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Ferguson, militarized cops and America’s tendency to use force for ‘peace’

A member of the St. Louis County Police Department points his weapon in the direction of a group of protesters in Ferguson, Mo. on Wednesday, Aug. 13, 2014. AP

The shooting death of a black teenager, 18-year-old Michael Brown, by a white policeman (as yet unidentified) in Ferguson, Missouri, over the weekend has once again inflamed the nation with calls for the U.S. to resolve its festering problems with racism, police accountability, gun violence and freedom of expression (i.e., allowing the media to do its job and the public to speak out, as per the First Amendment).

Another police shooting death of an another unarmed young black man, 25-year-old Ezell Ford, on Monday in Los Angeles may only fuel the flames of protest and social unrest. The fact that Ford was mentally ill may add this issue to our country’s fester-list.

President Obama today called for peace, and ‘healing’ in response to the Ferguson shooting, but violent protests continue in and around the St. Louis, MO, suburb where Brown was killed. A vigil is planned in LA for Ford that one hopes will remain peaceful.

The suicide of comedian-actor Robin Williams and the continuing spread of the Ebola outbreak in Africa still dominate the news, at least according to Google, but a new theme has emerged from out of these police shootings that deserves much more attention – the militarization of America’s police forces. The images out of Ferguson are startling in that, if you removed the McDonald’s signs and other hints of Americana, some of them look like a shot from Tahrir Square in Egypt, or even a city patrol through Kabul.

And this is what the U.S. often looks like, all around the world. A force. Sometimes, a brute force. This tragedy is seen, elsewhere around the world, as more than simply an American problem. Our internal struggles, and dysfunctions, have global implications.

How did we get from a nation that, though willing to respond in kind to force with retaliatory force, now seems to respond to almost any threat – or disturbance, or misdemeanor – with force? Sometimes, it’s not even a response. It’s our way to resolve some geopolitical problem, like Saddam Hussein. And how well has that worked out around the world, in places like Iraq and Afghanistan?

When we decide not to use force, such as in Syria, we often discover we have no alternative strategy.

Now, as America reflects on its problems (as we love to do … even Ebola wasn’t big news in the U.S. until we flew some sick aid workers home), it is encouraging to see many raising the question as to why so many police departments are mimicking the military – and if it is in our interest, or even in the interests of the police. Given a hammer, you tend to see everything as a nail….

James Fallows, in The Atlantic Turning Policemen into Soldiers

ABC News Ferguson Police Show of Force Highlights Militarization of America’s Cops

Vox Why the Feds are putting grenade launchers into the hands of cops

Newsweek How America’s Police Became an Army

Time Rand Paul: We must demilitarize the police

Bill Moyers Eleven eye-opening facts about our militarized police forces

Esquire Americans are Afraid of their Police

Perhaps the Ferguson episode, like the LA shooting and other such shooting incidents in which police under duress respond with overwhelming force (shock and awe?), will force us to revisit our faith in force as a means for resolving conflict. Maybe Hollywood will start producing shows and movies in which the hero is a diplomat or politician who has the super power of preventing death and mayhem by force of intellect, reason and compassion.

Andy and BarneyHeck, maybe we can even get a modern version of Mayberry RFD, where the town sheriff and his goofy deputy resolve almost everything just by some good, friendly chats. They had crazy people and lots of guns back then as well, but somehow seldom donned Kevlar vests and AR-15s to deal with angry townspeople.

Once we foster a strategy that allows the police to focus on their primary job, that of keeping the peace and enforcing order (as opposed to sparking riots), maybe we can expand that approach globally.


About Author

Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at] or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.