Of the many tragic images to emerge from Ferguson, Missouri, over the weekend, one of the most disturbing—and increasingly common—was the sight of a military vehicle patrolling suburban streets. Protesters outraged by the police killing of 18-year-old Ferguson resident Michael Brown were met by police in riot gear, police carrying assault rifles, and police aboard a LENCO BearCat, a type of military armored vehicle.
According to a public information officer with the St. Louis County Police Department, the county dispatched two armored vehicles on Saturday in response to "unrest." Yet it was not until Sunday that some grieving community members answered perceived injustice with violence, looting about a dozen shops. As of Saturday, when the BearCat took to the streets of Ferguson (population 21,000), protesters were assembling peacefully.
St. Louis County is just one of the many municipalities in the U.S. that now commands access to military equipment meant for war. The paramilitarization of suburban police forces, or the suburbanization of paramilitary police forces, adds another question to those lingering over Brown's tragic death: Did the police response only make matters worse?
"There isn't a great amount of tracking on all the military equipment going out in the U.S.," says Samuel Bieler, a research associate with the Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute. "But you can definitely see evidence of militarization of the police in the suburbs. You can find examples basically anywhere."
While the use of SWAT teams generally came to prominence in the 1970s as an answer to urban unrest (and as a form of police brutality), increasingly, the paramilitary tactics and equipment adopted by law-enforcement agencies are spreading beyond the cities to suburban areas and rural counties.
For example, the Indianapolis Star recently compiled a database of the equipment acquired by Indiana city and county law-enforcement agencies through the 1033 program, which parcels out surplus Department of Defense equipment. Among the findings: Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles, which are armored vehicles designed to withstand improvised explosive device attacks, were dispersed to eight different municipalities, the smallest being Pulaski County, population 13,402.
Despite the fact that a Department of Homeland Security report once listed more potential terrorist targets in Indiana than New York or California, the state has never been hit by a terrorist attack, much less an assault involving IEDs. The MRAP vehicles amount to only a small fraction of the $45 million in materiel that Indiana has acquired from the Pentagon since 2010. While such detailed findings aren't available for every state, The New York Times reports that 432 MRAP vehicles have been distributed to law-enforcement agencies across the states, in addition to 435 other armored vehicles, 533 planes and helicopters, and nearly 100,000 machine guns.
The police department of St. Charles, a suburb of St. Louis, possesses an MRAP vehicle. The Metropolitan Police Department for the city of St. Louis also owns two armored military vehicles, according to a spokesperson for the St. Louis County Police Department, which has acquired several military vehicles.
"The records kept on this equipment aren’t great," Bieler says. "It's certainly something that doesn't have the oversight you'd expect given the nature of the military equipment being distributed."
In a lot of cases, these advanced armored military vehicles are only ever used for parade pieces, Bieler says. That's in stark contrast to SWAT deployments. Peter Kraska, a professor and senior research fellow at Eastern Kentucky University, reports that between 1980 and 2000, police paramilitary teams registered a 1,400 percent increase in deployments. Earlier this year, the ACLU released a report showing that 79 percent of the SWAT team deployments reviewed by the organization executed search warrants on suspects' homes. In Maryland, the only state that tracks SWAT deployments, search warrants make up almost 90 percent of these actions.
A 2013 report from the U.S. Department of Justice tracks the militarization of police back to the 1920s, when law-enforcement agencies adopted a more regimented martial style. With the explosion of SWAT deployments since 1980, though, the DOJ frets that the "growing militarization of U.S. policing may be threatening community policing." It is only in more recent years, though, that police militarization has become so widespread.
Nowhere was that clearer this weekend than in Ferguson, where protesters demonstrated with their hands raised in surrender in the vicinity of police—a disgraceful sight in America. At a broader level, there is no research that tracks how police using military tactics and equipment affects civilian safety (or police safety, for that matter).
"How are these tactics actually working? Are they making citizens and police safer or are they increasing adverse outcomes?" Bieler asks. "There are some tactical case studies about riots, but that doesn’t cover what we’re seeing in police using SWAT teams for search warrants or riot gear for protests."
Right now, the people of Ferguson need answers to more pressing questions about Brown's death. But one question for Ferguson applies to law-enforcement agencies everywhere: Why did police deploy an armored military vehicle to a protest? What are the legitimate uses for an MRAP vehicle in a community that has never experienced terrorism?
"You can definitely see that, even in a small town like Ferguson, it says something important about the degree that militarization is now accessible to every law-enforcement agency," Bieler says. "Agencies that aren't in major metro areas are getting access to this military gear."
It is far from clear that a weapon of war is a tolerable answer to civil unrest even under the worst circumstances. Ferguson is hardly the only community where assemblies protected by the First Amendment have been met by paramilitary force. The police reaction following Brown's death—the latest in the hopeless litany of young black men killed by authorities—shows how far the militarization of law enforcement is spreading.