Police without Body Armor: Let It Become a Trend!

Editorial note: Sadly this relative calm in Ferguson did not last long. See update here.

After nights of pictures and footage of police in full body armor in Ferguson, Missouri, we were greeted to stories like this headline at Newser.com: “Ferguson Tensions Ease as Police Ditch Armor.”

It wasn’t just about ditching the armor, as wonderful as that was. It was also about different behavior. The police walked among the rest of the people as if they weren’t a separate class.

After several nights of protests—and clashes with police in riot gear—the mood was a lot lighter in Ferguson last night after the Missouri Highway Patrol took over from local police. Armored vehicles were absent, cars honked their horns in celebration, and Capt. Ronald Johnson, the highway patrol official in charge, walked with a group of peaceful protesters himself. He’s a Ferguson native. The owner of a pharmacy in the St. Louis suburb tells the New York Times there is a simple reason for the change in tone: “Because they’re not tear-gassing us tonight.”

Of course, to do the job of keeping the peace, it is good for cops to be visible. So they, of course, still stand out by their uniforms and their open carrying of weapons (I have no problem with police open carrying because I think that is a right of all human beings—one that is supposed to be recognized in the U.S.). But they are not dressed nor are they behaving like an occupying army.

And so far we see the people responding in a positive manner.

But if it works for Ferguson, why not for serving warrants? If it is good to intermingle with the people in Ferguson, why not knock on doors at reasonable hours.

Instead, far too often the police act like criminals themselves (armed intruders breaking into a home in the wee hours). They go into militarized occupation mode for ridiculous reasons and focus on causing overwhelming intimidation. They are almost never punished for actions that would be unquestionably considered crimes if committed by anyone else. When a victim manages to win a lawsuit, the punishment is almost always meted out on the local taxpayer who is required to pay for the sins of his occupying army. It has even reached the point where a grand jury has refused to prosecute a man for defending himself from a SWAT raid (but this is still extremely rare).

So let’s take the public lesson from Ferguson, ditch the standing army in our midst—not only in terms of their equipment, but also their behavior—and let’s bring back our neighborhood police.

By the way, notice how Ferguson shows us how wrong all those calls for the Federalized occupation of Chicago really are. In this case, the Highway Patrol had to take over Ferguson in order to stop treating the town like an occupied territory. Those calls for Federal troops in Chicago would, if followed, result in exactly the kind of showdowns that we have seen in Ferguson.