Police Face Civilian Protesters–Dressed for Military Combat

Following the shooting of an unarmed, black 18-year-old outside of St. Louis, law-enforcement offers have faced civilians in gear designed for war.
In an earlier era, even the most abusive police officers dressed like civilians. (Conor Friedersdorf/The Atlantic)

In Radley Balko's important book, "The Rise of the Warrior Cop," he writes that since the 1960s, "law-enforcement agencies across the U.S., at every level of government, have been blurring the line between police officer and soldier. Driven by martial rhetoric and the availability of military-style equipment—from bayonets and M-16 rifles to armored personnel carriers—American police forces have often adopted a mind-set previously reserved for the battlefield. The war on drugs and, more recently, post-9/11 antiterrorism efforts have created a new figure on the U.S. scene: the warrior cop—armed to the teeth, ready to deal harshly with targeted wrongdoers, and a growing threat to familiar American liberties."

Before this transformation, even the most egregiously abusive police officers were dressed and outfitted like civilian lawmen. The image above, for example, is a statue in Birmingham, Alabama, meant to capture the essence of Civil Rights-era police abuses.

With that in mind, take a look at the powerful photograph that Whitney Curtis took for The New York Times in the Missouri towns where residents are protesting the killing of an 18-year-old shot to death by police as he walked to a convenience store. As I write this item, the image is leading the newspaper's Web site:

Of course, not every police officer in Ferguson is dressed that way.

But those three officers are dressed and outfitted such that they could as easily be storming into an ISIS safe house in Iraq. Actually, they are on the streets of an American city, clad in combat gear, squaring off against a nonviolent protestor in a t-shirt and jeans with both of his hands raised over his head. It is easy to see how visuals like these could dissuade people from taking to the streets to assemble in protest of police shootings, as is their moral and Constitutional right. 

A handful of protestors in Ferguson, Missouri have reportedly thrown rocks at police, a wholly unjustified act that ought to result in their arrest and prosecution, if the perpetrators can be identified. But in the image above, the camouflage pants and assault rifles are hardly there to protect against thrown rocks. If the police were dressed as civilians, but with helmets and shields, that would be more understandable. The other bit of necessary context: as mostly black protesters face these pseudo-military troopers to protest what they believe to be a civil rights violation, they're staring at another police excess that disproportionately affects people like them. As the ACLU noted in its report on police militarization:

The use of paramilitary weapons and tactics primarily impacted people of color; when paramilitary tactics were used in drug searches, the primary targets were people of color, whereas when paramilitary tactics were used in hostage or barricade scenarios, the primary targets were white. Overall, 42 percent of people impacted by a SWAT deployment to execute a search warrant were Black and 12 percent were Latino. This means that of the people impacted by deployments for warrants, at least 54 percent were minorities.

Of the deployments in which all the people impacted were minorities, 68 percent were in drug cases, and 61 percent of all the people impacted by SWAT raids in drug cases were minorities. In addition, the incidents we studied revealed stark, often extreme, racial disparities in the use of SWAT locally....

The image in the Times photograph is particularly stark, but is depicting something that happens daily in cities all around the United States with little pushback. Community policing is impossible when officers dress up as occupying soldiers. But there is little chance that this pernicious trend will end anytime soon.  

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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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