rational. IMHO, someone who dives into a police car window to attack a cop (allegation 1) OR a cop that shoots an unarmed, hands-up suspect (allegation 2) are not acting rationally.

Now, should the public have to have cameras? May want to in some areas. Should the cops? If the courts are going to take the word of the cop over the public…prolly. If I read it right, the town of Ferguson had cameras for the cop cars that they did not install. Why not? what better evidence could there be? We’ll never know now and I doubt it will ever be required.

I personally think that riot police are necessary when there is rioting (gofigure), but I think they are showing any restraint when they shoot into someone’s yard. What’s to stop them from shooting in your house if they see you in the window and you don’t listen to their command to go sit down? Do they even know of To Protect and Serve?

Now, En Passant,

Nothing you posted proves one way or the other. Though the Police should be held to a very high standard and are not acting like it here, there could be some legitimacy to the cop’s claims just as there could be to the only eye witness’ version. We won’t know. If it comes out that he shot him in the back at 35 feet and THEN in the front, it’s going to look awfully bad, though. I just can’t see any justification and the cop’s emotions running high don’t cut it for me. He should be trained for that.

10 JohnC 08.14.14 at 6:55 pm

Well, the good news for those troubled by MRAPs is this: The first maintenance overhaul. Sure, the equipment comes basically free, but the receiving agency is responsible for the acquisition and maintenance cost (a $10-30K premium for basic upkeep; and each maintenance cycle gets a little more expensive), plus you can’t just dispose of some time later.

Given that you can armor-up some SUVs with better effect, a MRAP that’s not equally useful in every situation (not all streets, shoulders, and bridges meet are designed for the MRAP; especially when the road is above grade it can tip) and reinforces the sense that the current LE TTPs are hardly a sign of progress and enhanced security, more than a few agencies get buyers remorse, especially if they haven’t budgeted (since the total premium isn’t always disclosed).

Nor is this the first time agencies have decided that, 9 times out of 10, mobility and a low profile trumps force protection and force projection.

11 En Passant 08.15.14 at 3:41 am

HFB wrote on 08.14.14 at 3:19 pm:

Nothing you posted proves one way or the other.

Nor did I say it had proved anything except that the “yarn” Mr. Nuesslein referred to arose not from spontaneous rumors, but from an eyewitness account. What part of “if one places any credence in the eyewitness account” did I not make clear?

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