Armored vehicles on patrol, Kevlar-wearing, camo-dressed officials carting short-barreled rifles modeled after M-4 carbines, tear gas wafting through the air – sounds like something right off the streets of Iraq. But it’s not. It’s actually the scene that’s playing out in the suburban streets of Ferguson right now, with SWAT-type police taking to the residential St. Louis streets for what amounts to crowd-control duties.
Protests in the Ferguson neighborhood streets have been raging for days over a police officer’s fatal shooting of black teenager Michael Brown, 18, ostensibly after a physical altercation that left the law enforcer feeling as if his life were in danger. And while looting has no doubt become an issue – and residents have ratcheted their acts of violence, alleging trigger-happy police were blatantly racist with their shoot-first reaction, cuff-later response to Brown’s aggression – an underreported question arises: Why are police dressed like military soldiers?
One quick and curious note is that emerging Ferguson photographs show the responding officers outfitted in Army green camouflage uniforms – the type used by U.S. soldiers to blend with heavily forested battle zones. But on a city street? The camo green shows a sharp contrast with the dull grey of pavement and drab tan of nearby concrete block buildings. Perhaps they’re preparing to fade into the small patches of grass that dot the city street intersections?
Mocking aside, the deeper danger is this: The camouflage battle-dress uniforms are simply part and parcel of the intimidation factor that’s trending among local law enforcers. Police are with ever-increasing frequency dressing and behaving more like battlefield soldiers.
What ever happened to the old “serve and protect” model and mantra of civilian policing?
As Ferguson shows, that mindset is pretty much a thing of the past. Most Americans need only look to their own backyards to see how those tasked with fighting crime are snapping up military-grade gear, largely through the Pentagon’s 1033 program that lets local law enforcement buy equipment cast-offs from the actual battlegrounds of Afghanistan and Iraq. And the result?
Our police aren’t local cops on beats, eager to serve and protect the civilian sector from crimes. Now, they’re locked-and-loaded, prepped for action and ingrained with a shoot-first, ask-questions-later mentality that’s aimed first and foremost at keeping officers safe. In recent years, civilian police have purchased a total of 435 armored vehicles, nearly 45,000 pairs of night-vision goggles, almost 94,000 machine guns and 180,000 or so ammunition magazines – as well as top-of-the-line weapons scopes and silencers.
Welcome to crime-fighting, 2014 – and the many disasters that have resulted.
In 2008, a young mother named Tarika Wilson, 26, was killed by SWAT officers who broke down her Lima, Ohio, front door and began firing off shots, hoping to apprehend her drug-suspect boyfriend in the process. Wilson’s 14-month-old son, whom she was holding at the time, was also injured in the gunfire.
In 2011, SWAT officers seeking another drug suspect in Framingham, Massachusetts, forced their way into a home with a battering ram and flashbang grenade, mistakenly discharging a weapon in the process that killed a 68-year-old grandfather of 12 – an elderly gentleman who wasn’t even suspected of any drug crime.
In 2014, SWAT officers botched yet another search for drugs when they threw a flashbang grenade into a home outside Atlanta that mistakenly landed in a toddler’s crib – and blew half his face and chest off. The boy, dubbed “Baby Bou Bou,” spent weeks in a hospital in a medically induced coma – while Rambo officers issued a lame apology, after they learned their suspect wasn’t even in the house at the time of the raid.
And in July 2014, a mother and daughter from California announced they were suing the Orange County Sheriff’s Office for a violent SWAT storming that took place in 2010. Among their claims: SWAT riddled the then-17-year-old daughter’s legs with bullets and shot and killed their dog. The violence was needless. Once again, the suspect sought by SWAT didn’t even live in the home at the time of the raid.
This is just a drop in the bucket of the atrocities that have occurred at the hands of overzealous police with warrior mentalities – police who aren’t even seeking suspects accused of the types of crimes that reasonable minds would see as warranting such dramatic searches and seizures. Moreover, many of the suspects aren’t even where police intelligence places them. When does it end?
At what point do local county government officials – with the power of the purse strings – decide that enough innocents have died at the hands of those who are supposed to serve and protect, and vote to deny military-type equipment and weaponry to their local police departments?
More than lives are being lost from this alarming police militarization trend. Our Constitution, and its specific rights to be safe and secure in one’s home and possessions, and to be considered innocent until proven guilty – two ideals that a shoot-first policy doesn’t uphold – are being rapidly scratched from our legal process. The spotlight of SWAT-type tactics may now be on Ferguson. But it really belongs on the backyards and residential streets around our nation – on the thousands of communities that serve as home to these same type of police agencies that are currently commandeering St. Louis.