It is fairly obvious at this point that police chief Thomas Jackson has lost control of his response to the ongoing protests in Ferguson, Missouri. Under his command his police force has presented itself as a paramilitary force enforcing roving traffic stops, has arrested two journalists after illegally ordering private persons off of private property, used tear gas and rubber bullets against peaceful demonstrators, and arrested a city alderman critical of the police response.
The disproportionate response of the Ferguson police forces to protestors is not only terrible press coverage for police departments across the United States but reflects a disturbing trend of militarization of police forces. As the ACLU report released June 24 2014 ago detailed and Radly Balko’s seminal book Rise of the Warrior Cop (link) the expansion of military-style SWAT teams has resulted in the expansion of military- and intimidation-style tactics throughout the United States. Fundamentally the incentive structures facing local police departments have been geared towards cooperating and participating in anti-terrorism paramilitary-style policing tactics promulgated and promoted by the Federal government.
Over $70 billion a year is spent on these department of homeland programs for weapon and equipment procurement. The federal 1033 program originally created in the mid 1980 to outfit SWAT teams and specialized anti-drug police forces has allowed local and state police access to free surplus military equipment. As the program has expanded it has, as Robert Higgs once argued, provided a justificatory basis for a ratchet effect of broadening the scope, application, funding for police departments. Police departments faced with few if any uses for military style equipment have found creative ways of tailoring programs such as SWAT, narcotics, and anti-terrorism units for increased budgets for access to state and federal dollars, pay bumps, and continued access to more equipment. Indeed this inadvertent outcome of subsidizing equipment for police forces has been an unmitigated failure, crime rates are barely affected by the creation of these programs, police forces rarely if ever are engaging in significant high caliber firefights, and the claim that APVs, military gear offer significant increases in officer protection are completely unsupported by evidence.
Law enforcement has willingly blurred the lines between the concept of a peaceful constabulary force and a pro-active adversarial policing approach. The focus in training for police forces has increasingly made use of strong distinctions between police forces and regular civilians and has made an effort to instill an “us versus them” mentality that rests on the faulty presumption that civilians must comply with police force requests, regardless of the law, or merit of the law. The institutionalization of norms that police are somehow superior and legally advantaged has permeated the culture of our law enforcement.
Everyone has reason to be worried. The responses in Ferguson to protests are disproportionate to the threat and are borne of funding and institutional policies encouraged for over thirty years, first by drug warriors and now by anti-terrorism legislation. These policies are not compatible with our society , they are not compatible with either the spirit or substance of our Constitution, and are not compatible with any basic presumption of ethics or justice. We as a people cannot maintain our free and open society when within our midst a militaristic force grows that ascribes itself legal authority to harass, harm, and detain its critics and opponents. The actions of Ferguson County Police Chief Thomas Jackson and his police force are not compatible with any reasonable conception of a free society. However we cannot expect simply that by condemning, firing, or exposing this for what it is will solve the more fundamental problem that the structure of incentives for police departments are such that these programs are loosely adapted from and intended to emulate military exercises.
The transfer of military weapons to police departments at zero or reduced cost must be eliminated. Federal and State revenue sharing deals for asset forfeiture must be ended. No knock and military style raids for the serving of warrants must be ended. Federal assistance programs for anti-terrorism military-style policing must be ended. Until incentives facing police departments are fundamentally changed we cannot expect the interface between civilian populations and police forces to remain peaceful. No amount of wishful thinking or rational design can resolve this fundamental contradiction of duty that exists when a police force is funded and beholden to revenue streams which are derived from perverse laws such as asset forfeiture and funding from institutions which seek to import militaristic qualities into our local institutions. We must advance our liberties in the face of opposition.