The killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and the heavy-handed police tactics that have followed point to a growing problem in this country: the threat of a police state that endangers not only public safety, but democracy itself.
After the fatal shooting of the unarmed Brown by Ferguson officer Darren Wilson, local law enforcement descended upon the city like an occupying force, complete with military weapons, tear gas, rubber bullets and armored personnel carriers.
Police assaulted peaceful, nonviolent protesters, arrested Antonio French, a St. Louis alderman, and tear-gassed Missouri state Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal.
And police were hard on reporters, too, arresting several, confiscating the equipment from one of them, and even threatening to kill another.
The militarization of the police is not unique to Ferguson. Thanks to a federal program called 1033, the government authorized the distribution of $4.3 billion in surplus military materials to local law-enforcement agencies. The equipment includes items such as pistols, automatic rifles, flash-bang or stun grenades, silencers, armored drones and armored vehicles used in Iraq and Afghanistan known as MRAPs (Mine-Resistant Armored Protected).
Police departments that want an MRAP need only fill out a one-page form.
According to a report from the American Civil Liberties Union, “War Comes Home: The Excessive Militarization of American Policing,” federal programs provide police officers with wartime weapons and tactics, which they use disproportionately on communities of color, and with no public debate or oversight. Most of these assaults are drug raids on people’s homes.
“The militarization of American policing is evident in the training that police officers receive, which encourages them to adopt a ‘warrior’ mentality and think of the people they are supposed to serve as enemies, as well as in the equipment they use,” the report says.
Between 2010 and 2013, St. Louis County law-enforcement agencies received 12 5.56 mm rifles and six .45-caliber pistols from the Department of Defense. Most recently, Ferguson received two military vehicles, a trailer and a generator under the program.
And in recent years, the St. Louis County Police Department and the St. Louis Police Department — along with local, state and federal agencies — have received counterterrorism training by the Israeli National Police and Israeli Defense Force, which have years of experience occupying Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza and suppressing their rights.
Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., has introduced legislation — the Stop Militarizing Law Enforcement Act — that would prohibit the transfer of certain military-grade equipment from the Pentagon to your neighborhood cops.
Police are community servants, not mercenaries. And when they view the community as a wartime enemy, then we are truly approaching a police state. We must demilitarize the cops now.
David Love is a freelance writer and human rights activist based in Philadelphia.