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When you hear the exact same warning from people as divergent as Rand Paul and the CATO Institute, Glenn Greenwald and the ACLU, and even nonpolitical sources like Popular Mechanics, you suspect that you should take the problem seriously.

The problem? The escalating militarization of police departments across the country. Do police still protect citizens, or are they acting more like occupying forces? These people see the police action that is happening in Ferguson MO as frighteningly similar to military action like in Iraq or Afghanistan.

How did this happen? The recent escalation was caused by the post-911 “War on Terror”, which threw advanced military equipment at local police forces, including machine guns, silencers, flash-bang grenades, and even tanks and aircraft. But it had its roots in earlier faux wars, like the “War on Drugs”, the creation of SWAT teams and the introduction of military tactics to routine policing.

A side effect of this, as we are seeing in Ferguson is that police increasingly treat the media as an enemy. This is a recipe for tragedy.

Indeed, even other police chiefs have criticized the aggressive police response in Ferguson, saying “you always have to be careful to walk a fine line not to over-react. Sometimes a big show of force in the beginning may not be the proper way to deal with it.” “Suiting up in riot gear and tossing tear gas is probably the worst way to deal with civil unrest.”

Invariably, escalation on one side invariably leads to escalation on the other. Indeed, Palestinian citizens have been tweeting messages of support to the protestors in Ferguson, including tips on how to deal with tear gas.

There has been some political response, such as a bill to curb the transfer of surplus military equipment to local law enforcement agencies for free, but with arms manufacturers (who have lots of lobbyists) making lots of money from this, it is doubtful anything will happen.

Another problem is the almost complete lack of police accountability. A Wisconsin man whose handcuffed son was shot point-blank in the head by police in front of his wife and daughter reports that the officer who killed his son was cleared of any wrongdoing in 48 hours, without taking statements from eyewitnesses. He also found that “In 129 years since police and fire commissions were created in the state of Wisconsin, we could not find a single ruling by a police department, an inquest or a police commission that a shooting was unjustified.”

UPDATE: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has a powerful essay about what is going on, and what needs to be done: “The Coming Race War Won’t Be About Race”.



  1. wildwood wrote:

    I was reading this earlier today and thought it was interesting as well.

    Monday, August 18, 2014 at 9:43 am | Permalink
  2. PatriotSGT wrote:

    I completely agree about the over militarization of many of our police forces. Even wearing the same camouflage uniforms of our military. The citizenry doesn’t know if they are being confronted by the Army or Police. I understand at one point in time the police were being seriously outgunned by criminals, but I don’t think that’s the case anymore. I also understand that in some scenario’s show of force is appropriate and probably saves lives, but not in every case.
    But there is something broader at play here I believe. A very close and dear friend of mine, who is black, was telling me that he his father had a talk with him saying he’ll be targeted by police and outlined the rules of behavior he should follow to stay safe. I said to him my white father also had the same talk with me. Be respectful, answer no sir, or yes sir and be completely honest. He said yeah but its different for black folks and I said no I don’t think so. A couple years later we were traveling in a different city and went to the bar district one night. We visited several different places and in one he spotted a female sitting by herself and having had a few tried to start a conversation. She rebuffed his advances and even moved to a different table. The bar tender told my buddy she was waiting for her boyfriend and please leave her alone. Of course he didn’t listen and in a few minutes a couple of police officers showed up and escorted him out. Outside he started to become belligerent and I stepped in, showed my military ID, told them I was his boss and would take care of him and told him to be quiet. He listened they said OK and the incident was over. He then said to me see, I told you. It’s because I’m black that they stopped me. I said listen idiot it’s because you were being and A$$#ole, not because you’re black.
    Now I know that’s just one isolated incident, but is it indicative of a bigotry towards authority. And are those who pass this legacy on doing more harm then good? Is it because of race or is it because of behavior? I work with a lot of police and more then most are true professionals and look for behavior before skin color. I think the country needs a frank and open discussion on everything from race, to behavior to respect and I do know that goes both ways.

    Monday, August 18, 2014 at 9:54 am | Permalink
  3. Westomoon wrote:

    When we began the last war in Iraq, I worried that we were training our military to suppress insurrection in urban areas — a skill that translates way too easily onto the home front, here in what is now known as “the Homeland” (shades of South Africa).

    But something else occurs to me: the population at large, including a whole lot of the 90%, now includes a lot of vets who know very well how to wage urban warfare.

    I wonder if the powers-that-be might not be venturing into the “unintended consequences” terrain they have explored so willingly by tipping their hand in Ferguson.

    I’m no Fox viewer, but the other media coverage I have seen has had very little racial component — it has been more an expression of stunned amazement that a police force in the Heartland tipped into overkill at what seems to be recognized as a very mild provocation. The NYPD’s brutal reaction to the harmless kids of Occupy keeps flashing before my mental eyes.

    Thanks for the link, BTW — it’s a useful tool for looking at this. The reaction to Ferguson seems to me to be neither Kent State nor Jackson State — this time it has struck me that we are beginning to understand that being in the 90%, regardless of skin color, is hazardous to one’s health.

    Monday, August 18, 2014 at 11:10 am | Permalink
  4. Iron Knee wrote:

    Wildwood, that is an excellent article. Thanks.

    PSgt, I agree with you, but note that I was careful not to frame this as a racism issue. The UPDATE by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar makes this point even better than I could.

    Indeed, I (and I’m white) have had an encounter with the police (in Portland of all places) where they were treating me like they were an occupying force, even though I was just asking them an innocent question. It freaked me out and I lost trust and respect for them in that simple encounter, even though nothing particularly horrible happened to me. Soon after that I was having dinner with a (white) friend of mine (who is a lawyer) and he had had a similar experience, and even though he is fairly conservative, he was very unhappy about the experience.

    So I don’t think this is about skin color, although clearly non-whites get this treatment far more than I ever will.

    Also note that in Ferguson, where the population is 69% black, the police force only has 3 black officers. Does this make any sense at all?

    Monday, August 18, 2014 at 11:47 am | Permalink
  5. Hassan wrote:

    Abuse of power is in play as well. Obama killed an unarmed teenager, cop does same. Nobody is held accountable, more chance that the cop will be, because of overwhelming pressure of african american and (many fairly minded whites as well).

    That is why I liked Rand Paul oped, (not sure if he wrote himself), but in one paragraph he criticized government/president overreach of power and also of the Ferguson police.

    “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.”

    Monday, August 18, 2014 at 12:45 pm | Permalink
  6. PatriotSGT wrote:

    Agreed IK, I don’t think this is a race issue, but it will be thrown into the discussion (by the Sharpton/Jacksons) of the world who will just try to profit from this sad event.

    I think it is about who serves who. By that I mean in the Military I was taught we work to protect innocents and serve the American public and I reminded my Soldiers often to be mindful of wasting taxpayer money and that they represent all of us when they are in public. Police are taught similarly. But somewhere along the way and regardless of political affiliation, it became a them against us mentality in some places. That comes from leadership, which is sadly a lacking commodity in many places. Public servants should never forget who pays their salaries and perform that service with the respect required. I’ve seen it occasionally when officers think because they where a badge it makes them god like, they need to remember we all put our pants on the same way, one leg at a time.

    I think the best way to approach abuses is through he legal system and peaceful protest. Like when a guy (white by the way) here in my town was arrested because he was filming a police officer performing his duties. It rightly turns out that is a protected 1st amendment freedom. Unfortunately, Michael Brown won’t be able to sue, but his parents should.

    Monday, August 18, 2014 at 12:58 pm | Permalink
  7. Don wrote:

    Reading the article that Wildwood gave us the link to, I find that the subject of racial application of SWAT actions is covered and the numbers cited disagree with PSgt and IK at least when it comes to drug raids.

    “On the other side of that broken-down door, more often than not, are blacks and Latinos. When the ACLU could identify the race of the person or people whose home was being broken into, 68% of the SWAT raids against minorities were for the purpose of executing a warrant in search of drugs. When it came to whites, that figure dropped to 38%, despite the well-known fact that blacks, whites, and Latinos all use drugs at roughly the same rates. SWAT teams, it seems, have a disturbing record of disproportionately applying their specialized skill set within communities of color.”

    I realize it isn’t directly related to the SWAT/militarization discussion, but it is related to the lop-sided application of police action to individuals of color. Look at the stop and frisk numbers from New York City – 9% of stops were anglo, 84% were black and latino. -> It would be easy to say this is only one city, but I think it is indicative of a broader issue with regards to racial profiling that would also apply to the heavy use of force in police/civilian interactions.

    As to how police are trained, there is an interesting article on the Community Oriented Policing Services website ( ) “According to the U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Report on State and Local Law Enforcement Training Academies (BJS Report), the majority of police recruits receive their training in academies with a stress-based military orientation. This begs the question; is this military model—designed to prepare young recruits for combat—the appropriate mechanism for teaching our police trainees how to garner community trust and partner with citizens to solve crime and public order problems?”

    Monday, August 18, 2014 at 5:36 pm | Permalink
  8. ebdoug wrote:

    When I was a teenager (I’ll be 70 soon), I was shocked to learn about the boys who took a shot gun and went and shot an old man to death. The old man was manning a gas station late at night. The boys were from prominent families. Whole murder swept under the rug. One of the boys went on to own a MLB league team.
    And my brother as a teenager was picked up for open container and let go. “If I’d been a Hispanic, I’d have been thrown in jail,” he said about how unjust ‘justice’ is.
    In 1939, Hitler invaded Poland, it became open season Polish against the Jews. No justice given at all. Then, of course, Hitler turned on the Polish and tried to wipe out as many of them as he could.

    It goes on and on and on, and even in the same Religions.

    Monday, August 18, 2014 at 6:07 pm | Permalink
  9. ThatGuy wrote:

    I don’t think I can add anything to what Don said, but it’s really hard to claim that race doesn’t play a huge role in arrests and sentencing after even cursory look at the stats linked.

    I will say, however, that in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings, I was really happy to have the BPD around. As far as I could tell they were all very professional and, although armed to the teeth, continued to act like a very civil force. I can contrast that with horror stories of dealing with the BPD in less stressful situations, but I think the answer is always vigilance at the voting booth. I’m fine with cops having m16s and armored trucks as long as they only show up at times like the Hollywood shootout and Boston bombings. The trick is electing people who will ensure that the correct training and protocols are in place so that we don’t see mostly civil protests engaged by people who usually hand out speeding tickets but are armed as though they’re invading Baghdad.

    Monday, August 18, 2014 at 8:57 pm | Permalink
  10. Iron Knee wrote:

    No no, I wasn’t claiming that race doesn’t play a role. It would be stupid to believe that! But racism in law enforcement predates police militarization. So while minorities are of course going to be more affected by police militarization (just as they are going to be more affected by loitering laws, and drug laws, etc.), militarization will also affect whites (just to a proportionately lesser extent).

    Does that make sense? It is a minor point, but I think it would be a mistake to believe that the militarization is only targeted at minorities. The article by the Wisconsin man and the article by Abdul-Jabbar make that point.

    Monday, August 18, 2014 at 9:44 pm | Permalink
  11. Dan wrote:

    Recent examples of the effect of militarization on non-minorities are some of the responses to the Occupy Wall Street movement, a non-minority, non-deprived group of people.

    Tuesday, August 19, 2014 at 5:36 am | Permalink
  12. Michael wrote:

    Building off of IK’s point @ 10 as well as Don’s point, I think it’s important to clarify that there are two very distinct issues being discussed: One is institutional racism and bias, while the other is police militarization.

    The latter is definitely a problem for everyone, and it’s not about race. I would describe it more as an “us versus them” mentality where you’re either police or not. I think it’s always been a problem where police look out for and defend their own, but I think militarization has exacerbated the problem. But again, that’s not about race. It’s about creating two classes: police and civilians. The ever-shifting claims from the police seem to suggest this is at work in Ferguson. At various times, the police have suggested that Michael Brown (a) climbed into the police cruiser (witnesses have repeatedly said this never happened), (b) reached for the officer’s gun (witnesses say Brown was trying to disengage from the officer who was pulling him closer), (c) was being questioned as a suspect in a robbery (the officer had no knowledge of this crime at the time), and (d) made no attempt to surrender (witnesses state he stopped after being shot the first time, turned and raised his hands before being shot several additional times). In other words, the official story from the department keeps changing in an attempt to justify the officer’s actions, and every time witnesses disprove the claims. To me, this seems a quite clear example of the police trying to defend their own.

    At the same time, though, it would be folly to deny that racial profiling happens and racism isn’t a problem. Sure, Psgt, in that case, it sounds like he was just being a jerk. But that’s not always the case. As a counterexample, I’ve seen examples of police interacting with mixed groups where their demeanor and tone was markedly different toward the blacks in the group versus the whites (despite the fact that their behavior was similar). Regarding the talk that the guy’s dad gave him, blacks do give a different version. I can’t remember who it was, but there was a famous actor like Don Cheadle or Jamie Foxx talking about the talk they gave their sons. Their advice for traffic stops went like this: Turn the radio completely off, open the glove compartment for inspection, take off your hat if you’re wearing one, roll down the window, and place both hands on the door. Do all of this before the officer ever approaches the vehicle. Make eye contact only when answering the officer’s questions so he doesn’t feel challenged or threatened. In other words, respect isn’t enough; you must be completely submissive.

    We can also point to statistics in the drug war. Despite the fact that marijuana is used by blacks and whites and approximately the same rates, blacks are 3-5 times as likely to be arrested for possession. Even among arrests, blacks are 10 times more likely to go to jail, even without any prior record. There’s also the stop-and-frisk numbers mentioned above. Then, of course, there’s the crazy zero-tolerance mandatory sentencing for crack cocaine (which is associated with inner-city blacks) versus powder cocaine, crystal meth, etc., which are more associated with whites.

    So, yes, these are two very distinct problems and we must be careful not to conflate them. Particularly, we must not let the militarization problem be completely ignored and dominated by the race problem. However, in Ferguson, both issues are at play and must be discussed. St. Louis is a very segregated city, and racial tension is a constantly simmering part of life there. It would be overly simplistic to suggest that Ferguson is just about racism, but it would be absurd to claim that race didn’t play a significant role in the killing of Michael Brown.

    Tuesday, August 19, 2014 at 8:56 am | Permalink
  13. Iron Knee wrote:

    Well put, Michael.

    Tuesday, August 19, 2014 at 9:30 am | Permalink
  14. PatriotSGT wrote:


    Tuesday, August 19, 2014 at 10:42 am | Permalink
  15. Don in Waco wrote:

    Very late to the party here (long story that doesn’t matter), but just wanted to say that the postings and follow up comments on this site are so damn good. Thanks. The good news for me is by being offline so long I get a prolonged catch up session.

    Sunday, September 7, 2014 at 6:03 am | Permalink