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Ferguson and the militarization of the U.S. police force

b2ap3_thumbnail_police-state-ferguson-swat--400x299.jpgAfter teenager Michael Brown died on August 9th Ferguson, a small suburban town in the county of St. Louis, saw the mourning quickly turn into an eruption of anger. Only two weeks later the city calmed down again. What caused this eruption of violence from protesters and police force?


Some facts first. Michael Brown and a friend were summoned by the police for jaywalking. Despite that he was unarmed he ended up being shot 6 times, out of which 2 times in the head. Police did provide only very limited information but claimed self-defense. They also refused to name the shooter but came back on this after a few days of protests. Only 11 days after the incident the county prosecutor presented evidence to the jury. It will take months to decide whether Wilson will be charged or not.

Right from the start protesters were confronted by a military style police. Already the first night brought an escalation and saw usage of rubber bullets and tear gas. It took two weeks before there were no longer confrontations between protesters and police.


What made that situation so toxic and led to that quick and long escalation? There are some obvious answers: local tensions, the specific circumstances, people abusing protests for their own agenda etc. Some other potential answers – as the role of race and racial discrimination – are investigated now by the federal authorities.

It is good that there is now an investigation in the culture of the local police force and how racial issues have contributed to the escalation. But limiting it to this aspect falls too short. The investigation should have a broader look into the culture and attitude of the U.S. police force.


One thing worth looking at is the influence of the militarization of the U.S. police force. What is the influence of this on the culture of the local police corps? As several researchers found how you dress does influence your behavior. Dressing for battle can easily turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy: you’ve dressed for battled, so battle it will be (see e.g. Radley Balko: Rise of the Warrior Cop: The militarization of America’s Police Forces). Over the last year the warrior cop replaced the neighborhood cop. The militarization of the police went hand-in-hand with an extreme focus on dramatic events as drug gang wars and shootings at schools. A gang war shooting is usually not fixed by mediation – but a lot of other events are. Due to the focus on handling extreme events the attitude in the corps changed. But entering the scene straight away armed up to the teeth usually does not work if de-escalation is the goal.

In Ferguson the police responded to the protests using military-grade riot gear and armored trucks right from the start – before there had been even any signs of violence. Aggressive police dogs were used from day one for crowd control and also a LRAD sound cannon to disperse the crowd. That created right from the start a setting of them against us. The tone was set.


b2ap3_thumbnail_KAL-Cartoon-Police.jpgThis quote from Chris Burbank, police chief in Salt Lake City, taken from an interview by Radley Balko, summarizes the issue at hand: “Some say not using it [military grade gear] exposes my officers to a little bit more risk. That could be, but risk is part of the job. I’m just convinced that when we don riot gear, it says ‘throw rocks and bottles at us.’ It invites confrontation. Two-way communication and cooperation are what’s important.” There is always time to escalate – but de-escalate after an escalation is hard.


Another aspect is communication and information of the public. After the shooting of Michael Brown nearly no information was provided on what happened. That didn’t help to create trust and it left room for speculation. Over time bits and pieces leaked, some contra dictionary – that only made it worse. Back paddling on naming the shooter didn’t help neither.

How being proactive with informing the public can help de-escalation could also be seen in Ferguson – when on day 10 of the protests another person died by policy shooting. This time the police came within a few hours with all facts. Even in the overheated situation in Ferguson this death did not provoke any new escalations.


Last but not least there is lack of accountability that contributed to the escalation. If there is a feeling that the police force is not held accountable for its actions, there is no trust in the police. Being accountable has to involve that every death by police bullets has to be investigated and that the police has to be open about the process and the results.

During the first period the Ferguson police force refused to name the shooter. The name was released only on day 6 of the protests and only on day 11 there were signs that there might be an investigation. But it will take weeks before it is clear if the shooter will be charged or not.

Right from the first day the police also targeted journalists and tried to limit coverage of the events by news. They e.g. banned low-flying aircraft (and with that effectively news helicopters), took journalists briefly into custody, voiced open threats to journalists and even shot tear gas into a group of foreign journalists. All those measures have not created the idea that the police acts transparent and is accountable. Therefore those measures were not building but destroying trust into the police.


It’s time for a deeper discussion. This event gets now treated again as a single event whereas a broader look is needed to find structural solutions. Yes, the issue of race has to be investigated. But looking at the bigger picture it is clear that there is more at hand. The common theme is escalation. Yes, probably local factors have contributed – but this is not a local problem as this is an event in a chain of similar escalations – and not all of those events have been interracial.

Militarizing the police changed also the mindset of the police force. It got more aggressive and acts more like an army. But the police needs trust to be able to function. Trust is not build by weapons, trust is built by being open and transparent, being accountable and by engaging with the public in a sensitive and respectful manner. The local force needs a relationship with the community they protect – and that means also that its structure has to be representative for the area.

Excessive use of force is not only against the constitution – it’s also not effective. A simple number shows the difference between police culture based on trust and a police culture based on armory: Where there is 1 death by police per 1 million inhabitants for the U.S. per year it is 1 per 14 million in Germany and only 1 per 27 million in the U.K.

De-escalation works and saves lives – time for a change in the culture of the U.S. police force!


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