Police Need to Be Demilitarized and Remade as ‘Peace Officers’
The apparent murder by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, of Mike Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old black youth who was shot a number of times while he was allegedly on his knees with his hands up in the air, pleading “Don’t shoot, I’m not armed,” is exposing everything that is wrong with policing in the US today.
The Ferguson Police Department, reportedly nearly all white (50 of 53 officers), patrols a St. Louis suburban community that is 70 percent African-American, a situation that is already a recipe for disaster in a nation that is drenched in racism--and all too typical in communities across the country. The Ferguson PD has also been reportedly employing the kind of aggressive policing -- arresting people over minor infractions -- that can quickly escalate into violent confrontations. In this case, it appears Brown’s offense was jay-walking and perhaps talking back to the police officer -- the first being a citation offense, and the second not even illegal.
When this shooting happened, instead of immediately attempting to calm things down, the Ferguson Police Department went all paramilitary, sending massive numbers of up-armed cops in military gear, backed by police dogs, into the community. They also brought in armored vehicles, reportedly equipped with heavy machine guns mounted on top, which at one point were trained on protesters but fortunately not fired. (Hundreds of police departments in communities like Ferguson across the country now have such surplus military equipment, showered on them for free by the US Department of Homeland Security.) Ferguson cops responded to understandable community protests with tear gas and, later, with solid wooden and rubber bullets designed to hurt and injure but not kill (though clearly at close range there is always that danger). Several more people have already been shot by police, leaving them in critical condition.
Adding to community outrage is the refusal by police to release the name of the officer responsible for killing Brown, or even to release the initial report of his autopsy -- both the kind information that would be readily available were the shooter not a police officer.
What’s wrong here? So many things that it’s hard to know where to begin.
First of all, unless an officer is under attack, or unless members of the public are threatened, there is simply no justification for a police officer to unholster a service revolver or worse, to fire at a person who is allegedly committing some minor offense.