The police shooting of unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, is the lead story on all broadcast, social media and print outlets, pushing out the Gaza conflict, ISIS in Iraq, and the war in Ukraine. It’s caused unease across the country and along the full range of the political spectrum. That’s because it’s not just about a single cop shooting a single teenager. It’s about two trends affecting the United States from coast to coast.
The first is a too-frequent willingness on the part of some law enforcement officers to use excessive, and sometimes lethal, force—especially on people of color—with little in the way of provocation.
According to the FBI, a white officer kills a black person about two times a week in the United States. No one suggests all of those incidents in the line of duty are unjustified. Yet in recent weeks, four African-American men other than Brown have been killed by police under murky circumstances: Eric Garner in Staten Island, who died after he was placed in a choke hold by an officer arresting him for selling untaxed cigarettes; John Crawford of Beavercreek, Ohio, who was shot after he picked up a pellet gun offered for sale in a Walmart; Ezell Ford, who was shot to death by LAPD officers in a scuffle; and Dante Parker, a Victorville, California, pressman for the Victorville Daily News, who died after being tased by police. (Parker was arrested as a burglary suspect, though the main evidence against him was his simple presence at a nearby lake.)
And in Santa Rosa last year, 13-year-old Andy Lopez died from multiple rounds fired by a sheriff’s deputy because the officer said he thought the airsoft BB gun Lopez was carrying was an assault rifle. After a five month investigation, the Sonoma County District Attorney’s office decided the evidence did not warrant filing charges against the deputy, who returned to desk duty.
Friday’s revelation by the Ferguson police chief that Michael Brown may have engaged in a strong-arm robbery of cigars from a convenience store prior to his death may have complicated the narrative out of the St. Louis suburb: The Brown family’s attorney acknowledged the man in the store security camera photos appeared to be Brown, although the chief later acknowledged that Darren Wilson, the six-year veteran officer who shot Brown, was not even aware of the burglary when he confronted him.
But nothing has changed the essential trajectory of the story out of Ferguson, which has ignited debate across the nation.
“Race has to be addressed here, though it’s critical to separate that from the ‘all cops are racist’ trope,” says Amy Lerman, an associate professor of public policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy and the author of two books on American incarceration trends, The Modern Prison Paradox and Arresting Citizenship.
Most researchers don’t believe the police demonstrate greater racist tendencies than the population at large, continues Lerman, “but there’s an implicit social bias that’s pervasive. It involves the racialization of poverty, the stereotyping of young black men as criminals, and the fact that poorer communities are often the most heavily policed communities. This is widely distributed across society, but police are susceptible to bad outcomes because they’re on the front lines.”
Still, many recent killings seem to run counter to “the use of force continuum” that has been standard police doctrine since the 1980s. Under this principle, minimal force is to be initially applied in any situation, and escalated only when circumstances warrant.
And the weakening of the continuum of force points to the second trend: the militarization of community police. The aftermath of Michael Brown’s shooting generated at least as much reaction as his killing. The images of Ferguson police officers accoutered in full combat kit, armed with automatic weapons and driving armored vehicles while dousing protestors with tear gas and spraying them with rubber bullets was—well, chilling. CNN and New Yorker contributor Jeffrey Toobin declared that Ferguson looked liked “Fallujah on the Mississippi.” Certainly, the minatory officers stalking down Ferguson’s streets in body armor and carrying M-4 carbines looked nothing like the smiling, minimally armed cops in neat uniforms generally associated with effective “community policing.”
Where did the cops get all that stuff?
It’s military surplus. Beginning with the drug wars of the 1990s and escalating in a post-9-11 world as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan wound down, an array of military equipment, some of it never used by the military, was made available to local police departments. The Defense Logistics Agency, operating as the Pentagon’s surplus equipment distribution center, has given away $5.1 billion—in assault weapons, grenade launchers, armored personal carriers, arm-able robots, Mamba tactical vehicles and the like—to some 8,000 civilian police agencies.
Supposedly they are to counter any terrorism contingency on the home front. How citizen protests got confused with domestic terrorism is anyone’s guess. But it’s clear that the incidents in Ferguson have generated broad-scale blow-back.
Lerman confirms community police departments have become increasingly militarized over the years, but says it can’t be attributed to easier access to sophisticated weaponry alone. She feels a breakdown has occurred in the compact between police and the community at large.
“There has been a deep erosion of trust,” Lerman says. “Citizens feel—accurately—that there’s minimal or no oversight of the police. Transparency is lacking. Investigations of police incidents are often interdepartmental: The police investigate themselves. Accountability is limited at best. Cities can and do overrule the review boards. And even when damages are awarded, the officers involved often are not disciplined—or even investigated.”
And on the street level, says Lerman, citizens feel the police aren’t there to talk and help, but to intimidate and arrest. Cops are seen as an occupying force, not an agency dedicated to aid and protection.
“And of course, it doesn’t help things when they show up in military garb with automatic weapons,” she says.
For their part, says Lerman, the cops are also afraid—and rightly so. The streets are dangerous. Those fears must be taken into account.
“No one wants to see a police officer hurt,” she says. “They do an incredibly important job, and we need them. That means we have to make sure they’re safe. And we also have to address a widespread sense in the policing community that officers aren’t understood or appreciated. They don’t trust citizens because they’re afraid the review process will turn into witch hunts, and the officer in the street will end up as the dupe, the victim.”
So what’s to be done? Police policy is one of those metaphorical oil tankers that take a lot of time to turn around. And Lerman acknowledges the challenge of implementing meaningful change: The problem, she says, has been growing for decades. It can’t be remedied overnight.
“I’m going to sound like a broken record here, but gun control—or rather, the lack of it—is a big part of the problem,” she says. “The number of guns out on the street is excessive, and that legitimately affects police concerns. We also have to look at the lack of available mental health care. It’s difficult for officers to assess on an immediate basis who can be reasoned with and who is a potential threat.”
Finally, says Lerman, the police need better training.
“And not just in weapons and combat tactics,” she says. “They need a deeper grounding in psychology and communication. Officers have to learn how to read both individuals and crowds better, how to identify leadership in group so they can engage in productive conversation. That’s really what’s at the heart of effective policing. It’s also at the heart of safer policing—for both citizens and officers.”