Ferguson and the militarization of the police

Randall G. Shelden and William B. Brown*

Unless you’ve been in hibernation the past couple of weeks the name Ferguson, Missouri is very familiar.  An event all too common between the police and the black community resulted in what seems obvious as an unjustified shooting of an unarmed black teenager in this tiny suburb (pop. 21,203) of St. Louis. Although the town was never included among James Loewen’s book Sundown Towns, it should be now.  According to Loewen’s research there are over 400 small towns throughout the United States where there has been an informal norm that blacks should not venture out of their community at night.  And the police enforce this with regularity, especially if there is any kind of disturbance that threatens to spill over into the white neighborhoods.

Ferguson was once mostly white, but since 1990 the racial composition has shifted from three-fourths white to two-thirds black.  And the entire power structure is dominated by whites.  The police department typifies this: out of the 53 police officers, only three are black; six of the seven city council members are white and none of the school board members are black (even though the schools are 78% black).  Nothing unusual here.

According to the coroner’s report the victim, 18-year-old Michael Brown, was shot six times. Eyewitnesses have said that Brown and his friend Dorian Johnson were walking in the middle of the street in their neighborhood when a police car driven by Darren Wilson and his partner stopped them and told them to move to the sidewalk as they were “blocking traffic.” Is this any reason to pull someone over?  Don’t the police have anything better to do? It has been reported that Brown was a “robbery suspect” after an incident in a convenience store where he walked out with a box of cigars and pushed the cashier as he was leaving.  Sounds more like shoplifting to me.  But the officers who stopped Brown and his friend did not know about this at the time of the shooting.

As of this writing (August 19, 2014), so much has been said about this event that it is hard to provide a neat, concise summary. Instead of regurgitating all the facts of the case (for a collection of news reports see my web site here), I’d like to focus on one aspect of this case, namely what has been called the “militarization of the police.”

Since the 1980s, nearly all law enforcement agencies in the United States have embraced and adopted, to varying degrees, characteristics that are common to the military. These characteristics include, but are by no means limited to, clothing/uniforms, divisions of labor based on job classifications and personnel location within a hierarchy of command, the authorization and use of high-tech equipment, operations/strategies, and the distribution and differentiation of policing areas/jurisdictions. American law enforcement deploys the same assault weaponry found in the U.S. military arsenal (AR-15 assault rifles, helicopters, armored personnel carriers, etc.).

The beginning of the militarization of the police began with the riots of the 1960s and the creation of SWAT teams.  As noted by Radley Balko (The Rise of the Warrior Cop) in 1970 there was only one SWAT team in the entire country (Los Angeles), but by 1975 there were about 500.  In 1982, 59% of US cities over 50,000 population had a SWAT team; by 1995 that percentage had risen to 89. 

Most alarming is the fact that many small towns and cities have SWAT teams: among cities between 25,000 and 50,000, 65% had a SWAT team by 1995.  By the first decade of the 21st century there were SWAT teams in places like Middleburg, PA (pop. 2,701) and Butler, MO (pop. 4,201).  Balko reports that there were about 3,000 paramilitary police raids in the country in 1980; the number in 1995 was 30,000; there were about 45,000 in 2001. With the coming of the “war on drugs” the use of military-style force rose dramatically.  According to Balko, by 1995 three-fourths of the deployment of SWAT teams was to serve drug warrants; by 2001 the percentage was 94.

Paramilitary force has been used frequently to quell “public disturbances” starting with the rioting in the 1960s.  In fact, watching the scenes on television we were both reminded of the rioting in places like Watts and Detroit in the late 1960s.  In almost every case, the spark that lit an already lit fuse was a police confrontation with a black citizen.  In Ferguson, it’s “back to the future.”  This time, however, citizens who were understandably angry over what amounts to a homicide by a cop, were confronted by police who were armed better than the military in the Middle East.  One veteran, Kyle Rodgers who served two deployments to Iraq and now serves as the Veteran Coordinator at Western Oregon University, told us that the cops “have better gear than we had in Iraq.” He added that “I think it is quite clear that our police at home have lost sight of their true mission and have surpassed even the warfighters who partook in one of the most infamous battles of the modern combat era.”

The behavior of the police in Ferguson, were it conducted by soldiers or Marines in Iraq or Afghanistan, would be viewed as violations of the Rules of Engagement and result in Court Martials.  The officers ordering this action would be relieved of command and either sanctioned or removed from the military. A Washington Post story quoted one veteran (a former Army officer and an international policing operations analyst) who said “You see the police are standing online with bulletproof vests and rifles pointed at peoples chests. That’s not controlling the crowd, that’s intimidating them.” Another one said: “The first thing that went wrong was when the police showed up with K-9 units. The dogs played on racist imagery…it played the situation up and [the department] wasn’t cognizant of the imagery.”

Finally, it has been estimated that about 400 citizens are killed by the police each year – and this number is probably higher.  In contrast, the most recent data show that 48 law enforcement officers were killed in the line of duty (44 from firearms) while another 47 died in accidents.

* William B. Brown is a professor of criminal justice at Western Oregon University and is an expert on veterans in the criminal justice system.