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'They look like guys playing army': an expert on policing in conflict zones talks Ferguson

That Ferguson cop definitely needs that assault rifle.
That Ferguson cop definitely needs that assault rifle.
Scott Olson/Getty Images
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

In Ferguson, Missouri, local law enforcement has been using tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse largely nonviolent protesters, who have taken to the streets every night since Saturday, August 9, to protest unfair treatment by police. At least four different police departments have been involved. Two of these departments are now pulling out, and the state's governor, Jay Nixon, has said the police will deescalate the level of force. They need to: according to one expert on how to police protests, this isn't just shockingly unjust, it's also utterly incompetent police work.

Jason Fritz, an Iraq war veteran who's now an analyst focusing on policing in conflict zones, was appalled by what he saw in Ferguson, where the shooting of an unarmed black teen, Michael Brown, has sparked days of protests. "They are taking steps that are going to do nothing but exacerbate the situation," Fritz told me over the phone. "It's not any kind of policing tactic, technique, or strategy that I'm aware of. It goes against against all of the police manuals that I've studied."

In our conversation, Fritz explained why no police force that's really concerned with protecting the population and preserving the rule of law would ever do what the police in the St. Louis suburb have done.

Zack Beauchamp: You wrote that the police conduct in Ferguson isn't just immoral and unconstitutional, it's also ineffective. What do you mean by that?

Jason Fritz: In the Ferguson police's perception, they're trying to disrupt a hostile crowd. I'm not saying the people of Ferguson are hostile, just that that's how the police see it. [And when you're responding to a hostile crowd], what the police use is a phalanx system: police with their batons and their shields, like at the [World Trade Organization] protests. They become a physical presence to either block off terrain or push the hostile crowd off of the terrain.

There's a couple levels on which what the Ferguson police are doing, compared to the phalanx, is ineffective. They're not near the protestors, and they're not pushing them off the ground they want to push them off of. They're not doing what they want to do. They're standing back, using this show of force — I guess that's the best way to describe it — and it doesn't work. Obviously, the protestors are still there.

Police target an unarmed protestor. Scott Olson/Getty Images

Trying to intimidate the crowds off the street, especially considering that it's a protest against police aggression — well, it's just stupid. It's going to exacerbate the problem.

ZB: Under what circumstances do police normally use things like sniper rifles loaded with rubber bullets and tear gas?

JF: Police will use rubber bullets and tear gas, but in conjunction with a phalanx. They aren't systems to be used on their own. These are supporting tactics they can use, specifically when removing people from a scene or preventing them from getting access to something.

And the sniper rifles: If there is a threat that requires a sniper, the idea that a sniper can place himself on top of a very large vehicle, in the middle of the street — that's not how snipers work. He's clearly exposing himself to fire.

A Ferguson sniper, doing his job.

A sniper in Ferguson, doing his job. Scott Olson/Getty Images

What these snipers are useful for is to get rid of sources of fire with precision shooting. Just by placing themselves there, there's nothing that man is accomplishing other than intimidating the people he's pointing a sniper rifle at.

ZB: From your description, it sounds like they're taking military equipment, and using it to do utterly incompetent police work.

JF: That is exactly correct.

ZB: Where else have you seen police forces behave like this? Everyone seems shocked that this is happening in the United States, but I imagine there's got to be other places in which police forces misuse military weapons against protesters.

JF: The places where you'll see this used are the kinds of countries where they can get away with it. Countries that are known as oppressive states and there's no media to report on the situation.

We saw this, for example, in Tiananmen Square. China has an almost insignificant line between the military and the police. So China and other states like it.

Ferguson PD shields

Police at a protest in Ferguson. Scott Olson/Getty Images

Police forces usually fall into one of two categories, though there some grey situations between the two. You either protect the rule of law and the population, or you're the type of police force that's there to protect the regime. What's happening in Ferguson is what regime protection forces do, not what rule of law police do.

ZB: What normally happens when police use these kind of tactics? How does the situation in Ferguson end?

JF: If the police keep doing what they're doing, I don't see any possibility of them quieting the unrest and forcing the people off the street. Which is not something police should want here in the United States anyway.

There are some cases of police and excessive force like this in Kosovo, and all that did was bring out larger crowds the next day and bring more attention to the situation, until the police position becomes untenable and they actually have to leave the field themselves (to put in military terms).

ZB: How does the media coverage play into this effect? It seems like that has a role in this "getting more attention effect," so is that why police arrested two journalists in a McDonald's last night?

JF: Yes. I don't remember seeing anything like this here in my lifetime in the United States.

Look, if there's no one there to record it, or to watch it, then it didn't happen. If the word doesn't get out about how awful things are, then it doesn't get out. The arrests last night were a blatant run at trying to quiet this thing up.

ZB: Does there even need to be a huge police presence here? Maybe there was when, say, the QuikTrip got burned on Sunday night. But right now, these are mostly nonviolent protests.

JF: That's a very good question. I don't have the answer.

Even with the scattered reports I've heard of the occasional Molotov cocktails, or seeing firearms in the crowd, these are things police are trained to handle. There are certainly phalanx things they can do get these extremely violent people out of the crowd. But if there's just a peaceful protest, I don't see the utility of what they're doing.

If they're thinking about storming something, I get that. But that doesn't seem to be what the protestors are trying to do.

ZB: If you were put in command of the police in Ferguson today, what would you tell them to do?

JF: I would send everyone home.

Have most people go home. Keep a few people around in case there are any actual threats from actions that require law enforcement. But the best thing to do right now is to get everyone off the street. That's the best way for this to resolve itself.

That, of course, should be followed by pretty extensive retraining.

ZB: How much of the police response is that they just have these weapons? Is there some kind of enabling effect: you have these weapons and then they want to use them?

JF: I'm going to guess there must be an element of that. They have the toys, and they just want to play with them, to put it bluntly. They look like guys playing army.

Ferguson cops in their army gear.

Cops in military gear in Ferguson. Scott Olson/Getty Images

Like the militia members in Eastern Ukraine, they like looking cool and looking like badasses.

ZB: Ferguson is hardly the only place in the United States with serious racial tension, nor is it the only one where the local police is seriously militarized. Have we created, by virtue of the kind of country that we are and the way that we equip our police, the conditions for this to happen again?

JF: Quite likely. There must be thousands of places like Ferguson around the country, and police with that kind of mentality. And the equipment's easier to get right now.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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