On Thursday night, for the first time since a policeman shot and killed Michael Brown, protesters in Ferguson, Missouri, were not met with tear gas and rubber bullets. Instead, they got an official escort from the captain of the Missouri State Highway Patrol.
Some of the change in tone can be attributed to the Department of Justice, which sent officials from six of its agencies to Ferguson in response to the outcry against Brown’s death and the militarized police response that followed. “At a time when we must seek to rebuild trust between law enforcement and the local community, I am deeply concerned that the deployment of military equipment and vehicles sends a conflicting message,” Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said in a statement.
Lost amid the reports from Ferguson was news that the DOJ is also preparing to wade into a debate about policing nationwide. According to USA Today, the DOJ has initiated a “broad review of police tactics,” including the use of deadly force. The review is expected to be completed next year, and may be accompanied by the creation of special law enforcement commission. Police reform advocates welcome a federal review, but say its impact depends on the government’s willingness to probe its own role in the militarization of the police.
It’s been decades since the government has taken stock of the way police operate around the country. When President Johnson ordered a commission to do so in 1965, it was in response to what he described as the “malignant enemy” of crime. Now events in Ferguson have made it plain that the malignancy lies not in a violent society but within law enforcement agencies themselves.
There are more than 18,000 local and state police departments around the country, and as a result, a patchwork of policies and tactics. This was apparent during the Occupy protests, which some police responded to with riot gear and pepper spray, while others met demonstrators with conversation. Adding to the confusion are the new roles that the federal government has asked police to assume, particularly as collaborators with immigration and counterterrorism authorities. According to USA Today, the federal review will examine these expanded responsibilities as well as new technology and the way police interact with mentally ill people.
Advocates for police reform hope that the DOJ review will lead to more uniformity in how police officers are trained and deployed. “There needs to come out of DOJ a model policy that police departments have to follow in order to deploy SWAT teams. There should be a policy that would govern when it’s appropriate to use military weapons and military vehicles. Right now there’s no oversight,” said Thomas Nolan, a twenty-seven-year veteran of the Boston Police Department who now chairs the department of criminal justice at the State University of New York at Plattsburgh. “Is there a national model that DOJ could formulate to say, ‘These are the tactics and policies that govern the regulation of civilian populations in the course of their exercise of constitutionally protected activities like free assembly and free speech, and freedom of the press’?”