The militarization of America's myriad law enforcement agencies is well known. Gone are the days of police officers normatively seeing themselves as integrated parts of a community's social fabric. "Officer Friendly" has been replaced by what Radley Balko calls the "Warrior Cop" – soldiers armed with battlefield-tested weapons looking to suppress insurrections and engage in tactical missions in American neighborhoods.
Today, we're seeing this play out in Ferguson, Missouri, where officers from countless districts around Saint Louis have been "deployed" to patrol and secure a neighborhood distraught over the killing of unarmed teenager Michael Brown.
[Right: police confront unarmed man in Ferguson. Image by Ben Kesling.]
The images coming out of Ferguson are not just disturbing, as officers gripping military-grade weapons approach unarmed citizens, American citizens, as though they are an enemy force. These images are becoming normative, images of officers riding armored personnel carriers through city streets, firing rubber bullets and tear gas into crowds, pointing M-16s and flash grenade launchers at those protesting or demonstrating near their own homes, and even in their own backyards.
An unarmed man approached by police in Ferguson. Picture via Scott Olson/Getty.
in the Wall Street Journal
, describes how this rise in militarization since the 1960s has created police forces which threaten citizens just as much as they protect those they're charged to serve:
Law-enforcement agencies across the U.S., at every level of government, have been blurring the line between police officer and soldier. Driven by martial rhetoric and the availability of military-style equipment—from bayonets and M-16 rifles to armored personnel carriers—American police forces have often adopted a mind-set previously reserved for the battlefield. The war on drugs and, more recently, post-9/11 antiterrorism efforts have created a new figure on the U.S. scene: the warrior cop—armed to the teeth, ready to deal harshly with targeted wrongdoers, and a growing threat to familiar American liberties.
Many longtime and retired law-enforcement officers have told me of their worry that the trend toward militarization is too far gone. Those who think there is still a chance at reform tend to embrace the idea of community policing, an approach that depends more on civil society than on brute force.
In this very different view of policing, cops walk beats, interact with citizens and consider themselves part of the neighborhoods they patrol—and therefore have a stake in those communities. It's all about a baton-twirling "Officer Friendly" rather than a Taser-toting RoboCop.
Top image: police shoot tear gas in Ferguson, via Robert Cohen. Bottom image: a child covers face from tear gas in Ferguson, via Scott Olson/Getty.
This type of policing stance, with officers being recruited via paramilitary-style videos, armed with military-grade weapons and trained tactically as though soldiers, leads to a naturally oppositional stance toward communities in distress.
It leads to images like this:
Ferguson citizens stand opposite police. Image via Robert Cohen
And unless the funding and arming of police forces change, such images will continue to be repeated.
David Harris-Gershon is author of the memoir What Do You Buy the Children of the Terrorist Who Tried to Kill Your Wife?, recently published by Oneworld Publications.