While I have reservations about weighing in on the issues highlighted by the death of Michael Brown and the ensuing violence and protests, I feel like I have a distinct perspective to offer. As a distinctly pacifist wife of a US Marine, and former law enforcement employee, I consider the issue bearing a strange mix of experience and ideology. This blog is admittedly late in coming, but I wanted to finish reading a book… and living life slowed my writing process.
I have wanted to engage the subject of Ferguson, Missouri since I was asked by an acquaintance several days after the protests began for my take on the issue. I had to admit to him that I didn’t have a readily formed opinion on the matter at the time, and didn’t feel informed enough about it to posit a response. This not-knowing, I am aware, is a direct result of my white privilege. I can choose (and did!) to not attend to the news media tidal wave. I can, without much effort, avoid exposure to conversations about it. This is not so for people of color. They seem to feel the impact of this much more deeply than I do. I have been hesitant to engage it, though, because of my awareness of my own white privilege, and all of the questions I have about the specific details of the case. So, that said, I tread lightly here, with a desire to offer dignity and respect to all involved parties.
Race and racial injustice is an issue. It may be the most pressing issue of the Ferguson situation. Our dealing with race has pervasive and pernicious consequences, and for decades, we have fouled it up over and over again. I am aware that many of my associates and friends are more engaged and aware of white privilege and in some ways more conscientious than much of the white populous in the Deep South, where I find myself. I feel my appropriate position at this time, however, is to listen – listen to the voices of those for whom this is a major issue – to those who are affected deeply and daily by the injustice of how our culture deals with race and the other.
I would like, however, to name an aspect of the whole situation that I feel has been under-acknowledged and under-addressed. I have heard some complaints and questions raised about the militarization of law enforcement in the United States. I find the outcries against this to be puzzling. You see, law enforcement needs, needs, to be equipped to handle any situation. ANY situation. I am deeply disturbed by the now notorious images from Ferguson, of law enforcement officers and their up-armored vehicles and assault-type weapons. Overkill? Perhaps. Inflammatory? Certainly. The images appear to show law enforcement officers overstepping the National Institute of Justice’s sample description of lowest level use of force techniques:
- Officer Presence — No force is used. Considered the best way to resolve a situation.
- The mere presence of a law enforcement officer works to deter crime or diffuse a situation.
- Officers’ attitudes are professional and nonthreatening.
But other images, like this one, show that some law enforcement personnel were doing just that. Providing a non-threatening (professional?) presence.
The officers’ job at the time was to establish a presence that allowed the protesters gathered, and the public (otherwise uninvolved bystanders/reporters/property owners) to know that the situation was under control – that things would not escalate to violence or property damage without law enforcement being readily available to diffuse it. An officer’s primary task is to establish and maintain control of the situation until it is resolved. This may involve a domestic dispute, random petty theft, helping a pregnant lady in the 100+ degree heat with a flat tire, a lost child in a crowded place, a battle in a gang war, a minor offense committed by a hostile or psychotic individual, or worse yet, a major bombing/shooting/mass killing. All of these fall into the category of “routine possibilities,” for our law enforcement officials. Specifically in Ferguson, there were hostile participants in the protests, and when those hostile participants gather in groups, the potential for violence and violent resistance in exponentially increased.
The potential for an officer to be injured or killed in the line of duty is only exacerbated by our cultural affair with individual firearm envy. The existence of the NRA, and its efforts to expand individual gun ownership in the USA has increased the need for law enforcement to have at their disposal increasingly lethal weapons. This is a natural result of the expansion of Americans’ Second Amendment rights. As more of our populous carries lethal weapons, our law enforcement regards increasing proportions of the public as potential threats. (I expect to write more about this in another forthcoming post regarding the expansion of individual gun ownership rights in the future, as so will not address this rabbit-trail here, except to share this:)
In several other first-world nations, this is not the case. It is generally known that British first-line police do not carry firearms. This is largely a result of tradition, and the deliberately civil culture of British society, but other nations such as Ireland, Norway, and New Zealand, Whales, and Scotland also have unarmed first-line law enforcement personnel.** A report by the BBC explores why,
For one thing, the sheer cost of equipping all personnel with weapons as well as providing regular training would be prohibitive at a time of public spending cuts, [former Met deputy assistant commissioner Brian Paddick] says.
In addition, Paddick adds, front-line officers would not be keen to face the agonising, split-second decisions faced by their counterparts in specialist firearms units.
“In terms of the police being approachable, in terms of the public being the eyes and ears of the police, officers don’t want to lose that,” he says.** (**Source: http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-19641398)
So what about the militarization and use of force for American law enforcement?
Aside from the aforementioned 2nd Amendment expansion, In the USA, Law enforcement agencies are, by their nature para-military organizations. They are structured in a way that reflects the military chain-of command. Many law enforcement officers are veterans. And many for one reason or another would have liked to be in the military, but were unable to do so. That being said, so much training is invested into our military personnel that cannot be readily or easily un-learned. That is the point of the training – that learned or desired responses become automatic, allowing rapid and appropriate responses in the heat of combat. We must be mindful of this. Some of these officers will forget, or default to that trained response, having horrendous or sometimes heroic results when used in civil affairs rather than combat affairs. Who is to blame for that?
In many (if not all) law enforcement agencies, the standard for use of force is: perceived imminent threat allows the officer to use any necessary force up to one step above the aggressor’s force in order to establish and maintain control. According to the National Institute of Justice, “officers are instructed to respond with a level of force appropriate to the situation at hand, acknowledging that the officer may move from one part of the continuum to another in a matter of seconds.” The graphic below is from the Chicago Police Department.
I find this chart to be helpful, because it clearly demonstrates that it is considered appropriate to use force that is essentially one level above the force or resistance level a subject uses when engaged with an officer to maintain control of the situation. The expansion of this policy then would indicate that if civilian Y threatens Officer Z with a colt pistol, it would be desirable and beneficial for Officer Z to have a rifle. And if Civilian Y is armed with a rifle, then Officer Z could/should respond with an automatic rifle. Ugh. This is how law enforcement agencies justify the further militarization of their forces… not to mention the gifts provided to them by the US Department of Defense, as a way to retire or decommission excess equipment.
The protest in Ferguson could have easily turned into a riot, and there were some individuals who apparently demonstrated riotous behavior (see above image on man with rocks/bricks readily prepared for throwing). That is likely the reason the police there brought in the heavy equipment. However, in the face of cooperative and law-abiding protesters, this would be (and likely was) overkill. The problem is that in a situation like the one that developed in Ferguson, things can change so rapidly and unpredictably, that the police needed to be prepared for almost anything. I posit that it may have been better for Law enforcement agencies to have the heavy equipment readied and available in case of need, nearby, but not at the site of the protest. Maybe stage them a few miles away in a forgotten parking lot? Would that have been possible? I don’t know. Would it have been less inflammatory? Perhaps.
Cultural observations that support/encourage the militarization of law enforcement.
Last, I want to note the impact of group-think and our cultural attitudes about violence. We must wrestle with the reality that we are desensitizing huge swaths of our population, so that we do not recognize the possible, threatened, and imminent tragedies that result from human-on-human violence. As Lt. Col. Dave Grossman points out in On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War,
Groups can provide a diffusion of responsibility that will enable individuals in mobs, and soldiers in military units to commit acts that they would never dream of doing as individuals; acts such as lynching someone for the color of their skin, or shooting someone because of the color of his uniform.
The entry of a firearm into any conflict only elevates the risk, and often eliminates or reduces the time spent or allowed to think through one’s options. Consider how bringing a firearm into a stressful situation changes the dynamics of each possible response in conflict: fight, flight, posture, or submit.
Well… I have said a lot, and have just learned that there is a growing conversation about many the issues I raised here. I am delighted that I am not too late for the discussion. As always, I welcome your comments and feedback.