USA Today Tries to Blame Ferguson Riots on Police Militarization

Anyone who reads this blog knows that we have a real problem with police militarization. We celebrate the few times that the police state is rolled back.

Furthermore, if witness statements are true, then what happened to the shooting victim certainly seems to be an unjustified homicide.

But USA Today’s attempt to blame the militarization of the police doesn’t make sense to me.

The Pentagon might not have boots on the ground in Ferguson, Mo., where 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot by police on Saturday, but it does have wheels on the street.

Michelle McCaskill, media relations chief at the Defense Logistics Agency, confirms that the Ferguson Police Department is part of a federal program called 1033 that distributes hundreds of millions of dollars of surplus military equipment to civilian police forces across the United States. The materials range from small items, such as pistols and automatic rifles, to heavy armored vehicles such as the MRAPs used in Afghanistan and Iraq.

I hate and abominate that federal program. I’m glad to see it criticized. But Michael Brown was shot by ordinary cops in an ordinary vehicle, not an MRAP. I also hate this kind of behavior, where police are bullying journalists (and others, we can presume). But it has nothing to do with a Pentagon program.

The USA Today story eventually admits that the military equipment isn’t really relevant.

There is no evidence that any such equipment has yet been used in the Brown case and its aftermath. But such “police militarization” is just one element of an often toxic relationship between minority communities and local police.

But I haven’t heard any of the locals complain about the militarization of the police. That is pretty much a libertarian/conservative complaint. The local analysis has focused solely on race, claiming that the police for Ferguson are disproportionately white compared to the make-up of the town.

And while I’m completely opposed to police being given military equipment, what am I to say about an editorial that pretends that nothing is going on except “protestors and police fac[ing] off”? The looting, rioting, arson, and other property destruction are simply ignored. No, I don’t want militarized police but if I were a business owner watching my livelihood go up in smoke, I might be tempted to change my mind. Making a case against militarized police by ignoring the reason why people are tempted to support such militarization is a flawed method of argument.

If the writer is trying to get people more concerned about civil rights to also start being concerned about what is now mostly a conservative/libertarian issue, I applaud his agenda but I don’t think anyone is going to be convinced.

PostScript: After writing this response to the USA Today story, I saw this Slate article that, I think, does a much better job. The writer claims the rioting was brief and is now over. I haven’t researched it myself, but at least he does acknowledge and deal with the fact that people might feel a need for such militarized police—whether his facts are right or not. He makes an attempt to deal with the whole situation. Also, the writer includes practices that go beyond any Pentagon program:

If you know anything about the racial disparities in the criminal justice system, then it also shouldn’t shock you to learn that SWAT deployments are used disproportionately in black and Latino neighborhoods. The ACLU finds that 50 percent of those impacted by SWAT deployments were black and Latino. Of these deployments, 68 percent were for drug searches. And a substantial number of drug searches—60 percent—involved violent tactics to force entry, which lead predictably and avoidably to senseless injury and death.

So the case can be made, I just think it needs to include more factors than what were in the USA Today story.