The spectral fog of tear gas no longer looms menacingly in a waist-high cloud over West Florissant Ave.
The Missouri State Highway Patrol silenced their long range acoustical device, halting
the ear-splitting wail the non-lethal weapon broadcast over northern St. Louis as a crowd control measure.
Life in Ferguson, Mo. has by no means returned to normal, yet it is a far cry from the past three weeks, when an ostensible citizen police force took on the role of an occupying army in the wake of the Michael Brown killing Aug. 9.
The brute force displayed by authorities in Missouri should serve as a wake up call to all Americans that the federal government has enabled local police and sheriff’s departments to turn Mayberry into Mosul at the slightest sign of civil unrest.
Unfortunately the events leading up to the protests are all too common in America in 2014. Less than a month prior to the Brown killing, Eric Garner, asthmatic, unarmed and African-American, suffered a fatal choke hold at the hands of an NYPD officer in Staten Island.
In some ways the response to the two events was strikingly similar. Al Sharpton led street demonstrations attended by thousands in both locales. Chants derived from each victim’s alleged lasts words (“Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” in Ferguson and “I Can’t Breathe” in Staten Island) filled the air with an indignant cacophony during the protests. Attorney General Eric Holder indicated each tragedy would be fully investigated by the Civil Rights Division of the US Department of Justice.
The critical distinction is the way in which local authorities in Ferguson took up arms against the very citizens they are tasked to protect.
Nobody will argue that securing order during periods of high public tension is outside the bounds of normal police duty, but doing so using surplus military equipment is a heavy-handed tactic that does nothing to assuage growing public distrust in their local police force.
From long range acoustical devices (LRADs) to tear gas to long guns to desert camouflage uniforms and body armor, local police utilized whatever means necessary to quell any potential violence. Unfortunately, for an already cynical populace, this may have had the opposite effect.
In an interview with Vox, former Seattle Police Chief Norman Stamper said, “I would have to characterize the police response as an overreaction. Had you set out to make matters worse, you couldn’t have done a better job.”
Having the streets people call home turned over to what appears to be a standing army does little in the way of relationship building between the St. Louis County Police and the citizens they are supposed to protect.
You may be asking yourself how local police units procure military grade equipment. In the early 90s, Congress created a program whereby municipal law enforcement agencies could acquire excess military equipment from the Pentagon at little to no cost. The federal government established the process as part of its greater war on drugs and then expanded the program shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Just because the equipment was given to locals as armaments for the wars on drugs and terror, that doesn’t necessarily mean its use will be restricted to these missions. The absence of al-Qaeda sleeper cells and MS-13 capos in Ferguson shows that some local police forces are ready and willing to use these weapons against much smaller threats.
One way to curtail the militarization of America’s local law enforcement is to demand accountability. Although few police outside of chiefs and county sheriffs are elected, those responsible for their oversight are.
In California, the Davis City Council recently passed a resolution to attempt to ditch their city police’s mine-resistant, ambush protected vehicle. Closer to home, it appears neither the Huntsville Police Department not the Walker County Sheriff’s Department have taken any of the military’s surplus wares since the establishment of the transfer program. According to a report in The Huntsville Item, both forces cited a lack of need as their rationale for eschewing the Department of Defense program.
This restraint is critical in maintaining a citizen police force and should be lauded.
When municipal law enforcement, like that in Ferguson, determines that it needs military grade equipment to police its community can you really blame them for using it?