The dust appears to have settled in Ferguson, MO, at least for the time being. And Chief Jon Belmar, head of the Saint Louis County Police, is taking advantage of the lull to rehab his department's bruised public image for their handling of protests of the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed teen, by a Ferguson police officer.
Chief Belmar's county police force was called into Ferguson when the small Ferguson PD was overwhelmed by protestors in the streets. The St Louis County PD has been criticized for using excessive, militarized force that, in some observers' opinions, actually made the situation in Ferguson a lot worse. Ultimately, St Louis County police were relieved of that duty by Missouri Highway Patrol officers headed by Capt. Ron Johnson, a Ferguson native himself.
Yesterday, Chief Belmar held a final press conference at St Louis County Police headquarters where he and other law enforcement department heads tried to explain the events of the last few weeks.
Chief Belmar says that he has "no regrets" about aggressive tactics used in Ferguson because his officers could have been a lot more brutal, as he explains:
Our choices were to rip, wade into the crowd with nightsticks and riot sticks. Like I said before, in my 28 years I’ve seen the damage they can do -- they’re not temporary damage, sometimes those injuries are long-lasting. I felt like after 20 years of law enforcement experience -- I’ve been tear-gassed perhaps two dozen times. It’s a chemical agent, it’s not pleasant, but at the end of the day there aren’t any long-lasting effects. So we’ve talked a lot about optics, the optics of nightsticks, dogs and other things like that.I have to question whether or not tear gas or beatings with a baton are truly the only two crowd control tactics at Chief Belmar's disposal. Something tells me that if things get boisterous in the parking lot of Busch Stadium, after a Cardinal's game, police don't roll-up in MRAPs with semi-automatic rifles or tear gas to move the crowd along.
More below the fold . . .
As one eyewitness reported:
. . . guns were trained on non-violent protesters even during daytime hours. On Aug. 13, for example, heavily armed officers showed up to a peaceful protest while the sun was still up and trained guns on a crowd that less than an hour earlier had been dancing to Pharrell’s hit song “Happy.”But Belmar says that he needs military equipment to protect citizens of the St Louis suburbs that his department patrols from "violent crime and terrorism" "because we patrol very urban areas." And we all know what that means . . .
OK. Violent crime in America just happens to be at a record 45 year low; and terrorism? who knows, but I wouldn't expect St Louis County to be on the top of any terrorist's target list.
Chief Belmar says that the need for military equipment in community policing is expressed not just by himself but by "police chiefs around the country." A not-surprising need given the fact that the DoD and DHS are giving out free military hardware - and more of it, year over year -- to just about all takers in US police departments.
I contend that asking "police chiefs around the country" if they need free military equipment to fight violent crime and terrorism in their jurisdictions is pretty much like asking a room full of pre-schoolers if it's really necessary to keep on celebrating Christmas.
While the gear is "free" to police departments it falls to them to pick up continuing maintenance and insurance which is billed to taxpayers who are rarely, if ever, asked if they would like to take on that burden.
Tupelo, Mississippi figured they could use a free helicopter but wound up paying a quarter million dollars in maintenance over five years and only used it about 10 times/year. Sometimes "free" isn't so cost effective.
Cobb County, Georgia, one of the wealthiest counties in the US, saw fit to add an amphibious tank to their arsenal.
Likewise, the sheriff of Richland County, SC has what he refers to as “The Peacemaker,” an armored personnel carrier complete with machine gun.
BearCats have become especially popular with American PDs. They weigh in at16,000 pounds, are bulletproof and outfitted with gun ports, battering rams, tear gas dispensers and radiation detectors. In case there's a disturbance at the local mall. Or a neighboring municipality needs invading.
So. Once police departments are outfitted with this stuff and maintaining it, it's only natural that they are going to want to use it which requires either specialized training and/or specialized personnel. And, since most American towns and cities are not war zones, this gear is increasingly put to work in the field for inappropriate purposes.
As Tim Lynch of the CATO Institute put it:
. . . one or two years pass. They say, look we’ve got this equipment, this training and we haven’t been using it. That’s where it starts to creep into routine policing.Since the 1960s SWAT teams have proliferated all over the country and many PDs now list dedicated SpecOps and Tactical Ops forces as part of their daily operational force. Chief Belmar's St Louis County PD, for example, lists a tactical ops team on their website:
The Tactical Operations Unit is the region's only fully dedicated Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) team and maintains a high degree of readiness to serve the Department in a variety of situations. Eighteen police officers, two sergeants and a captain maintain 24-hour readiness to meet the tactical or special needs of our Department or any requesting agency. The Unit is capable of dealing with hostage situations, armed and barricaded subjects, suicidal persons and executes all search warrants issued in St. Louis County.That last bit about "executes all search warrants" is pretty important. One of the biggest problems recognized, over the past 5 years or so, about militarized policing is the abuse of no-knock, battering ram entry type warrant execution. Many legal experts believe that no-knock silent warrants of any kind are unconstitutional.
Just a few of the problems associated with this practice, as outlined by Radley Balko of CATO Institute are:
These raids are often launched on tips from notoriously unreliable confidential informants. Rubber-stamp judges, dicey informants, and aggressive policing have thus given rise to the countless examples of “wrong door” raids we read about in the news. In fact, there’s a disturbingly long list of completely innocent people who’ve been killed in “wrong door” raids, including New York City worker Alberta Spruill, Boston minister Accelyne Williams, and a Mexican immigrant in Denver named Ismael Mena.Chief Belmar knows this and deliberately downplayed his department's actual stated practice when he said:
It’s bad enough when the police serve a no-knock warrant at the wrong place. But this is not regular service of a warrant. No-knock raids are typically carried out by masked, heavily armed SWAT teams using paramilitary tactics more appropriate for the battlefield than the living room. In fact, the rise in no-knock warrants over the last 25 years neatly corresponds with the rise in the number and frequency of use of SWAT teams. Eastern Kentucky University criminologist Peter Kraska, a widely cited expert on the “militarization” of domestic police departments, estimates that the number of SWAT team deployments has jumped from 3,000 a year in the early 1980s to more than 40,000 a year by the early 2000s.
In fact, in many places the announcement requirement is now treated more like an antiquated ritual than compliance with a suspect’s constitutional rights. In 1999, for example, the assistant police chief of El Monte, Calif., explained his department’s preferred procedure to the Los Angeles Times: “We do bang on the door and make an announcement—’It’s the police’—but it kind of runs together. If you’re sitting on the couch, it would be difficult to get to the door before they knock it down.”
. . . the [military] equipment is used in armed barricade situations and, occasionally, in executing search warrants.And yet the Tactical Operations Team under his supervision proudly advertise that they execute ALL search warrants issued in St Louis County.
History proves that these types of warrant service are not a good police practice: