Americans have been transfixed for a week now by the protests in Ferguson, Mo., sparked when an unarmed black man, Michael Brown, was shot and killed by a police officer.
Police, outfitted with camouflage, tear gas, crowd-dispersing noise-makers, and armored vehicles, have cracked down on rioters and looters, but also on journalists and crowds of apparently peaceful protesters, angering observers around the world.
Have America’s police forces become over-militarized? How can justice be achieved in Ferguson? Joel Mathis and Ben Boychuk, the Red-Blue America columnists, debate the issue.
For all our national polarization, here is one good thing to come out of the events in Ferguson: Liberals and the libertarian right can use this moment to make common cause against the excesses of policing in our country.
Conservatives have spent the past half-century automatically siding with police – sensing, correctly, that most Americans were more concerned with cracking down on crime than in nuances of civil liberties. But those days have receded, thanks both to a declining crime rate – probably demographically driven – and the decision by Clinton-era Democrats never to be out-toughed on crime issues. These days, conservatives are often likely to see cops as just another set of tyranny-minded big-government bureaucrats.
Liberals aren’t driven by big-government concerns, but that doesn’t actually matter. If liberals and like-minded conservatives come to their conclusions differently, we can still agree on a few things:
Small-town police departments don’t have much need for paramilitary SWAT teams.
They have even less need for mine-resistant vehicles of the style that were used to patrol the streets of Baghdad.
And maybe, since the use of tear gas is actually a war crime when used by one army against another, police shouldn’t so easily use such chemical weapons against civilian populations.
“When you couple this militarization of law enforcement with an erosion of civil liberties and due process that allows the police to become judge and jury – national security letters, no-knock searches, broad general warrants, pre-conviction forfeiture – we begin to have a very serious problem on our hands,” Sen. Rand Paul, a Republican contender for president, said last week.
He’s right. So let’s use this moment to pull back: To stop outfitting American police forces with military gear, to rein in law enforcement with a new respect for the rights of individuals, and to ensure that citizens of Ferguson – and all Americans – can walk the streets safe in the knowledge that police really are there to serve and protect all of us.
Yes, far too many police departments have gone overboard with the military equipment. On that point, liberals and conservatives should be in broad agreement.
The Ferguson police last week looked like soldiers not cops – occupiers, not protectors. Using armored vehicles for crowd control, as the police did in Ferguson before the Highway Patrol took over, only reinforces an “us versus them” mentality – with “us” being the police and “them” being everyone else.
Novelist and critic Stephen Hunter made a prescient observation in 2001. “Put young men in black jumpsuits and Kevlar body armor and festoon them with every cool gun known to man,” he wrote, “and pretty soon they’ll see themselves not as police officers but as gunfighters and they’ll want to pull the trigger.”
But as worthwhile it may be to discuss demilitarizing America’s police forces, it’s also worth noting that Darren Wilson, the officer who shot and killed Michael Brown, wasn’t decked out in camouflage when he confronted the young man and his friend. He was driving a patrol car, not an armored personnel carrier. He shot Brown with his service weapon, a standard-issue 9mm handgun, nothing special.
In short, militarization is a symptom of a problem, but not necessarily what ails Ferguson or other cities.
If it’s true that some police are overzealous or abusive – still a wide-open question in the Brown shooting – then greater accountability is crucial.
It’s a shame Wilson wasn’t wearing a video camera. Cameras are controversial – police unions hate them, calling them an “encumbrance.” But they may be effective in reining in excessive force and abuse.
The Wall Street Journal recently highlighted the Rialto Police Department in Southern California, where every officer is required to wear a body-mounted camera. One year after police introduced the cameras, use of force by officers dropped by 60 percent and citizen complaints fell an astounding 88 percent.
The kicker? According to the Journal: “police in Ferguson have a stock of body-worn cameras, but have yet to deploy them to officers.” Cameras may not solve every problem, but the extra accountability could help prevent the next conflagration.
Ben Boychuk ([email protected]) is associate editor of the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal. Joel Mathis ([email protected]) is associate editor for Philadelphia Magazine. Visit them on Facebook: www.facebook.com/benandjoel.