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