Ferguson; the Militarization of Police; the Dark Side of Federalism

I am trying to make sense of the events in Ferguson, Missouri.

1. Why do these civilian police officers look like an invading military force? Their camo, their M4-like rifles and their mine-resistant armored personnel vehicles, their masks, sidearms, body armor, extra high-capacity magazines. It’s insane. (Several soldiers on Twitter noted that they had less gear on them while invading and occupying Iraq.)

As these photos from Ferguson come out, the militarization of civilian law enforcement has been getting a lot more needful attention this week.

This is a useful primer on the issue from the NYT just a few months ago. Like so many other absurdities and outrages introduced into our civic life, this phenomenon is a relic of the war on drugs, when in the early 1990s Congress created the military-transfer program because local authorities felt outgunned by drug gangs. The post 9/11 War on Terror ramped things up for good: A flood of surplus military equipment and generous DHS grants to localities who wanted to beef up their counter-terrorism capabilities a bunch of new macho toys have led to a drastic—and operationally unnecessary—militarization of our local police forces.

During the Obama administration, according to Pentagon data, police departments have received tens of thousands of machine guns; nearly 200,000 ammunition magazines; thousands of pieces of camouflage and night-vision equipment; and hundreds of silencers, armored cars and aircraft.

The equipment has been added to the armories of police departments that already look and act like military units. Police SWAT teams are now deployed tens of thousands of times each year, increasingly for routine jobs. […]

This militarization has had an insidious effect on how police officers view their mission and their relationship to the communities they are sworn to protect. It’s clear the officers in Ferguson are suffering from this distortion.

The ubiquity of SWAT teams has changed not only the way officers look, but also the way departments view themselves. Recruiting videos feature clips of officers storming into homes with smoke grenades and firing automatic weapons. In Springdale, Ark., a police recruiting video is dominated by SWAT clips, including officers throwing a flash grenade into a house and creeping through a field in camouflage.

In South Carolina, the Richland County Sheriff’s Department’s website features its SWAT team, dressed in black with guns drawn, flanking an armored vehicle that looks like a tank and has a mounted .50-caliber gun.

This is not healthy. I understand the recruitment aspect here, but these young men should join the army if they want to play soldier. Civilian law enforcement depends upon symbiotic trust with the populace they serve. Soldiering depends upon identifying and killing enemies.

And as we’ve seen the last few days, just because these officers have the look and gear of skilled warriors, their tradecraft is appalling. I’ve seen several photos of these guys aiming their loaded assault rifles directly at unarmed civilians. There was nobody rioting or looting last night. Who in the community were they trying to protect, and from whom? They’ve also arrested journalists, told people to stop recording and taking photos as is their constitutional right, and attempted to enforce a likely-unconstitutional evening curfew by using tear gas and rubber bullets in residential areas, even in the backyards of private homes. They’ve also withheld the names of the offending officers, including the one who murdered Michael Brown; by what right I do not know. Actual military professionals expert in crowd control have derided and lamented what they are seeing in Ferguson. Something is very wrong here.

There is a dangerous mix of ultra professional deadly equipment married to bumbling amateur-hour tactics. Who is this police chief? Why is he comfortable admitting that some of the officers under his supervision "probably don’t know better"? When will they all be looking for new jobs? Why was Missouri Governor Jay Nixon tweeting about education policy last night? Are there any adults in charge here?

1b. This is the crucial context for this militarization shift over the past few decades: Violent crime in the U.S. is at half-century lows, and has been falling all over the country.


It’s one of the best and most confounding public welfare developments of our time. Yet somehow police forces have convinced political leaders to keep giving them more more more.

2. We needn’t be obtuse when wondering why it might be that there is no sense of trust or solidarity between the population of Ferguson and its police force. St. Louis has a deep history of racial segregation and animus. Ferguson today is 67% black and its police force is 94% white. The police chief, the mayor, and all but one of the city councilors is white. Blacks are at the receiving end of 86% of all police stops and 92% of searches. Police have failed their communities in every way when the alienation runs this deep. 

3. You wouldn’t know it from our national political climate, but the federal government is not the source of most quotidian tyranny and suppression of citizens’ rights. Particularly for African Americans, "federalism" and "states rights" have meant more freedom for states and localities to coerce, repress, and discriminate with impunity. Local coercion can be as banal as onerous licensing requirements to sell your labor, or as horrific as an organized violent campaign of state terrorism such as that against black Americans in the 100 years between Reconstruction and the Civil Rights era. It occurs to me that in both the banal and horrific versions, the state is aligned with incumbent business elites. Lovely. 

I’m currently reading Francis Fukuyama’s The Origins of Political Order, and just the other night I happened to read a relevant passage, on whether there’s a relationship between the relative strength of a central government and the amount of freedom enjoyed by the populace. Looking at test cases through a millenium of state-level political development, Fukuyama concludes:

"Political freedom is not necessarliy achieved by a strong, cohesive, and well-armed civil society that is able to resist the power of the central government. Nor is it always achieved by a constitutional arrangement that puts strict legal limits on executive authority. […]

"The twentieth century has taught us to think about tyranny as something perpetrated by powerful centralized states, but it can also be the work of local oligarchs [as in contemporary China—jd]…. It is the responsibility of the central government to enforce its own laws against the oligarchy; freedom is lost not when the state is too strong but when it is too weak. In the United States, the ending of Jim Crow laws and racial segregation..was brought about only when the federal government used its power to enforce the Constitution against the states in the South. […]

The degree to which [states within a federal structure] can maintain their independence from the central government depends on how they treat their own citizens. A powerful central government is neither intrinsically good nor bad; its ultimate effect on freedom depends on the complex interplay between it and the subordinate political authorities.

Remember that as you wonder if all those Gadsden flag patriots who came out to protest the tyranny of the Affordable Care Act in 2009 will now support the residents of Ferguson who are under seige from their local law enforcement. Somehow I doubt it.

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