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Why America's police forces look like invading armies

A police officer in Ferguson.
A police officer in Ferguson.
Scott Olson

Americans have been watching in shock as images come out of Ferguson, Missouri that look more like the streets of a conflict zone in Iraq or a crackdown in China than a quiet suburb of St. Louis. Protesters began to gather in the town of 21,000 after Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, was shot and killed by a police officer on the afternoon of Saturday, August 9. The gatherings on Saturday were reportedly quiet and non-violent, but the police immediately responded with overwhelming force, sending 100 officers to the vigil being held at the apartment complex where Brown was killed.

Since then, police have used heavily militaristic equipment and tactics, including armored vehicles, officers in full combat gear, tear gas, and rifles with rubber bullets. Images from Ferguson have prompted several observers to note that the response was as heavily armed as actual military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Protesters and journalists alike have found themselves in the line of fire, including an eight-year-old boy who was caught in a cloud of tear gas, and a reporter from First Look media, who was shot with rubber bullets and bean bags by police, and then arrested.

Although shocking, what is happening in Ferguson is merely a particularly severe example of a much broader and long-running phenomenon: the militarization of police weaponry and tactics in the US. In part thanks to federal programs that provide military equipment to local police (though not military training), and encourage its use as part of ordinary law enforcement, police are increasingly using SWAT-style tactics in routine policing. However, experts say, this phenomenon is extremely dangerous, and can make otherwise peaceful situations dangerous — as police appear to have done in Ferguson.

Federal programs have been funneling heavy military gear into American police forces since the early 1990s

If the gear in photos from Ferguson look like military equipment, that's probably because a lot of it is military equipment. Officers have been patrolling the streets in combat fatigues and full body armor, carrying rifles that an ex-Marine described in Business Insider as "short-barreled 5.56 mm rifles based on the military M4 carbine." They have also deployed MRAPs, tank-like armored trucks built by the military to withstand land mines and IEDs in Iraq, and have made heavy use of tear gas, including in residential areas.

That's happening thanks to the United States military. The Department of Defense Excess Property Program, usually known as the "1033 program," distributes surplus military equipment to state and local law enforcement agencies for use in counter-terrorism and counter-narcotic activities. Put another way, this means that the US military is giving its weapons to cities and states, with the express intention they be used on American citizens, in the course of local police work.

"It allows police departments to get pretty much any equipment that they want from the defense department," Kara Dansky, who studies the program for the American Civil Liberties Union, told me. "We've seen across the country police departments getting some pretty heavy weaponry that was built and designed for use in combat overseas, and using that equipment domestically."

The 1033 program's roots lie in the drug war — hence the counter-narcotics impetus. It was originally created in 1990, as part of the National Defense Authorization Act, which authorized the Pentagon to transfer military equipment to local law enforcement if it was "suitable for use in counter-drug activities." In the wake of the September 11 attacks, the program's focus has expanded to include counter-terrorism activities as well.

While the 1033 program's intent may have been to equip specialized units for extreme, dangerous situations, fighting al-Qaeda sleeper cells, or powerful drug cartels, the effect has been to incorporate SWAT-style raids into ordinary police operations. That includes, but is certainly not limited to, the serving of search warrants. This may partly be because the program requires that all equipment issued through the 1033 program be used within one year of the date it is granted. That means that if police departments want to keep their new gear, they can't wait for a rare emergency like an active shooter or hostage situation in order to use it.

It is likely that the 1033 program is the source of some of the equipment being used in the streets of Ferguson. In the past two years alone, according to a list obtained by Newsweek, the 1033 program has provided St. Louis County law enforcement agencies with vehicles, gun sights, night vision equipment, an explosive ordinance robot, and more.

Other federal programs add to the effect. The Edward R. Byrne Justice Assistance Grant program gives state and local governments funds to improve the functioning of their criminal justice systems and to enforce drug laws. Most of that money goes to law enforcement, including weapons purchases. "In 2012-2013," the ACLU reports, "state and local agencies used JAG funds to purchase hundreds of lethal and less-lethal weapons, tactical vests, and body armor."

Likewise, the Department of Homeland Security has programs like the State Homeland Security Program and the Urban Areas Security Initiative that provide money to police but requires they spend at least 25 percent on "terrorism prevention-related law enforcement activities."

Police get military equipment, but not training — making the gear even more dangerous

Ferguson cops in their army gear.

Ferguson cops in their military gear. Scott Olson/Getty Images

All this equipment is provided to police departments with little accompanying training or supervision. The ACLU's Kara Dansky, who authored their report on the rising militarization of law enforcement, said that she was "not aware of any training that the government provides in terms of use of the equipment," or of "any oversight in terms of safeguards regarding the use of the equipment by the Defense Department."

The program does have some safeguards, Dansky said, but they tend to focus on tracking the equipment itself, to prevent police departments from illegally selling it second-hand.

The lack of formal training, or often even full documentation, leaves police departments to improvise. That can be true in police departments of all sizes that receive military equipment, but smaller departments can be especially susceptible to poor or limited training.

When the ACLU asked officials in the town of Farmington, Missouri (less than a 90 minute drive from Ferguson) to provide a copy of training materials for its Special Response Team, which is roughly like a SWAT team, the town sent only a copy of a single article. The article warned that "preparations for attacks on American schools that will bring rivers of blood and staggering body counts are well underway in Islamic training camps," and went on to say that "because of our laws we can't depend on the military to help us ... By law, you the police officer are our Delta Force."

In contrast, SWAT programs in larger cities tend to train extensively, and constantly. The Los Angeles police department's SWAT teams go through months of intensive training before being brought on, and once there spend at least fifty percent of their on-duty time training, former LAPD Deputy Police Chief Stephen Downing told me.

It is effectively impossible, Downing suggested, for small police departments to appropriately train their officers in the use of SWAT-style equipment, because they simply do not have sufficient resources or personnel. Small departments simply do not have the resources to support that type of program, but they do have the guns and trucks and armor, which they use.

Training does a lot more than just tell people how to safely use the equipment. It teaches them when and how to responsibly bring that gear into tense situations, like the one in Ferguson, in a way that will de-escalate tensions rather than escalate them, and how a police officer should change his or her behavior when upgrading from a regular uniform and sidearm to camo fatigues and an assault rifle.

"When cops, just like other human beings, are frightened — and sometimes they are! — there's a tendency to act impulsively. Which is to say: to do exactly the opposite of what they need to be doing," former Seattle police chief Norman Stamper told me. That risk is heightened significantly when cops roll heavy equipment into suburban streets.

"That's a function of training," Stamper explained. "That's on individual cops to be sure, but it's also on the organization itself. You should ask, have you trained your officers? Have you helped them develop psychological resilience and the kind of emotional heartiness that is necessary to keep cool and calm even in the face of provocation?"

Militarizing police often makes tense situations more dangerous, not less

More police in Ferguson. Scott Olson/Getty Images

SWAT teams and other specialized police units are deployed at inappropriate times, in inappropriate ways, or with insufficient training, they can escalate conflict unnecessarily, putting both officers and civilians in greater danger. The overreach in Ferguson is just one example of a broader trend of SWAT teams and military equipment being used as part of ordinary police operations — often with tragic results.

Stamper, Seattle's chief of police during the 1999 WTO riots, explained that his decision to use heavy-handed tactics against protesters then was the "worst mistake of my career." This police response, Stamper now believes, was "the catalyst for heightened tension" and a significant reason the situation escalated out of control.

In Seattle, the police department went out dressed in full body armor and gas masks that made them look "like ninjas," and used tear gas against largely-peaceful protesters.  Stamper now believes that putting officers on the streets in military gear from the beginning was "an act of provocation," and that keeping officers in their normal uniforms would have been "a huge step in the right direction towards de-escalation."

"It's a lesson, unfortunately, that American law enforcement in general has not learned," said Stamper. Indeed, it is easy to see the parallels between recent police operations in Ferguson this past week and the tactics used in Seattle in 1999, with armored police showing up in overwhelming numbers in response to largely-peaceful protests.  "Had you set out to make matters worse," says Stamper, "you couldn't have done a better job."

The ACLU's report on police militarization documents numerous incidents in which innocent people were injured or killed by SWAT teams during the execution of warrants — an activity SWAT teams were never intended to be used for in the first place.

It's not hard to see how a bunch of heavily armed cops who have not been adequately trained might make mistakes. Eurie Stamp, a grandfather of 12, was shot and killed when SWAT officers raided his home in search of a suspect who had actually already been arrested. Ninteen-month-old Bou Bou Phonesavanh went into a medically-induced coma after a SWAT team threw a flashbang grenade into his crib. The grenade blew a hole in his face and chest, leaving a wound so deep his ribs were exposed, and covering his body in third degree burns. (The baby has since awoken from his coma, but the county is refusing to pay his medical bills.) Seven-year-old Aiyana Stanley-Jones was also hit by a flashbang grenade while sleeping, then shot by a SWAT team member who fired a single shot as he entered her home.

Experienced law-enforcement officers have long warned against deploying SWAT teams too aggressively and frequently. Downing, the former LAPD chief, co-authored a paper urging police department to learn that "[t]he SWAT teams, their vehicles, armor, and weapons systems have a specific purpose and should properly be restricted to only those high-risk incidents requiring extraordinary tactics and skills that exceed the capabilities and training of traditional first responders."

"The one thing I would say is to reserve SWAT," Stamper stressed. "Reserve that equipment and those tactics for active shooter cases, barricaded suspects, armed and dangerous barricaded suspects with hostages. Do not employ those tactics, that equipment on routine drug raids or warrants service, or any other situation where you don't have what I would consider to be inherently dangerous circumstances."

Ferguson's crisis may have been driven, in part, when law enforcement indulged this same habit of overusing heavily armed police units, putting them into situations where their presence would escalate the situation rather than de-escalate it. Largely peaceful protests in Ferguson were quickly met with dramatic shows of force: camo-wearing police carrying assault rifles and aiming high-powered rifles from sniper positions atop mine-resistant armored vehicles.

This doesn't just militarize a suburban area and introduce a dangerous potential for accidents, it means that police are escalating the situation when their role, Stamper says, should be finding ways to de-escalate.

"Your mission is not to provoke, it is to de-escalate," he said, explaining that how police dress and arm themselves is a real part of that. "I think it's so important to hold those kinds of weapons in reserve, and use them or show them only when you're dealing with a violent confrontation. Keeping the peace at a demonstration essentially means having police officers in standard everyday uniforms not military garb."

There are signs that Ferguson law enforcement is finally making de-escalation a priority. Missouri Governor Jay Nixon announced on Thursday that law enforcement officials would take steps to "begin the process of lowering the intensity of [police-community] interactions and potential risks," but it is not yet clear what that will involve.

When police dress like soldiers, they put the community at a distance and make actual policing harder

A Ferguson sniper, doing his job.

A Ferguson sniper. Scott Olson/Getty Images

Experienced former law-enforcement officials I spoke to all emphasized that communication, rather than confrontation, was the best way to de-escalate a situation like the Ferguson protests in order to ensure community safety.

Ideally, Downing said, a police department would have a "reservoir of goodwill" in the community to rely on: established relationships with members of clergy and other local leaders who could assist with communication and conflict resolution during times of crisis. Standing behind an arsenal of military gear sends the opposite message, treating the community as an inherently hostile force to be suppressed, rather than as neighbors.

If that reservoir of goodwill is unavailable — as certainly seems may be the case in Ferguson — then it is still on law enforcement departments, the ex-officials said, to find a way to establish community trust. All emphasized that peace simply cannot be won by turning police into a military occupation force.

"Good police officers understand that they need to be hearing what is actually being said, listening actively to the concerns the grievances of the community, paraphrasing it and feeding it back, and saying okay, now what can we do jointly to address these problems?" Stamper explained. It's not something that can be achieved with kevlar and MRAPs. "It's a function of collaboration."

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