From Fallujah to Ferguson: the Dangerous Militarization of American Policing

© Josh Sager – August 2014

As virtually everybody who reads the news knows, the shooting of 18-year old Michael Brown by a Ferguson, Missouri police officer has ballooned into an extremely volatile situation—protesters have flooded the streets of Ferguson, while police have armed themselves with weapons fresh off of the Middle Eastern battlefields in Iraq.

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While the shooting occurred over a week ago, I will not be speculating about it in this article—I will be focusing entirely upon the police response to the protests of the shooting and the terrible path of militarization that our police forces have gone down. Next week, when more information is released about the shooting itself (currently, the police have yet to release an autopsy, ballistics report, toxicological screens, official witness statements, or any information other than the name of the shooter), I will write a separate article analyzing it.

The militarization of a police force is a multi-faceted process that transforms a civil police force into what amounts to a paramilitary occupying force. In Ferguson, we are currently witnessing the end-state of a militarized police force, treating American citizens as though they were an occupied population being held under martial law in a foreign nation (ex. Iraq).

Weapons of War on American Streets

The most obvious sign of police militarization is a repurposing of military guns, armored vehicles, and tactical uniforms for police use. Domestic police start dressing like soldiers, using the weapons of soldiers, and driving the vehicles that soldiers would use in an active military setting. These weapons allow police officers to enforce their will on the population and present an intimidating show of force to deter any dissent (ex. refusing to disperse a protest).

In addition to increasing the capacity of the police to exert force, the distribution of military weapons to domestic police creates the desire to use the new “toys” on the part of police. They have the equipment, are dying to use it (I mean, who has a tank and doesn’t want to drive it), and will pull it out at the earliest provocation, despite the fact that it isn’t the best tool for the job.

In Ferguson, we have seen the deployment of mine-resistant armored vehicles, escorting legions of police officers armed with military assault rifles. These vehicles and munitions were bought, with virtually no effort and at very low cost, through a Department of Defense program that virtually hands out millions of dollars in surplus military ordinance to domestic police forces every year.

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If you were to see the MRAP in the previous picture rolling down your street with that escort, you would be entirely justified in assuming that they were soldiers in Baghdad, hunting some dangerous terrorist with the threat of incoming RPGs keeping everybody alert—unfortunately, if you look at the tags on the officers’ flak jackets, you will see that they are simply the new police in the United States.

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…these are the MRAPs in Baghdad (specifically Camp Stryker). While the color scheme is different, they are all versions of the same vehicle.

Pro-militarization advocates (who oftentimes are “coincidentally” affiliated with arms manufacturers) argue that the US is dangerous and that our police should have the very best tools to keep themselves safe—this argument, while superficially appealing, is completely false.

As was proven by Captain Ron Johnson, pulling off the armor, and starting to walk with and talk to the protesters honestly was far more effective than presenting them with the threat of force. Tanks, guns, and military body armor enflamed the situation and led to police crackdowns, while getting officers to dialogue with the population had the opposite effect.

Criminalizing Dissent

Militarized police forces often have extreme responses to dissent, both from the population and the media. Their militarization creates a mentality that necessitates control in every situation (as though they were on a battlefield) and sees any dissent as a direct threat to be crushed at any cost—citizens are beaten, arrested, tear gasses, or even fired upon at the slightest provocation, while press agents are harassed and disrupted.

In Ferguson during the last week, we have seen police fire tear gas, bean bag rounds and rubber bullets indiscriminately at protesters while utilizing LRAD sound cannons to disperse protests. While nobody has been killed by these “non-lethal” weapons in these protests, numerous people have been injured or put into immense pain by clouds of irritating chemicals.

In addition to crushing the protesters, the police in Ferguson have made every effort to prevent the media from covering the protests. They have instituted a no fly zone over Ferguson to shut out news choppers, arrested 4 reporters (2 for not leaving a McDonalds fast enough and 2 last night while covering the protests in the streets), and even fired tear gas at an Al Jazeera camera crew.

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Put simply, the Ferguson police are demonstrating exactly why our founding fathers wrote the 1st Amendment—they are trying to suppress peaceful redress of grievance against the government and cover up their crimes by bullying the media. Unfortunately, a militarized police force doesn’t prioritize adherence to the Constitution over enforcing quiet over the population, thus police forces like that in Ferguson have regularly abused those who should be protected by the 1st Amendment with impunity (ex. Occupy Wall Street).

Occupation, not Public Service

When a police force is militarized, they prioritize enforcing rigid order over looking after the well-being of the community that they are supposed to protect. This mentality is very similar to that of an occupying army towards the population of a land that they are controlling (ex. the US military in Iraq).

A militarized police force will use military tactics and extreme force to achieve their goals, completely disregarding the long term consequences of their actions on those they police. They react with overwhelming force rather than building ties within the community and finding less damaging ways of achieving the same goals (ex. talking to community leaders to diffuse anti-police actions rather than just gassing and shooting at protesters until they disperse).

In many places, this lack of care for the wellbeing of society is coupled with a disconnect between the group doing the policing and the group being policed—the police live far away from the community that they serve, thus their only connection to the community is their duty to enforce the law. They are, in effect, foreigners maintaining order on a population that they cannot relate to, nor that they are forced to deal with in their personal lives.

Police Shooting Missouri

The Dangers of Militarization

A militarized police force is a danger to the population that it polices and a serious threat to any free society. Police who are armed with military weapons have the power to cause immense damage and, in many cases, are more likely to resort to violence than if they were less able to exert force. They suppress any who threaten the status quo, oftentimes with violence, and are a legitimate threat to our constitutional rights.

If we continue to let our police get increasingly militarized, we will continue to see crises like the one in Ferguson. Mindless force will be used instead of honest discussion, and the most economically vulnerable of our population will be crushed under the authoritarian heel of a police force that doesn’t empathize with them (even militarized police forced don’t often mess with the rich).

Nobody serious argues that our police should be disarmed—we have nearly as many guns as we do people in the USA—but that doesn’t mean that we go to the other extreme and start handing out tanks willy-nilly.

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We have reached the point where it is impossible to tell whether we are looking at a picture of soldiers in Fallujah or police officers in Missouri, and this should be a wake-up call for every American.

19 thoughts on “From Fallujah to Ferguson: the Dangerous Militarization of American Policing

      • Another thing to consider is that American police departments vary widely in terms of organizational quality (standards and TTPs) and leadership priorities.

        That is why I don’t understand the Federal Regulatory agencies (like EPA and Dept of Education) getting SWAT teams when the US Marshals could provide a higher level of service on high risk search and arrest warrants.

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  1. One of the photos —”When Did These Guys Become these Guys”— leads a reader to believe present day officers are just goons, and have no ability to relate to small children. Vice versa, it also assumes the officers in the black and white photo had neither equipment nor tactic to quash civil threats. Quite misleading.

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  2. As far as the surplus military equipment to police departments, that idea blossomed thanks to the brand new NDAA in 1990, and nobody ever gave a hoot because the president wasn’t black or a democrat. However, there was a democratic majority in both chambers who approved it.
    The idea was that if the U.S. wanted its police to act like drug warriors, it should equip them like warriors; “transfer to Federal and State agencies personal property of the Department of Defense, including small arms and ammunition, that the Secretary determines is— (A) suitable for use by such agencies in counter-drug activities; and (B) excess to the needs of the Department of Defense.” It was called the 1208 Program. In 1996, Congress replaced Section 1208 with Section 1033.” 1033 procurements are not matters of public record.
    But yes, the NRA, Tea Party and open carry groups aren’t helping matters any, where many Americans feel like it’s only fair that cops are able to protect themselves from the array of legal weapons and nutjobs walking the streets with them theses days.

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  3. Pingback: Ferguson, and what is the world coming to? | Special Blerg

  4. I don’t seem to recall anyone complaining when officers of the Boston Police Department donned tactical uniforms and protective gear to search for and engage the suspects of the marathon bombing. In case you didn’t hear, the governor of Missouri ordered a curfew in an effort to minimize the violence. Protestors defying that order were breaking the law.

    Please explain how the looters in this video are merely participating in “a peaceful redress of grievance against the government”.

    When was the last time you had glass bottles or bricks thrown at you? I haven’t, but I’ll bet Kevlar helmets, shields and armor can be useful in those situations. “Even militarized police forces don’t often mess with the rich?” When was the last time that rich people rioted?

    P.S. If anyone is interested, there is a fund that you can contribute to in support of Ferguson, MO police officer Darren Wilson. It has already earned over $135,000.00.

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    • 1) I live in Boston, and there was plenty of complaining–beyond that, I completely ignored the state of emergency and no police officer bothered me in the slightest. It was a suggestion for citizens to stay off the streets and you wouldn’t get abused for violating it.

      2) There were a few riots where people looted, but those are in the tiny minority.Using those incidents to justify widespread oppression is simply foolish and indicative of a very low understanding of the constitution.

      3) What about when a bunch of white militia types showed up to support a millionaire rancher who didn’t want to pay for his use of federal land? did you see the police knocking heads and shooting at people when the protesters started pointing guns at them and making demands? No, you didn’t.

      P.S. I have heard about that fund, and you should probably know that one of the groups that has given significantly to it is the KKK (http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation-now/2014/08/19/ku-klux-klan-ferguson-police-michael-brown/14275115/) –just food for thought about the company you keep.

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      • Really? I was unaware of any complaining about the Boston Police Department during the crisis. Please enlighten the rest of us. Why would an educated man “completely” ignore a state of emergency? Did you know something that the authorities did not?

        I am aware that not all people who take the streets during a period of civil unrest do so with the intention to use the situation as a diversion to destroy property and steal. To assume that everyone who protests is a looter or a vandal is prejudiced. However, history has taught us that in times of emergency such as in the City of Ferguson during the past two weeks, there will always be at least a “tiny minority” of individuals who will take advantage of the turmoil to commit crime. The outnumbered police must be prepared to deal with these individuals while at the same time, protecting themselves from potential assault by angry protestors. Using incidents in which police utilize protective equipment for their own safety primarily and specialized vehicles and weapons in response to extreme situations to justify anarchy is simply naïve and indicative of a very low understanding of basic human psychology.

        Not everyone who responded to Cliven Bundy’s ranch was a member of a militia. I did not see the BLM “knocking heads and shooting at people” probably because Bundy’s supporters were peaceful and were not assaulting the officers or destroying property. Did you see them doing that? No you didn’t. The protestors were not making any demands to my recollection. It was Bundy who was demanding that his cattle be returned which they were eventually with no violence being necessary.

        “If they really needed to go in, they would have mobilized the national guard, gone in in force and rolled right over any possible resistance. In this case, they chose not to because it wasn’t necessary and would have presented a PR shitstorm that they really wanted to avoid”

        Josh Sager – The Bundy Ranch Stand-off: Free Riders, Armed Extremists and Federal Agents – April 18, 2014

        Are you saying that the BLM didn’t attack Bundy’s supporters because they were mostly white people? Not all of them were white.

        Would you have supported the BLM if they would have opened fire on Bundy’s supporters as long all the casualties were white people?

        P.S. I went the link that you provided regarding the fund. Have you actually read it yourself and or watched the video? All it says about the KKK is that there is a fundraiser planned this coming weekend (08-23-14 and 08-24-14). It says ABSOLUTELY NOTHING about as much as one cent of the over $135,000.00 that has already been raised having come from the KKK or any white supremacists groups. Furthermore, you do not know me personally so do not just assume that I keep company with the KKK. Just food for thought about the snap judgments you make and the unfounded conclusions you jump to.

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    • I don’t need your advice lcollinsdotcom, nor do I require a lesson on how the criminal justice system works. The donations are for expected legal expenses. Since my 08-21-14 reply, Officer Wilson’s supporters have now donated over $235,000.00. A fund started for Brown has only raised just over $206,000.00 of which I am sure their lawyer will take a large portion of.

      http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2014/08/23/support-darren-wilson-rally/14495459/

      I hope that you and others like you are prepared for the likelihood that justice may not take the course that you are hoping it will in this matter.

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      • It’s even more extreme than that–those imbeciles who donate to Wilson don’t know that his criminal expenses will be covered by the police department or the PBA. If convicted, he will be legally banned from accepting that money (you cannot profit financially from a crime) and it will go the the Brown family, while, if acquitted, he will not need it and will simply pocket the profit.

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      • I’m sure that Officer Wilson has already consulted with attorneys and financial specialists regarding any and all possible outcomes and already has a plan. The money can be held in a special account designated to a member of his family instead of him. Verified public donations are NOT the same as profit from a crime. I have no doubt that Brown’s family will likely file a civil suit for wrongful death if they haven’t already. Maybe they will get lucky, maybe not. If Wilson is required to pay them, you can bet that his supporters will quickly organize a new fundraiser. That is of course if he is found not guilty if charges are even filed at all.

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