The above image is a still image of the beating of Rodney King. The ramifications of this event are still regularly referenced and felt throughout policing. For the purposes of this discussion, I want to bring up the issue of Rodney King as evidence that police can overreact, can use bad judgment, and can be capable of great harm. Obviously, I don’t feel that this is a fair characterization of all officers, or even most in general, but it is important to fairly admit when mistakes are made. Objectivity demands it. Similarly, the issue of police militarization is a real and important topic. For those wondering, this topic will tie back in to what’s going on in Ferguson.
Police Militarization can be defined as the implementation of military gear and hardware for the purposes of civilian police work. As a concept it carries a pointedly negative connotation that implies misuse and overreaction. Of greatest concern to society is the proportionality of response to the severity of the incident.
There are no shortage of stories involving small, usually rural (though not necessarily), departments who have tactical units and very little reason to justify their existence. The lack of real justification has resulted in a concept known as mission creep. Mission creep, in this context, occurs when officers justify the existence of armed response teams by having them respond to other law enforce activities which usually means search warrants. Vague justification can be used that a search is either high risk or unknown risk but it is never low risk.
To some degree considering any facet of law enforcement to be low risk can be dangerous. When asked to describe a routine traffic stop, many officers will sarcastically respond that no traffic stop is routine. While this is true, most of us know that the majority of the stops we make will not end in a pursuit, an arrest, or even a report. Complacency is dangerous but so is overreaction.
For example, if I walk up to a car acting like I’m suspicious of the driver, using short curt phrases, keeping my hand on the butt of my gun, and acting generally nervous, the driver might actually be up to something and start to wonder if he should assault me in some way preemptively in order to get away. Contrast that with a scenario where I walk up to a vehicle, calmly, confidently, and pleasantly but also observantly, and then I deal with the same man and walk away. Now he doesn’t know whether I’m aware of the crime he’s committed or not, whereas in the previous example he assumed that I did know what he was up to.
In reference to the concept of police militarization, Joe Pothead might be dangerous but as someone that I’ve dealt with on numerous occasions, I know that he probably isn’t. I probably don’t need to roll a bearcat into his front yard and knock the door off its hinges for the couple ounces of weed he bought a week ago from a snitch. For the record, I think that would be a disproportionate response and an overreaction. If I had wanted to conduct this search warrant I could have done it calmly and safely without the use of a paramilitary team. I would have had assistance, of course, but it’s not a zero sum game. The choices are not only hit the house with a SWAT team or walk up to the house by yourself. Would there still be risk without an armed response team? Yes, but there’s always risk.
Many believe that Police Militarization is the result of the War on Drugs. These individuals are partially right and a “chicken and the egg” situation begins to emerge. The reality is that there are officers who simply want to use surplus hardware for any number of reasons and the War on Drugs is an easy target for explaining the use and possession of that hardware. After all, individuals engaged in black market activities naturally take precautions to try and protect themselves from detection by law enforcement. Sometimes these precautions are dangerous and a specially trained armored group of officers can be helpful in quickly and safely diffusing these types of environments when considered dangerous.
The problem is that not every drug house is overtly dangerous. Determining which drug house is and which is not a threat can be problematic but a thorough investigation can shed quite a bit of light on who is living in a residence and how they have traditionally been capable of acting. Unfortunately, in departments attached to areas that are not comparatively high crime, explaining the use of an armed response team, a tactical unit, or SWAT team can be exceptionally difficult. The result is mission creep.
Unfortunately, this discussion, as important as it is, has been hijacked by the national media and now the situation in Ferguson is being twisted in order to be used as an argument against any tactical units. The St. Louis County Police Department, St. Louis City Police Department, The Missouri State Highway Patrol, St. Charles City Police Department, and the St. Charles County Police Department are not small town police departments. Each area has real significant crime where the use of a tactical team can be legitimately justified without fear of significant mission creep. Each team has also undergone significant training, which is a constant complaint of small police department militarization examples.
While violent crime in general has gone down in the last twenty years, the city of St. Louis has been consistently ranked within not only the top ten but the top one or two most dangerous cities in the country. What’s more, this designation is skewed by the use of averages. Crime statistics make nice areas of St. Louis look worse, but they also make bad areas look better.
For example, if I have two neighborhoods. Neighborhood A has two robberies per hundred thousand residents and an adjacent Neighborhood B that has twenty robberies per hundred thousand, the average comes out to eleven robberies per hundred thousand for the entire area. Neighborhood A now looks like it is high crime and Neighborhood B looks like it’s not so bad. The reality is clearly different. This is the problem with North St. Louis County and North St. Louis City. Both areas are so significantly dangerous that even when averaged out with other much more safer parts of the metro area, the statistical region is still ranked in the top one or two most dangerous.
Additionally, the media has been trying to twist this story so much, in order to fit the narrative of police militarization, that they have been actively minimizing or outright lying about what has been going on in the riots. The events that I catalogued particularly in my first post “Dissonance” and my later post “Bloody Sunday” were so inaccurately reported in the news that if you watched the news and read my version, they aren’t even similar. As pretty good evidence of minimization is the fact that there have had numerous shootings and shots fired calls tonight 8/18/2014, but at the moment CNN.com has the headline, “Tear Gas and Stun Grenades.” I also have yet to see any reporting on the individual who died from a gunshot wound on Saturday. Where is their justice hashtag?
I will be the first to admit that St. Louis County didn’t do itself any favors by its show of force during daytime protests. The protesters during the day have largely been peaceful to their credit. However, in order to understand the response, one need only read my earlier entry “Dissonance.” After everything we went through Sunday Night, St. Louis County Command wanted a demonstration and show of force in hopes that it would intimidate the people the previous night from a repeat. Unfortunately, most of the bad guys were asleep at that point and the media got some pretty negative images to show all over the world. It probably wasn’t necessary to have a sniper on top of a bearcat during a daytime peaceful protest. Yes, he could use the optics to keep an eye on the crowd. He could also have used a scope not attached to a rifle or a set of binoculars. Better still, he could have used a camera, which could be later used to prosecute people who did act out during these daytime protests.
With that said, the negative politics of deploying the tactical team during the day aside, the notion that the nighttime response is unjustified and heavy handed because the day protests have been peaceful is utterly idiotic. Each time since August 9th that the sun has set, Ferguson in the area of W. Florissant has fallen completely apart. What’s more, the response has actually been reluctant and tempered when you consider the incredibly low number of arrests and in particular the tactics being used.
Officers are consistently ordered to push the line forward. When they’ve met heavy resistance or been pushed back they’ve utilized tear gas to force the crowd to disperse. For the record, I define heavy resistance as attempts to assault officers with rocks, bricks, guns, bottles, and Molotov cocktails. However, even after heavy resistance, officers have never been allowed to engage the crowd in order to make arrests. Such an act would definitely be violent but allowing violent individuals to continue committing violent acts without prosecution has proven not to work. As evidence, see August 9th through August 18th. Tear gas is being touted as this evil dystopian tool but the problem rioters are healthy enough to continue to come out night after night.
The media has been all over the hot zone whether permitted or not, but has not found an image like the one at the top of this article. They want an excessive force story but they’ll settle for a police misconduct / militarization story.
What’s more, the media gets a large part of the blame for the state of things. The Demilitarization push from the national news resulted in the appointment of Capt. Ron Johnson to handle the response. Until the media started really focusing on Ferguson around Wednesday/Thursday of the first week, Jay Nixon couldn’t be found to comment. As detailed in the Johnson Doctrine entry, this change in command was championed as the turning point in the conflict. It wasn’t even an hour into nighttime before stupid articles started popping up with headlines like, “Peace Settles in Over Ferguson.” Of course, as already discussed ad nauseum, Capt Johnson’s first night was not a peaceful one despite demilitarization. St. Louis County was told to stay away from the Ferguson city limits, his own Troopers were forced not to wear riot gear, and the looting and shooting continued. Friday night saw many of his troopers nearly killed following this same philosophy.
There is a need for the media to demonize St. Louis County Police in particular and downplay the danger all officers faced in the first days and continue to face today because if officer fear is justified, then a heavier response is warranted. If the media admits just how bad these riots have been, then they excuse a lot of the actions they have been touting repeatedly as disproportionate. Ironically, while the media has pushed for an argument that police militarization in this case is an overreaction, the reality of the riots have actually given further justification not only to the tactical teams in this area, but also to other areas and regions of the country fearful of facing a repeat of what we have faced here.
In the case of the Ferguson Riots, demilitarization was attempted and it didn’t work. What’s more, it’s now proven, thanks to the attempt, that police militarization didn’t antagonize the crowd. The crowd was already acting and their actions continued regardless of who was in charge or what they were wearing. With that said, I have already discussed that I do not believe that the rioting and looting has much if anything to do with concepts besides greed, racism, and opportunity. Militarization needs to be dealt with but this is the wrong issue to justify demilitarization.
The image at the top of this article shows an incident of police abuse. While the media has been swarming the Ferguson area and looking for a Rodney King moment, they have been unable to find one. Furthermore, the thousands of demonstrators uploading to social media have also been unable to find any image remotely comparable to the one above. To me, that is further evidence that the response has been not only justified but restrained. This supposedly out of control police operation has yet to kill or shoot anyone while the shooting victims of “peaceful” demonstrators continue to mount.