Policing Protests Like Soldiers Makes Everyone Less Safe–Even Police

Yet Americans perpetuate the military approach by recruiting for and celebrating it.
Mario Anzuoni/Reuters

As events in Ferguson, Missouri, force the American media to confront the fact that it's problematic when police officers dress and arm themselves like combat soldiers, the few lonely voices who've touted this issue for years are earning vindication—and Radley Balko, who wrote the book on police militarization, is pressing forward with an important article about how police ought to respond to protests. It doesn't take an expert to see that Ferguson authorities reacted in exactly the wrong way. But experts understand exactly why their behavior was so counterproductive and how they could've easily brought about a much better outcome.

They are hardly the first police agency to bungle mass protests in this way, after all. Lessons have been learned elsewhere. They're just lost on the vast majority of Americans, including those in law enforcement. The whole article is worth your read. 

Balko draws on the work of a pioneering police chief, Jerry Wilson, explaining his belief that "an intimidating police presence didn’t prevent confrontation, it invited it. That didn’t mean he didn’t prepare, but he put his riot-control teams in buses, then parked the buses close by, but out of sight of protesters. Appearances were important." He explains the errors police officers made during the 1999 WTO protests in Seattle. Another source, who works for the Dallas Police Department and is writing a post-graduate thesis on policing and protest, Major Max Geron, explained that police interacting with protestors should "come to an agreement about what’s expected, what’s allowed, and most important, you want to reach an agreement about what won’t be allowed,” but should avoid arbitrary prohibitions, like a demand that protestors disperse at a particular time—a tactic used in Ferguson—because it needlessly provokes rebellion and interferes with the right to protest even when no laws are being broken.

The article continues:

Geron also emphasizes personalization, pointing out that when police show up in full riot garb, especially gear that covers their faces, they dehumanize themselves to protesters. This is especially dangerous when the protests are against the police themselves, as was the case in Ferguson. “You make all of your officers look  like one another. To the protesters, to the people, your officers are no longer individual human beings with faces. You’ve just made each of them a faceless symbol of the police institution that the protesters are reacting against.”

There's a lot more to the articlelike I said, read the whole thing. Balko concludes by noting that there is not, in fact, "a zero-sum relationship between officer safety and less aggressive, less militaristic more community-oriented policing." Police can make themselves less safe by being overly aggressive and militaristic.

All I'd add is that prior to this week's events in Ferguson and the press's unusual response to them, most police officers received from their subculture and American culture generally the most counterproductive message possible: that extreme aggression and overt militarization confers upon them safety, respect, and esteem. In fact, it has allowed them to tap into the esteem previously reserved for U.S. troops. Policemen doing so quickly became normalized in scenes playing out across the country, mostly unnoticed. Let's take an example at random. On March 23, 2012, the Minnesota Wild, a National Hockey League team, were playing at home. The ceremonial puck drop before the game unfolded as in the photo at right.

Eric Miller/Reuters

That is not a special forces soldier dangling from the roof of the arena in camouflage. As Reuters explains, "Minnesota Wild center Mikko Koivu hands a puck to officer Joe Reginek of the St. Paul Police SWAT team for a ceremonial puck drop after Reginek rappelled to the ice from the rafters." This stunt was conceived by all parties with the expectation that it would delight the crowd and generate nothing but positive press. And that's exactly what happened. Those in the arena who didn't hear the announcement over the loudspeaker doubtless thought that they were watching a young enlistee back from fighting in Afghanistan or soon to deploy abroad. 

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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