Thursday, August 14, 2014

Occupying Ferguson

You can see this one coming from a mile away.  The Justice Department has promptly jumped launched an investigation into the police riot in Ferguson, Missouri (first photo below from Reuters/Mario Anzuoni, the following two from AP/Jeff Roberson). Police Chief Thomas

Jackson held a press conference on Wednesday, curiously at the same time as a peace march nearby. He said the Justice Department and local NAACP are coordinating a meeting between Ferguson police authorities and the Brown family.

“Race relations is a top priority right now,” Jackson said. He later said he was open to guidance on how to improve tensions within the Ferguson community: “Tell me what to do and I’ll do it”...

Brown’s shooting at the hands of a yet-to-be named officer, identified as a white man by a witness to the shooting who spoke with msnbc, unearthed decades-old tensions between the Ferguson community and the police department, which is 93% white.

Black residents say officers routinely harass them and that and old-boys network has kept the department from hiring more officers of color.

Jackson said that he has worked to improve the diversity of the department and that he has raised the base level of pay for officers, worked to improve equipment and create a welcoming culture to entice black applicants.

He said when he first took the job here after 31 years with the county police, about 10% of department staff were minorities or women. That number has slipped in recent years.

“Whatever we’re doing is not enough. We’re trying but obviously it’s not good enough,” Jackson said on Tuesday night, following a town hall style meeting at a local church, where he joined Gov. Jay Nixon, Ferguson mayor James Knowles and various community leaders in pleading for peace.

That's a good start which, likely will lead to improved race relations, hence community relations, in Ferguson, although it appears most of the mischief has emanated from St. Louis County police rather than from local law enforcement.But it isn't enough, and isn't the primary problem, as ex-San Jose police chief Joseph McNamara understood as early as November, 2006, when he wrote (in an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal no longer available without a subscription but excerpted here by Digby)

Simply put, the police culture in our country has changed. An emphasis on "officer safety" and paramilitary training pervades today's policing, in contrast to the older culture, which held that cops didn't shoot until they were about to be shot or stabbed. Police in large cities formerly carried revolvers holding six .38-caliber rounds. Nowadays, police carry semi-automatic pistols with 16 high-caliber rounds, shotguns and military assault rifles, weapons once relegated to SWAT teams facing extraordinary circumstances. Concern about such firepower in densely populated areas hitting innocent citizens has given way to an attitude that the police are fighting a war against drugs and crime and must be heavily armed.

Yes, police work is dangerous, and the police see a lot of violence. On the other hand, 51 officers were slain in the line of duty last year, out of some 700,000 to 800,000 American cops. That is far fewer than the police fatalities occurring when I patrolled New York's highest crime precincts, when the total number of cops in the country was half that of today. Each of these police deaths and numerous other police injuries is a tragedy and we owe support to those who protect us. On the other hand, this isn't Iraq. The need to give our officers what they require to protect themselves and us has to be balanced against the fact that the fundamental duty of the police is to protect human life and that law officers are only justified in taking a life as a last resort.

Updated in response to the death by firearm of 18-year-old Michael Brown and ensuing protests in Ferguson, Paul Szoldra explains

While serving as a U.S. Marine on patrol in Afghanistan, we wore desert camouflage to blend in with our surroundings, carried rifles to shoot back when under enemy attack, and drove around in armored vehicles to ward off roadside bombs.

We looked intimidating, but all of our vehicles and equipment had a clear purpose for combat against enemy forces. So why is this same gear being used on our city streets?...

Putting aside what started the protests for a moment, it's worth discussing the police response to the outrage. In photos taken Monday, we are shown a heavily armed SWAT team.

They have short-barreled 5.56-mm rifles based on the military M4 carbine, with scopes that can accurately hit a target out to 500 meters. On their side they carry pistols. On their front, over their body armor, they carry at least four to six extra magazines, loaded with 30 rounds each.

Their uniform would be mistaken for a soldier's if it weren't for their "Police" patches. They wear green tops, and pants fashioned after the U.S. Marine Corps MARPAT camouflage pattern. And they stand in front of a massive uparmored truck called a Bearcat, similar in look to a mine-resistant ambush protected vehicle, or as the troops who rode in them call it, the MRAP.

When did this become OK? When did "protect and serve" turn into "us versus them"?

"Why do these cops need MARPAT camo pants again," I asked on Twitter this morning. One of the most interesting responses came from a follower who says he served in the Army's 82nd Airborne Division: "We rolled lighter than that in an actual war zone."

Let's be clear: This is not a war zone — even if the FAA banned flights under 3,000 feet. This is a city outside of St. Louis where people on both sides are angry. Protesters have looted and torched a gas station, and shots were fired at police, according to The Washington Post.

The scene is tense, but the presence of what looks like a military force doesn't seem to be helping.

"Bring it. You fucking animals, bring it," one police officer was caught on video telling protesters. In Ferguson and beyond, it seems that some police officers have shed the blue uniform and have put on the uniform and gear of the military, bringing the attitude along with it.

In Afghanistan, we patrolled in big, armored trucks. We wore uniforms that conveyed the message, "We are a military force, and we are in control right now." Many Afghans saw us as occupiers.

And now we see some of our police officers in this same way. "The militarization of law enforcement is counter-productive to domestic policing and needs to stop," tweeted Andrew Exum, a former Army infantry officer.

If there's one thing I learned in Afghanistan, it's this: You can't win a person's heart and mind when you are pointing a rifle at his or her chest.

There will be righteous outrage in the political class over an overwhelmingly white police force applying excessive force against a black community and (as it appears now) an unnecessary killing of a young black man by one of those white officers. But notwithstanding criticism from Senators McCaskill (D-MO) and Paul (R-KY) and Attorney General Holder, it will be more difficult to alter significantly the Pentagon program  in which local law enforcement agencies have used the drug war as an excuse to be armed and outfitted to the teeth.  

The policy must be changed; for If they buy it, they eventually will use it, especially as the sunk cost fallacy sets in.  And that will happen across the country, and not only in black communities.

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