Ferguson, MO and the Militarization of Law Enforcement

I’ve written about the militarization of law enforcement before (see here, here, here, here, here, here, or here), but with the unfolding tragedy in Ferguson, Missouri, it looks like a lot of other people are focusing on this issue as well.

Police in Ferguson

(Photo by Scott Olson of Getty Images)

If you are unfamiliar with what is going on in Ferguson (a suburb of St. Louis), Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, was killed by a police officer on Saturday, August 9. Eyewitnesses report that Brown had his hands up when he was shot. Since that time, residents of Ferguson have taken to the streets to protest. Some violence has broken out, including some looting. The situation does not appear to be cooling down any time soon. In fact, the tension appears to be increasing.

So why should you be paying attention to this? Although I fear this will come off as hyperbolic, I think this has the potential to become one of those stark, Katrina-like moments, where Americans stop and think, “I thought our country was better than this.”

Let me explain. First, check out the coverage by The New Yorker or Wesley Lowery’s twitter account (remember that name when I mention how the Ferguson police are treating journalists below).

Then check out the coverage by Deadspin of all places to get a sense of the racial tensions between a black town and a white police force, and the larger criminal justice system. It’s great commentary, but there was a line in there that will get you thinking, particularly as you consider the photo I posted above:

There are reasons why white gun’s rights activists can walk into a Chipotle restaurant with assault rifles and be seen as gauche nuisances while unarmed black men are killed for reaching for their wallets or cell phones, or carrying children’s toys.

Now it’s easy to just write this off as racism and ignore it. But don’t. This situation combines a number of powerful issues–not just police power, criminal justice, the use of lethal force, and race; but also freedom of the press, checks on power, and more.

For example, police have reportedly arrested reporters and fired tear gas at a Missouri state senator.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. The militarization of law enforcement is a big problem. When cops act like soldiers, the communities they police become the enemy. And when reporters are not allowed to cover the situation, when cops do not provide identification, and say they are doing this as a favor to journalists, well, a powerful check on police activity is removed. And no good will come of that.

The ACLU recently released a report detailing the problems with the excessive militarization of law enforcement. But look, this is not a partisan issue. People on all sides of the political spectrum have problems with this. Veterans are criticizing the cops, posting pics of themselves marching into Iraq and other war zones with less equipment than Ferguson Cops. Hell, even John Stossel of Fox News is calling attention to it.

Bottom line: pay attention to this story. It is already a tragedy, but it risks growing into something even more terrible. The only way to prevent this from repeating is to shine a light on this behavior.

Don’t ignore Ferguson. Don’t claim it doesn’t affect you. If it can happen in the heartland, it can happen just about anywhere.