Our Opinion: Service and protection, not intimidation and suppression


As anyone familiar with police investigations can tell you, they often take a very long time and for a good reason. It's important that all the witnesses are interviewed and all the evidence is collected and reviewed before a report is turned over to an independent body for a final review. For that reason, we would urge all people to refrain from jumping to conclusions about who did what that led to the shooting death of an unarmed black man in Ferguson, Mo.

But one thing has become quite clear in the last week.

Many of the police departments around the country that were originally organized under the principle of serving and protecting have become paramilitary units whose primary job is intimidation and suppression.

Radley Balko, the author of "Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America's Police Forces," contends the militarization of the nation's police forces began in the early 1980s with the transfer from the Pentagon to police departments of surplus military equipment, to include tanks, armored personnel carriers, grenade launchers, helicopters, much of it to aid police departments in the national War on Drugs.

"And then, after September 11th, the Department of Homeland Security started sending out checks to buy new military-grade equipment from companies that have now sprung up to build that equipment," Balko told Democracy Now.

"This is a useful program that allows for the reuse of military equipment that otherwise would be disposed of, that can be used, again, by law enforcement agencies to serve their citizens," said Rear Admiral James Kirby.

But Balko doesn't see it that way.

"This is stuff that was designed for use in battle. It was designed for use to kill a foreign enemy, to annihilate a foreign enemy, and it's being used on American streets in American neighborhoods," he told Democracy Now. "The soldier's job is to annihilate a foreign enemy; it's to kill people and break things. A police officer's job is to keep the peace and to protect our constitutional rights."

Writing for the Washington Post, Balko noted an interview he conducted with Jerry Wilson, who was appointed police chief for Washington, D.C., in 1969. Wilson told Balko that an intimidating police presence doesn't prevent confrontation, it invites it.

"Instead of the usual brute force and reactionary policing that tended to pit cops against citizens -- both criminal and otherwise -- Wilson believed that cops were more effective when they were welcomed and respected in the neighborhoods they patrolled."

Balko also spoke with Norm Stamper, who was chief of police in Seattle during the World Trade Organization protests in 1999.

"We set a number of precedents, most of them bad," Stamper told Balko. "And police departments across the country learned all the wrong lessons from us. That's disheartening."

"In the years to come, the ‘Darth Vader' look would become the standard police presence at large protests," wrote Balko. "Cities and police officials would commit mass violations of civil and constitutional rights, and deal with the consequences later."

And then there's the case of Salt Lake City Police Chief Chris Burbank who took a decidedly different approach with Occupy protesters in his city.

"Burbank showed up at the camp and talked to the protesters, in some cases one on one," wrote Balko.

When it came time for eviction, Burbank and the members of his police department showed up in their everyday uniforms, not their riot gear, noted Balko. Though 19 of the 200 protesters chose arrest over leaving voluntarily, there was no violence, no rioting and little anger.

"Risk is part of the job," Burbank told Balko. "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. If one side overreacts, then it all falls apart."

It's taken about a week for that message to get through in Ferguson.

After seeing a multitude of pictures of anonymous, combat-uniformed police officers carrying high-powered weapons and lobbing tear gas and shooting rubber bullets at peaceful protesters, Gov. Jay Nixon kicked out the St. Louis County Police Department and put Missouri Highway Patrol Captain Ronald S. Johnson in charge.

What was the first thing this native of Ferguson did? He took off his hat and walked down the streets with protesters.

"I believe honest conversation and understanding will get us to where we need to be, and we can have a more compassionate and different approach today," said Johnson. "When I see a young lady cry because of fear of this uniform, that's a problem."

What's so bittersweet about Johnson's approach to the crisis, wrote Jesse Singal for New York Magazine, is that there's little reason this couldn't have happened from the start.

"Instead, the authorities, as is so often the case in an age in which seemingly every small-town cop has access to weapons better suited for all-out war, decided to set up a clear battle line against Them -- those dangerous, out-of-control protesters."

Michael Brown is still dead and the investigation, into both the shooting and the way the police reacted to protesters, still has a long way to go, noted Singal.

"But hopefully the image of Johnson marching peacefully next to demonstrators will endure, despite all the ugliness we've seen."

While we mourn the death of another American black man at the hands of police officers, we are also glad to see the nation is involved in a discussion about the militarization of society. Yes, we realize being a police officer is a dangerous job, and most police officers take their jobs of serving and protecting seriously, but they know when they pin the badge on every day they are possibly putting themselves into danger. There is a reason they do so, and it's not to punish people for expressing their First or Fourth Amendment Rights. It's because most of them truly believe there is right and wrong in the world, and they are firmly on the side of right. Furnishing them with military weapons and armoring them like storm troopers is a disservice to them and to the people they have chosen to serve and protect.


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