A white cop shoots and kills an unarmed black teenager in Ferguson, Mo., and police respond to the ensuing peaceful demonstration with a massive display of manpower in riot gear. They are supported by armored vehicles mounted with heavy weaponry, lots of rifles and automatic weapons, tear gas, rubber bullets, and verbal threats to shoot anyone who dares resist. They arrest anyone with a camera, including journalists.
Suddenly, Americans notice that many of their police departments resemble occupying armies more than agencies charged with protecting and preserving the peace in their communities.
Where have you been, America? This has been going on -- gaining momentum, in fact -- for several years. Indeed, the militarization of domestic police forces and the use of modern military equipment and tactics played a major role in quelling the Occupy movement demonstrations a couple of years ago.
The Occupiers were unarmed private citizens, who gathered across the country, protesting the power and privilege large corporations and banks were given by Congress to use and abuse the economy to their benefit at the expense of individuals. The citizen protesters were treated by police as if they were terrorists. They were tear-gassed, Maced, had rubber bullets and flash-bang grenades fired at them. They were roughed up and arrested, all by local police armed with military grade weapons and supported by armored vehicles.
The military hardware came free, courtesy of a Congress looking to do something with surplus military equipment. (The idea of maybe spending less money on military equipment in the first place apparently has not occurred to the members.) Today, dozens of police departments across the country have such military gear at their disposal. What they apparently don't have is the proper training to use such equipment appropriately and judiciously.
That is, like a police force dealing with private citizens exercising their constitutional rights to assemble, to speak, to report on the goings on, rather than like an army moving in with intimidating force, intent on quashing resistance in any and all ways. Those weapons, remember, are not intended just to scare. They are designed to kill.
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But deadly force, or the threat of it, should not be the first option for a police force dealing with unarmed citizens and peaceful demonstrations. Yes, troublemakers need to be dealt with, but again, police should be trained to do that without automatically resorting to threats and aggressive actions against everyone. When protests are handled properly by police at the outset, there is less likelihood or opportunity for troublemakers to join in. The longer confrontations last and the more aggressive police action becomes, the more likely it is that things will get worse because of outside agitation.
But it's almost as if, in putting on the new military gear and marching alongside armored vehicles, the mindset of the police changes from preserving the peace and protecting their fellow citizens to overpowering anyone who stands in their way.
In Ferguson, the obvious racism of the local police only increased the us-versus-them mentality. But even during the Occupy sit-ins, police seemed to forget that they were -- are -- us, and that the protesters were speaking on their behalf, too. The mission has been clouded.
There's talk in Congress now of, not only stopping the giveaway of military hardware to police, but taking some of it back. Good luck with that. Some agencies might be able to admit they don't really need it, but a lot of others are not going to want to give it up. And cops vote.
The Ferguson shooting and the abysmal handling of it by local authorities has led to a movement called "Hands Up, Don't Shoot!" The Occupy community has been part of the coordination. This movement has been fueled by incidents elsewhere similar to that in Ferguson. It speaks to the breakdown of trust between blacks and police, something that was already badly strained.
And not all the incidents involved weapons. An unarmed black man died on Staten Island recently, apparently the result of a chokehold applied by a police officer. The hold has been banned for years by New York police. The man was selling loose cigarettes. Michael Brown, the youth shot in Ferguson, had shoplifted a box of cigars.
There's obviously something more going on here. Taking the military hardware away from police may be a good start on reminding them of their mission, but massive retraining and serious recruiting of minorities would seem to be even more critical.
A caveat: Not all police departments behave the same way. It would behoove community groups, politicians, concerned citizens to identify those agencies that understand their role as police, not an occupying army, and that demonstrate the proper way to fulfill it. Use them as models to teach those that don't. They can start in Ferguson.
Bob Gaydos is a veteran of 40-plus years in daily newspapers. He began as police reporter with The (Binghamton, N.Y.) Sun-Bulletin, eventually covering government and politics as well as serving as city editor, features editor, sports editor and (more...)