NEW YORK // In the 10 days since the first peaceful vigil over the shooting death of an unarmed black teenager, nightly protests in Ferguson, Missouri, have grown larger and more violent in the face of a police response that has looked more like that of an occupying army than a force sworn to protect and serve.
Officers in camouflage and gas masks have aimed assault rifles at unarmed protesters, fired tear gas from grenade launchers, sped around in armoured vehicles and arrested journalists.
The show of force has been blamed for inflaming community anger, and drawn nationwide attention to a phenomenon that began in the late 1980s in the fight against drug trafficking and accelerated since September 11 – what many call the militarisation of police departments across the country.
Former police officials, criminal justice scholars and civil rights groups warn that the culture and philosophy of policing in the United States has changed dramatically, and that this shift will have long-term consequences.
Police increasingly rely on paramilitary weapons and tactics for normal duties, a trend that has been fuelled by federal programmes to distribute hundreds of millions of dollars in surplus military equipment no longer needed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
One of the major such initiatives, known as the 1033 programme, was introduced in 1990 to help police take on heavily armed drug gangs at a time when violent crime was surging. After September 11, its mandate was extended to domestic counter-terrorism, and the Department of Homeland Security created its own grant programme for police to buy military gear.
“This began with the rationalisation that they would be used for hostage situations or special circumstances, but over the course of time it’s become normalised and even in the smallest police departments like Ferguson they’ve become highly militarised and use their tactical teams for routine search warrants, routine patrols,” said Victor Keppeler, associate dean at the Eastern Kentucky University’s School of Justice Studies.
Where once only big cities had well-trained Swat (special weapons and tactics) teams that were used sparingly, the ability to procure military equipment from the Pentagon has led to a surge of paramilitary units in police departments across the country, even tiny ones with only a handful of officers and little training.
A June report on police militarisation by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), cited research by Peter Kraska, professor of justice studies at Eastern Kentucky University, who estimated that only 20 per cent of small towns had Swat teams in the 1980s, but 80 per cent had them by the 2005. Over the same period, Swat raids grew from 3,000 annually to 45,000.
In the name of fighting terrorism, police departments have received automatic weapons, body armour, armoured vehicles and aircraft.
A department in rural Keene, New Hampshire, requested a mine-resistant vehicle from the Pentagon because officials felt their annual Pumpkin Festival could be a target for Al Qaeda. A small department near Ferguson told the ACLU that they needed military equipment because “preparations for attacks on American schools that will bring rivers of blood and staggering body counts are well under way in Islamic terrorist camps” and that the police is the first line of defence, “our Delta Force”.
But the ACLU found that in the vast majority of cases, the equipment was not used to thwart terrorists or rescue hostages but to serve warrants, mostly to suspects in non-violent drug crimes, a disproportionate percentage of whom were African-American.
There is no federal oversight of how the military gear is used, but the police are allowed to keep the equipment only if they can show they have used it within a year, a rule that creates an incentive to use Swat teams in situations they normally would not have been considered.
Stephen Downing, a former Los Angeles deputy police chief who helped set up the country’s first Swat team in the 1960s, said experienced officers were selected from a pool of thousands and spent half of their time training.
In Ferguson, both the shooting and the handling of protests show that the force had spent little time training, Mr Downing said.
“What are the county police doing with that kind of equipment and that kind of show of force? You could tell by the way the officers behave that they have no training, you can tell by the way they talk to people that they have no training,” he said.
“So here’s a community that’s being occupied. No wonder they’re reacting like they’re reacting.”
However, training has also become styled on military forces, and officers from many police departments have been sent to Israel for tactical and intelligence training by its security forces.
However, training has also become styled on military forces, and officers from many police departments have been sent to Israel training by its security forces. Among them is a former chief of St Louis county, where Ferguson is located, who went to Israel for tactical and counter-terrorism training in 2011.
Mr Downing said he had been trained in Israel on intelligence work and skills such as tactical driving, not crowd control. “Having those skills is good,” he said but the organisations conducting the training “weren’t people dealing with local law enforcement, these were people dealing with military concerns”.
The military mindset saps interest and resources from community-based policing that would have helped address anger in Ferguson before it spun out of control, critics said.
“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?” the ACLU report asked.
In militarised police forces, officers view themselves as soldiers and citizens as enemy combatants rather than their own community, which makes it very difficult to defuse tensions and delegitimizes the police in the eyes of everyday people, Mr Keppeler said.
“Symbolically think about what that means for democracy to have civilian police pointing a high-powered weapon at protesting citizens. It is not an act of war to protest,” he added. “But when you have that kind of militarised approach it erodes confidence in government, erodes confidence in police.”
Addressing the violence in Ferguson on Monday, US president Barack Obama said there would be a review of programmes that allow police access to military equipment. “There is a big difference between our military and our local law enforcement and we don’t want those lines blurred,” he said.
But dismantling a system that has created a large political constituency and financial incentives for arms producers as well as cash-strapped police departments may not be easy.
“This has become a huge industry in law enforcement,” Mr Keppeler said. “And I’d gamble against there being any kind of change.”