When Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill called this week for the “demilitarization” of Ferguson, Missouri, she could have been talking about hundreds of other communities across the country. In recent years, as the American Civil Liberties Union details in its remarkable new report, “War Comes Home: The Excessive Militarization of American Policing,” the restructuring of local police departments into what look like occupying military forces has become “a nationwide trend.”
That trend was illustrated for America and the world by scenes from Ferguson where, after a police officer shot and killed 18-year-old Michael Brown, tensions flared. Local police met protests not just with extreme tactics—including the detention of journalists and the arrest of an elected alderman from neighboring St. Louis—but with armored vehicles, heavy weapons and a show of military force that made matters worse. With a bluntness that is rare for a US senator addressing the circumstances in a community in her state, McCaskill argued that “this kind of response by the police has become the problem instead of the solution.”
She was right about Ferguson, and about America.
The militarization of local policing is, indeed, a nationwide trend. It is encouraged by misguided “war on drugs” policies, misdirected Department of Homeland Security initiatives and the Department of Defense’s 1033 program, which sends “surplus military equipment” that USA Today describes as “left over from US military campaigns in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere” to underfunded police departments. It remakes those departments in a way that, the ACLU notes, “unfairly impacts people of color and undermines individual liberties, and it has been allowed to happen in the absence of any meaningful public discussion.”
Ferguson has changed the discussion.
Now, it’s time to change the policies.
“Since the 1980s the US government has enabled the militarization of the police force as part of its so-called War on Drugs. Post-9/11 politics opened the floodgates with grants from the federal government to prepare for the imminent terrorist threat. Now, as combat missions in Iraq and Afghanistan have ended, the Pentagon is literally giving battlefield hardware away,” says Kevin Martin, executive director of Peace Action, which has organized a campaign to press members of Congress on the issue. “The militarism of policing—both in terms of weaponry and tactics—is a threat to our freedom as great as any coming from outside our borders. It’s time to put it to a stop.”
Democratic and Republican members of Congress have begun to step up on the issue.
“Our main streets should be a place for business, families, and relaxation, not tanks and M16s,” Johnson says in his letter. “Our local police are quickly beginning to resemble paramilitary forces. This bill will end the free transfers of certain aggressive military equipment to local law enforcement and ensure that all equipment can be accounted for.”
Noting the circumstance in Ferguson, and similar circumstances in communities across the country, the congressman makes the point that “before another small town’s police force gets a $700,000 gift from the Defense Department that it can’t maintain or manage, it behooves us to rein in the Pentagon’s 1033 program and revisit the merits of a militarized America.”
Johnson is a progressive who, with Congressman John Conyers (D-Michigan) and a handful of others in the House, has a track record of asking tough questions and taking bold stands regarding policing issues. But progressives are not alone is suggesting that the time has come to “revisit the merits of a militarized America.”
“There is a legitimate role for the police to keep the peace, but there should be a difference between a police response and a military response,” stresses Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, a leading contender for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. “The images and scenes we continue to see in Ferguson resemble war more than traditional police action.”
Paul complains that “Washington has incentivized the militarization of local police precincts by using federal dollars to help municipal governments build what are essentially small armies—where police departments compete to acquire military gear that goes far beyond what most of Americans think of as law enforcement.”
He’s right about that. And he is right when he says in a Time magazine essay:
When you couple this militarization of law enforcement with an erosion of civil liberties and due process that allows the police to become judge and jury—national security letters, no-knock searches, broad general warrants, pre-conviction forfeiture—we begin to have a very serious problem on our hands.
Given these developments, it is almost impossible for many Americans not to feel like their government is targeting them. Given the racial disparities in our criminal justice system, it is impossible for African-Americans not to feel like their government is particularly targeting them.
The rough outlines of a left-right coalition to demilitarize local policing have begun to take shape. This is a vital development that extends from the frustration of Americans over what they have seen play out not just in Ferguson but in cities, villages and towns nationwide. But to begin to get to a “No More Fergusons” moment, that development must be coupled with a parallel initiative to refocus policing on the dual responsibility of defending public safety and defending the rights of citizens.
Just as the recognition of the need to debate and address militarization of local police forces has deep roots—in the work of the ACLU and writers such as Radley Balko, the author of Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces (Public Affairs)—it should be understood that the debate about smarter policing is not new.
Some of the strategies employed to ease tensions in Ferguson by Missouri State Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson—who was put in charge of policing Ferguson by Missouri Governor Jay Nixon— mirror those adopted by visionary law-enforcement leaders, departments and officers in recent years. To be sure, the captain’s task has been made more difficult by the level of mistrust that was created before he took charge—and that continued to be stirred by the controversial actions of the local police chief,
It will take time to restore not just calm but the relationships that are necessary to begin the “healing” that Johnson says is necessary—and possible.
But alternative models for policing can, and do, work.
During the mass protests at the Wisconsin Capitol in 2011, the top local law enforcement officer on the scene was Dane County Sheriff Dave Mahoney. Protests went on around the clock for weeks with no serious violence or arrests. The situation was tense at times. But police officers and protesters generally got along. As Mahoney explained, “Law enforcement agencies have responsibilities: They have to keep the peace. And they have to assure that citizens are able to exercise their First Amendment rights. There’s something very troubling about the notion that law enforcement agencies should play a role in preventing people from exercising their constitutional rights. That’s not how it is supposed to work.”
The American people are ready for a demilitarization of policing, as the positive response to Captain Johnson’s initial approach in Ferguson suggests. They are ready, as well, for policing that strikes a right balance of guaranteeing public safety while preserving civil liberties.
Sheriff Mahoney struck that right balance with considerable success in 2011. And the people have rewarded him for doing so. On August 12, Mahoney’s name was on the ballot, along with that of a retired deputy who mounted an active challenge in the sheriff Wisconsin’s second-largest county. Mahoney won, with 89 percent of the vote.