Ferguson highlights police use of military gear

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FERGUSON, Mo. — The fo­cus on con­tin­u­ing pro­tests here turned Thurs­day to­ward para­mil­i­tary tac­tics and equip­ment that crit­ics — even among some law en­force­ment lead­ers — said have pro­voked vi­o­lence from the crowds.

Calls for St. Louis County and Fer­gu­son po­lice to “de­mil­i­ta­rize” the re­sponse ranged from peo­ple on the streets near where an un­armed teen­ager was shot Satur­day to U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and U.S. At­tor­ney Gen­eral Eric Holder.

Writ­ing in TIME mag­a­zine, U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., said scenes in Fer­gu­son re­sem­bled “war more than tra­di­tional po­lice ac­tion.”

Tac­ti­cal of­fi­cers in body ar­mor and bal­lis­tic hel­mets do look far more like sol­diers de­ployed to Iraq or Af­ghan­istan than the po­lice of de­cades ago, who of­ten man­aged ri­ots with miner-style hard hats and wooden ba­tons as their only spe­cial gear.

Fer­gu­son’s tear gas may be fa­mil­iar through the gen­er­a­tions. But use of ar­mored ve­hi­cles, a sonic blaster to dis­perse crowds with sound and .60-cal­i­ber rub­ber “Stinger” rounds for “pain com­pli­ance” are rel­a­tively new to the work.

Tim Lynch, di­rec­tor of the CATO In­sti­tute Proj­ect on Crim­i­nal Justice, said po­lice use of mil­i­tary weap­ons and tac­tics ac­cel­er­ated af­ter the 2001 al-Qaida ter­ror­ist at­tacks, in part be­cause of Home­land Se­cu­rity grants. He com­plained that fed­eral money is “dis­tort­ing de­ci­sion-mak­ing on the lo­cal level,” by giv­ing away “M-16s, gre­nade launch­ers, ar­mored ve­hi­cles.”

“The down­side is that we are start­ing to blur the ci­vil­ian po­lice mis­sion with the mil­i­tary mis­sion, and when that hap­pens, there are un­nec­es­sary, vi­o­lent con­fron­ta­tions be­tween the po­lice and cit­i­zens — such as we’re see­ing in Fer­gu­son,.” Mr. Lynch said.

But in a news con­fer­ence Thurs­day, Fer­gu­son Po­lice Chief Tom Jack­son, whose de­part­ment does not have a SWAT team of its own, de­fended the con­cept. “The tac­ti­cal units will be out there if fire­bombs start get­ting thrown, prop­erty is get­ting de­stroyed, shots are be­ing fired, peo­ple are be­ing shot at. We have to re­spond to deadly force,” he said.

“The whole pic­ture is be­ing painted a lit­tle bit side­ways from what’s re­ally hap­pen­ing,” Chief Jack­son said. “And it’s not mil­i­tary; it’s tac­ti­cal op­er­a­tions. It’s SWAT teams, that’s who’s out there: po­lice — we’re do­ing this in blue.”

Full de­tails of the tac­ti­cal gear be­ing de­ployed in Fer­gu­son by the St. Louis County po­lice and other agen­cies are not avail­able.

The Depart­ment of De­fense’s 1033 Pro­gram may have pro­vided some of the equip­ment, but it isn’t clear how much of this gear was pur­chased from other fed­eral pro­grams or lo­cal bud­gets. The 1033 Pro­gram has trans­ferred more than $4.3 bil­lion in sur­plus mil­i­tary equip­ment to thou­sands of law en­force­ment agen­cies and oth­ers. It is in­tended for “counter-nar­cot­ics and counter-ter­ror­ism op­er­a­tions, and to en­hance of­fi­cer safety,” ac­cord­ing to the Mis­souri Depart­ment of Pub­lic Safety web site.

United States - North America - Eric Holder - Missouri - Claire McCaskill - Rand Paul - John Blake


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