Police Militarization in Ferguson — and Your Town

[cross-posted and slightly adapted from Overlawyered]

Why armored vehicles in a Midwestern inner suburb? Why would cops wear camouflage gear against a terrain patterned by convenience stores and beauty parlors? Why are the authorities in Ferguson, Mo. so given to quasi-martial crowd control methods (such as bans on walking on the street) and, per the reporting of Riverfront Times, the firing of tear gas at people in their own yards? (“ ‘This my property!’ he shouted, prompting police to fire a tear gas canister directly at his face.”) Why would someone identifying himself as an 82nd Airborne Army veteran, observing the Ferguson police scene, comment that “We rolled lighter than that in an actual warzone”?

As most readers have reason to know by now, the town of Ferguson, Mo. outside St. Louis, numbering around 21,000 residents, is the scene of an unfolding drama that will be cited for years to come as a what-not-to-do manual for police forces. After police shot and killed an unarmed black teenager on the street, then left his body on the pavement for four hours, rioters destroyed many local stores. Since then, police have refused to disclose either the name of the cop involved or the autopsy results on young Michael Brown; have not managed to interview a key eyewitness even as he has told his story repeatedly on camera to the national press; have revealed that dashcams for police cars were in the city’s possession but never installed; have obtained restrictions on journalists, including on news-gathering overflights of the area; and more.

The dominant visual aspect of the story, however, has been the sight of overpowering police forces confronting unarmed protesters who are seen waving signs or just their hands.

If you’re new to the issue of police militarization, which Overlawyered has covered occasionally over the past few years, the key book is Radley Balko’s, discussed at this Cato forum:

Federal grants drive police militarization. In 2012, as I was able to establish in moments through an online search, St. Louis County (of which Ferguson is a part) got a Bearcat armored vehicle and other goodies this way. The practice can serve to dispose of military surplus (though I’m told the Bearcat is not military surplus, but typically purchased new) and it sometimes wins the gratitude of local governments, even if they are too strapped for cash to afford more ordinary civic supplies (and even if they are soon destined to be surprised by the high cost of maintaining gear intended for armed combat).

As to the costs, some of those are visible in Ferguson, Mo. this week.