Militarizing police is a slippery slope
What lessons does Ferguson hold for us?
There’s no reason to believe that racial tensions could ever boil over in such extreme fashion in Grand Junction. We’re not sitting on a powder keg of pent-up hostilities that built up over decades as they did in St. Louis.
But that’s only half the story. Ferguson may have been ripe for social unrest, but it was how the police department handled a white officer’s fatal shooting of an unarmed young black man that sealed the city’s fate.
The cautionary tale lies in the heavy-handed police response, and that could happen anywhere ordinary citizens dare to protest police action.
We’ve heard Grand Valley citizens express concern for the militarization of the local law enforcement and events in Ferguson did nothing to quell fears about what happens when police are armed with military weaponry and equipment.
After the shooting, the police in Ferguson immediately began escalating tensions instead of trying to ease them. The chief initially refused to name the officer who shot Michael Brown. As soon as people began demanding justice and staging protests, the cops in Ferguson cracked down on law-abiding demonstrators as though they were enemy combatants.
A Washington Post reporter was arrested and jailed by an officer dressed like he was part of a NATO peacekeeping force in Kosovo. His crime? “Trespassing” inside a local McDonald’s, though he was never formally charged and eventually released.
The Ferguson police force flexed its muscles with gas masks, riot gear, tear gas, smoke bombs and two armored Humvees — until it was stripped of its law enforcement authority. Now the Missouri governor has activated the National Guard to help maintain order.
It doesn’t appear that things are going to quiet down until the U.S. Department of Justice comes to some kind of conclusion about the shooting.
Meanwhile, the Ferguson Police Department’s actions have led the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee to request a review of a Pentagon program to outfit police with surplus gear from the U.S. Defense Department.
“There needs to be a robust policy and some stringent oversight” governing the use of such equipment, said Matt Lewis, the Republican candidate for the Mesa County Sheriff’s Office.
The sheriff’s office is in possession of an armored LENCO Bearcat SWAT rescue vehicle, which was acquired in 2008 with $250,000 in drug forfeiture money.
We’re not saying armored vehicles and riot gear have no place in modern police stations. But we agree with Lewis that they cannot be used indiscriminately. Using them in the course of apprehending suspects is one thing. Using them against the people law enforcement officials are sworn to protect and serve is another.