Is Perception Reality? Ferguson and the Supposed Militarization of Police

As riots broke out in Ferguson, Missouri, following the shooting death of an 18-year-old black man whose “good reputation” has slowly become unsurprisingly tattered, the following text message chimed its way to my cell phone: “What’s with the MARPAT?” The question was rhetorical, and there was no need for explanation. As police descended on protestors clad in riot gear, their appearance was decidedly military. OD green shirts and, yes, MARPAT camo pants made them look less like members of local law enforcement and more like the Marines had come to town. These images only served to fan the flames of the recently ramped-up media-hyped cries of our local LEO’s (Law Enforcement Officer) militarization. Are our nation’s local law enforcement (LE) agencies becoming militarized? The answer is two-fold: yes and no.

One of the weapons in the media’s militarization arsenal is, of course, weapons. But not just any weapons; these weapons are being obtained by your local police department from the military, courtesy of the Department of Defense 1033 Program. 1033 allows for the sale of the military’s surplus equipment to local police departments, and the media frenzy would have the public believing the list is clogged with such items as Spectre gunships and M2 machine guns. Reality is something different.

On the list of more-than-10,000-units-sold are such incredibly terrifying items as building panels (10,000), fence posts (17,707), socket-head screw caps (43,828) and the amusingly-named men’s drawers (10,980, and, really, who outside a Civil War reenactment calls underwear “drawers”?). There are hundreds of thousands of more innocuous items than there are weapons, although mags do top the list at 139,366 – but there’s no sign as to whether those are rifle or pistol mags. And, yes, there have been 44 MRAPs (Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles) distributed nationwide as well as 61,548 rifles chambered in either 5.56 NATO or 7.62x39mm. But does the distribution of a rifle in a caliber available to the civilian population equal a military presence? The media thinks it does.

5.56_x_45_mm_NATOSome of the rifles being obtained by PD’s are fully automatic, which distinguishes them from the semi-automatic restrictions placed on the public. Many departments claim to be converting the rifles to semi-auto, and many probably will do just that. Here we could easily delve into a topic guaranteed to cause explosive controversy: full-auto versus semi-auto and why the public should or should not have it. But regardless of how many rounds can be fired with a single squeeze of the trigger, there is something no one seems to be considering: how long has your local PD had a full-auto weapon?

The DoD’s 1033 Program was enacted in 1997, but it’s actually been around since 1990 under section 1208 of the National Defense Authorization Act of 1990. So did police have fully automatic rifles prior to 1990, or is the DoD’s program responsible? Although there have been gaps in LE carrying fully automatic rifles as a result of laws, the biggest of which was Roosevelt’s 1934 National Firearm’s Act, they have had possession of them long before the DoD program’s 1990 beginnings. Hard experience proved the usefulness of fully automatic weapons, such as the 1974 Symbionese Liberation Army siege in Los Angeles, California. SWAT was called in, and they were woefully out-gunned; the result was both body armor and automatic weapons being issued. The Watts Riots of the 1960’s also proved the need for greater police-issued firepower. Multiple LEO’s confirm the long-time issue of fully automatic weapons, and their rifles didn’t all come from the military, either; many were purchased brand new from the manufacturer – and well before the DoD got involved.

If your local PD were to obtain real military-grade firepower, it would not be readily-available 5.56 NATO-chambered M16 rifles where the one big distinction is the full-auto option. Those are not only not new to LE, they’re available in semi-auto form to the general public – a reality that will undoubtedly upset someone out there. And, in fact, the military has repeatedly upgraded from the original 5.56 NATO M16, and more than one of its successors is missing something: the full-auto switch. Instead, they have a three-burst selector, for reasons which would take far too long to get into here. Which means – that’s right – not every rifle obtained by LE from the military is full-auto.

Lenco BearcatTrue hand-held firepower, from a military perspective, would include such weapons as the .50 cal M2 heavy machine gun, fondly known as “Ma Deuce” or the new-in-2014 Heckler-and-Koch-designed XM25 Individual Airburst Weapons System, “The Punisher,” which fires next-gen 25mm grenades up to 500 meters – accurately (or, for fun, the AA12 Atchison Assault Shotgun, which fires five 12-gauge shells per second and has a recoil only 10% that of your average 12-gauge). There are simply too many military weapons to list, and the overwhelming majority are not being handed over to stateside LE. And as for the MRAPs, while it is true one might wonder why the police need a vehicle designed to withstand land mines and IED’s, they also aren’t exactly shocking. After all, LE has been using armored vehicles such as the Lenco Bearcat for some time to protect officers during SWAT deployments. And as Georgia’s Jones County Sheriff Butch Reece pointed out, “We don’t have any mines here, but we use it as a SWAT vehicle. It saves us from ever having to buy one. We don’t have $250,000, $300,000, $400,000.” (Reece’s department obtained an MRAP with just 2 miles on it for free, and it is valued at $733,000.) So although there are many caustically – and sarcastically – musing as to the necessity of the heavier-duty MRAP, is it really a bad thing to offer protection to those who risk their lives to protect and serve?

The bottom line is the supposed militarization of the police has little to do with the surplus items they’re obtaining from the military, which covers the “no” side of the opening question’s answer. Were they rolling down the street in Abrams tanks and opening fire from gunships, that would be a different story, but, much to the probable disappointment of some in the media, they are not. The problem, at least right now, is not the equipment; it’s the tactics.

When the Tsarnev brothers bombed the 2013 Boston Marathon, the hunt was on. And when, four days later, they engaged police, the nation watched as Boston employed tactics more typically associated with jack-booted thugs. If that seems a harsh correlation to draw, consider the following. In the manhunt for Dzhokhar Tsarnev, Watertown residents were both flat-out ordered and literally dragged forcibly from their homes while police performed warrantless searches of their homes. LEO’s pointed their weapons at citizens watching the goings-on from the windows of their homes – where they were confined – and also brandished weapons in situations such as the one where a bathrobe-clad woman attempted to check on her next-door neighbor, only to be roughly ordered back inside by armed men.

In my hometown of Seattle, in 1999, there were the infamous WTO protests-turned-riots, and after the brute force exercised by the Seattle PD, their own chief, Norm Stamper, was so disgusted he retired. Today he calls his presiding over the tear-gas-and-pepper-spray heavy tactics “the worst decision of [his] 34-year career.” Stamper also has something to say about Ferguson, and he doesn’t mince words, calling it “a huge mistake.”

Ferguson police face down protesters.
Ferguson police face down protesters.

In Ferguson, behavior was repeated that has been seen in the past but seems to be occurring with greater frequency. LEO’s aimed their rifles at individual, lone citizens whose arms were raised and at the drivers of passing cars, launched tear gas in a seemingly haphazard fashion, including at members of the media on the fringes, and acted with more aggression than often seen in a war zone, according to a number of Iraq and Afghanistan combat vets. It is, quite simply, a tactical travesty, and it has nothing to do with their secondhand military weapons. It also doesn’t technically have to do with their MARPAT-wear, although there is truth that what you wear matters, not only visually, but mentally.

The problem here is not weaponry; it is the tactics behind them. Not every LEO in Ferguson was heavy-handed or pointed their rifles at random, breaking the cardinal rule of not pointing your weapon at anything you aren’t willing to destroy. And though the excuse has been given of rubber bullets, not all were. In addition, rubber bullets are not harmless: they can cause bone fractures, internal injuries, permanent deformity, and death. Tear gas and OC spray can also cause permanent blindness and death, and LE sometimes uses both far too freely.

Former Seattle Police Chief Norm Stamper believes there is a better way to handle protestors and riots, and he isn’t the only one. Floridian and community activist Reverend Glenn Dames said he’d never had issue with his local PD’s tactics, but said of Ferguson, “When you have ongoing conversations with community leaders, that is preventable maintenance. As opposed to right now…Ferguson is changing their motor. Their motor is completely fallen off and it’s costing them a whole lot.” Army vet and former State Department security officer Kyle Dykstra said that although he and his men had been in some “pretty bad areas of Afghanistan” they “didn’t wear that much gear.” And SWAT officer Scriven King – not from Ferguson – who also happens to be a USAF law enforcement vet, talked about the lack of leadership and mismanagement, adding “Officers were calling the protestors ‘animals.’ I can’t imagine a military unit would do that in any scenario.” Opinions are flying from every corner, and there is a theme: something’s got to give. Something’s going to give.

There is a joke in the firearms community: guns don’t kill people, people with mustaches kill people. Point being, an inanimate object – such as military weapons – are not responsible for the behavior of the human beings behind them. And while suiting up in MARPAT and serious gear may influence one’s mindset, it does not actually cause purposefully intimidating actions. Blame for ham-handed, perilously irresponsible tactics must rest on the shoulders of those who carry them out. The DoD 1033 program is not responsible for the so-called militarization of our nation’s police force. It is the entitled, power-hungry mindset of a certain part of the population that is to blame – on both sides, mind you – and finding a solution to that is another story altogether.

Katherine Ainsworth

Katherine is a military and political journalist with a reputation for hard-hitting, no-holds-barred articles. Her career as a writer has immersed her in the military lifestyle and given her unique insights into the various branches of service. She is a firearms aficionado and has years of experience as a K9 SAR handler, and has volunteered with multiple support-our-troops charities for more than a decade. Katherine is passionate about military issues and feels supporting service members should be the top priority for all Americans. Her areas of expertise include the military, politics, history, firearms and canine issues.
Katherine Ainsworth
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31 thoughts on “Is Perception Reality? Ferguson and the Supposed Militarization of Police

  1. Great article, i can totally agrree when you talk about it not being the weaponry but the people with it and how it is being used.

    1. Thank you, I’m glad you enjoyed it. Public perception of weapons – especially as tainted by the media – seems to be the biggest complaint right now, oddly enough. After what happened in Boston you’d think people would be more up in arms about tactics, but the focus in most militarization discussions I’ve seen still seems to center around weapons, specifically the DoD 1033 program. I’m far more concerned with the fact that they’re aiming loaded rifles at people rather recklessly than what kind of rifle it is, which is a distinction I’d love to see picked up more often.

      1. I’m sure “people” like you were not concerned when Cliven Bundy and his backwoods “militia” took up arms. There is no difference between them and these jackboot cops, save the equipment. The real problem is POWER. Those who have it (or think they have it, as power and control are very much an illusion) just want more of it, and will do whatever they can to keep it. THAT is the fundament problem with this country, and its propagated by career politicians and the worthless sheep that vote them into office.

        1. His “backwoods militia” as you refer to it was made up of a number of members of the military, including SOF.

          Power is absolutely a problem, as I said, the real problem here is the mindset behind the weapons and not the weapons themselves. As Abraham Lincoln said “If you want to test a man’s character, give him power.”

          All that said, there is absolutely a difference between those intent on defending their rights and those wielding power out of a desire for domination and arrogant control. For example, Cliven Bundy and the men who guarded his ranch are the types who were absolutely appalled by the goings-on of the Boston bombing marathon aftermath, watching American citizens rights being ignored and stripped from them. Those who stand for the Constitution and our unalienable rights stand on an entirely different platform than the clay feet of the power-hungry. There is simply no comparison.

  2. I like how you put this together. PD’s used to use automatic Thompson submachine guns, so this is nothing new. The tactics are the real problem, the real militarization.

    1. Thanks, Seth. It’s absolutely tactics, which is a problem far more deeply rooted and harder to correct. Although Norm Stamper, Seattle’s former Chief, blames himself for a lot of what happened tactically during the WTO riot in 99, I’m more inclined to believe it comes down to the individual officer. Yes, orders come from above, but certain behavior is more personal. Of course, that’s an issue that would require an entirely different article.

  3. I agree with much of what you said in the article, but I truly do think that what you wear and riding on a huge military vehicle changes almost anyone’s mindset from a proper place to a downright dark place. These weapons, clothing, and vehicles alongside free federal “training” being provided to many local police departments is quickly changing the typical officer’s view of the citizen from someone they’re supposed to protect to someone they consider the “enemy”. As someone who served as an officer in the actual US military, I find it both dishonorable and downright frightening as we witness what is occurring. I truly believe that we will look back at this time in our lives as the beginning of the end of our individual liberties and freedom and essentially our country. These tactics are becoming the norm you see when you turn on the television – they are blatantly illegal and unconstitutional, and the end result to the police departments is the problem….nothing. Officers do not get fired, they do not get chastised – they almost are encouraged to continue this escalation of vilifying the American citizen. If you think this isn’t going to end with a major cultural shift, you’re completely wrong. If you think having a SWAT team blow open your door and throw flash bangs into your bedroom is acceptable and reasonable behavior to serve a warrant for non-violent crime, I bet you’ll feel differently if you actually went through that yourself. The actual military doesn’t act like this against enemies who actually fire back – how does anyone think having police do this against people that aren’t even armed is even remotely reasonable?

    1. FormerMilitary, I absolutely agree. As I said, it is not the weapons, it is the tactics (and mindset) behind them, and kitting up in a certain way certainly influences people. I do think the media focus of trying to blame these behaviors on the DoD 1033 program is a mistake, though. Although gear can affect the mindset, it cannot be wholly blamed. Also speaking from experience, those in law enforcement with a power-hungry mindset have been around for decades, far longer than they’ve had access to military weapons. Your mentioning accountability is certainly a good point, because that most likely plays a role in the worsening situation. It is increasingly rare for anyone in any walk of life to be held accountable for their actions. The nationwide habit of excusing poor behavior is simply pushing us down the slippery slope at an ever greater rate.

  4. Good article, my opinion but i think that “militairy looking police” is as bad as “the militairy” to solve normal public problems!

    1. True, the distinctions between our military and LE are many; the force of the military is not meant for use in the States just as the “protect and serve” of LE should not be twisted into “hearts and minds” for our military. Attempts to blend the two together are a mistake.

  5. Great article. I have always wondered why police had to go from their regular blue uniforms to camo when things go tense. You wear camo to hide. That is not the job of the police, they are supposed to be a visible deterrent to criminals. Putting on military uniforms does put a person is a different frame of mind and that is another reason for police to ditch the camo.

    1. Agreed, Michael. Wearing camo in an urban setting completely alters the civilian perception as well, creating issues on both sides. In Seattle the standard riot gear is black, which seems more logical than camo. Camo seems to be gaining use across the country in LE, and it would make sense to cease its use. Seeing camo and thinking “military” is a perfectly reasonable and understandable conclusion to reach and just one reason for LE not to use it.

  6. I remember when the police in LA had to run to local gun stores to borrow high power rifles to subdue 2 bank robbers, The cops were out gunned by 2 guys.
    How about the Watts riots or the riots in NJ.
    More police interaction with local leaders and the townspeople will go a long way to alleviate problems.

    1. This is another issue, it is absolutely ludicrous for our LEO’s to be outgunned. Of course, it is also asinine for citizens to be outgunned by criminals, because it is those who wish us harm who have no hesitation in breaking laws to obtain whatever firepower they want. Restrictions hurt the law-abiding. I was only able to briefly touch on the Watts Riots above, but they did play a key role in persuading leaders to give LEO’s more powerful firearms, not that every department took or takes note of these things. Some are quicker than others.

      A more open dialogue is certainly important as well. Striking a proper balance is difficult, but it has absolutely been shown to help when LE communicates more fully with local leaders.

  7. As long as we have crowds free speech and freedom to assemble is great! But when they get destructive and dangerous then the police needs a little more than a baton and shield to defend others their property and themselves! I would not expect to hire a carpenter that only had a hammer and a hand saw or a mechanic with only a pair of pliers. The police deserve tools of the trade, they already have the power needed to kill if needed but when the criminals step it up, so should our protectors!

    1. This is something that has not really been addressed in the mainstream media regarding Ferguson. A great many of the most destructive rioters weren’t citizens at all but had come from out of the state for the simple purpose of picking a fight, and there were quite a few looters and felons among the locals present as well. Our First Amendment rights are incredibly important, but people do seem to think “free speech” means “freedom to destroy and assault.” A peaceful protest is one thing, a riot another. LE absolutely must nip this behavior in the bud; in many ways they’ve become afraid to exert the very power they’re granted, creating quite a conundrum. On one side we have those who wield their power with glee and overblown pomposity and on the other, those struggling not to cross the line even at their own risk. How many officers have been killed or injured because they do NOT want to exert anything that could be perceived as excessive force? It certainly happens. Finding a middle ground through training, oversight, and accountability seems a good place to start, but it is not a simple process by any means. I wholeheartedly agree, Chris, that our LEO’s need to be properly armed.

    2. The most effective tool to enact crowd control is numbers, water cannons, and as a last resort CS. How many departments can call up large reserves? Not many these days have moderate reserve officer pools due to Union control over the departments. How many riots in the past few decades have used water cannons? They are used as the front lines in many countries and our own military- I know first hand just how effective they are. Even in Ferguson they deployed CS regularly to keep lines from breaking out of control [as a chemical fence]. Ever seen first hand a wet cold protestor? Their spirit is broken quickly as they shiver in the night and seek shelter after being wet and cold.

  8. First all of all I respect how some of you feel but have to disagree with a lot of you how you all feel about LE. Why is a lot of people feel the way they do when they see LE that look like military? Based off my experiences both in 15 yrs in military and 10 of those years serving same time as a civilian police officer I can tell you why some LE dress like military. We live in a different world now than how it was in the 1900’s. Every time a Police Officer gets dressed up to work that day, we know there is people out there that want us killed or seriously injured because it happens almost every day. We are sworn to protect the public and a lot of you get offended on how LE dresses. REALLYY??? yes there is bad apples out there that make a lot of us look bad but that’s the same in the military too. Most of you see a soldier dressed up in his fatigues and say thank you for protecting our country, and a lot of you look at LE the a different way as though they just burglarized your home or kicked your dog, but LE is here to do the same job but on our own home land serving the citizens when they request help for those who are trying to harm them. LE lay their lives on the line every day to protect the public and the military do it in the time of war. So what I’m trying to say is look at LE differently and try to understand what they go through everyday dealing with people who hate police with a passion when they try to do their job. LE is the most thankless job out there today but those who are out doing the job now is because most of US and YOU won’t do just like those who serve in the military. So lets not bash those LE just because there is a bad apple out there and I’m sure every dept has one just like every military unit does. So to answer most of your questions on why some LE dress that way; its because they dress like military and have equipment to prepare themselves for a serious incident that may occur from those who try to hurt or kill LE, and innocent civilians. So in other words, its better to have it and not need it than not have it and need it. Just go back to the Hollywood bank robbery in California when a lot of officers were killed or seriously injured because they weren’t prepared for such a major incident involving fully automatic weapons by the bank robbers. Hollywood Police had to wait an extraordinary amount of time for the S.W.A.T. to respond. If you local police depts. were properly trained and equipped to react to that such of incident, it could’ve saved a lot of lives. We learn from past experiences and just because you don’t hear about it on the news like the Communist News Network(CNN), doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. So God Bless to all those who serve in the military and police and stay safe.

    1. As I said, I do believe LE should be properly armed; the weapons are not the problem.

      There is a significant difference between the purpose of local LE and our military, however. LE is meant to protect and serve; the military is meant to defend and/or act as an occupying force. LE is meant to serve the public, which is why officers have long been pulled from the local population and get to know their specific beat and the people on it quite well. The military is trained to fight and to use organized force, while LE is meant to use force only as a last resort.

      There are many excellent, upstanding LEO’s out there some of whom I am proud to call my friend or family. However, there are now more than just one or two bad apples per department. LEO’s have requested transfers or left the force entirely due to the corruption growing in the ranks.

      It is of the utmost importance the distinction between the military and LE be remembered and respected. As the line is blurred, warrantless searches are being performed, unlawful search-and-seizures, excessive force, the list goes on. The “us versus them” mentality is a danger for both sides. There are many reasons why the old image of Andy Griffith and Barney Fife is being replaced by one of a faceless officer wielding power indiscriminately, and the list is far too long to get into here. Yes, there are many good cops out there, and for them we should all be grateful. But it would be irresponsible to ignore the problems festering in the system, and I know a good many LEO’s who would agree.

  9. While not all LEO are corrupt or Bad, the issue I see that they don’t “police” themselves very well. I do have first hand knowledge of internal complaints and investigations that go on regularly and there is more of an effort to “put out the fire” before the media catches wind of it then justice being served. With that said, I think there is appropriate uniforms and training attire that should distinguish them from Military or Militia units and they should leave the Machineguns, Sniper Rifles, and Armored trucks to the State Police and the National Guard. I don’t agree with the direction I see these agencies going today [Paramilitary Police], No Sir!

    1. There is definitely a lack of accountability in many cases. I was, though, pleased to see them refuse to give the officer’s name in the Ferguson shooting for as long as they did, because it was for his own safety. It is also infuriating when officers are wrongly accused and it is so frequently done along race lines it is stunning. But, yes, there is a dire need for real accountability; without it, things will continue to spiral out of control.

  10. Regardless of the “militarization”. There are a few things in thought that ring true to me and don’t seem like fiction.

    1- Looking around at the way police act these days smacks of a Third World country.

    2- If you give police new equipment, they’re going to be enticed to use it -for better or worse.

    3- Government cannot and will not keep you safe. Police are not even legally obliged to keep you safe. If we turn our safety over to the care of government, we are not participating in a free society. Government is there to protect our liberties, not keep us safe.

    4- There is no real clear enemy of police to substantiate the ‘build-up’ of arms by police departments over the last 30 years or so. Some may argue otherwise this point, but if you need and MRAP vehicle, granades, and .50 cals., to keep you safe, then I suggest you’ve already lost the war, the moral high-ground, and the hearts and minds of the people you’re supposed to serve.

    1. You make some excellent points. People tend to forget the role of government in today’s society, and also tend to forget the reason(s) behind our Second Amendment rights. The blind trust and bizarre expectancy many Americans have for government to not only protect them but provide for them in many capacities has only worsened in recent years, and they are all too willing to give up liberties, piece by piece, to gain what they see as benefits. Benjamin Franklin had it right when he said “those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

      1. Just wait until there is a stand down during virus outbreak, until it feasters enough, and we will see, stand witness, to the medical/governmental tyranny that most people will welcome with open arms. Just watch.

  11. I couldn’t make it all the way through this right wing spin job. It makes me sick to think that our government spends over 10 million bucks on 1 MRAP, then just gives it away (as opposed to selling it to a foreign countries like we do with most of our surplus equipment, most of which finds it way to the middle east to create instability in the region, I’m sure the “author” would disagree, but that’s what sheep like her do), especially when its in the hands of a bunch of jack-boot hicks who are already on power trips. Our founding fathers wanted the PEOPLE of this country (not the ones who are in “control”) to be able to take up arms against these local tyrants so that we would not be oppressed again. With the current amount of militarized equipment they (military/police) have at their disposal, that will never be able to happen again. If I pointed my rifle at a cop I’d be shot, if a cop unjustly points his gun at me he gets a retirement package. How FUBAR is that? That’s the reason I have many guns, lots of ammo, and body armor, because I know what kind of right wing jackboots there are in this country.

    1. The average cost of an MRAP is $750,000; $10 million would buy approximately 13.

      Thank you for sharing you opinion.

  12. An armed society is a safer society. Take guns from the police. They’re basically the clean up after crap happens crew. We are perfectly capable of policing ourselves. The Constitution gives us the right to bear arms – Where are the police in the bill of rights. Take all the military garb and equipment away – That’s what I say.

    1. I will agree that an armed society is a safer society, I am a firm Second Amendment rights supporter. Sadly, though, there will always be those among us with a “lynch mob” mentality who believe there is no need for evidence or a trial, and that’s why we do need some sort of justice system. And along those lines if our LE was unarmed they would be unable to detain the actual lawbreakers. Cities especially are so large it would be impossible to police ourselves and although some of us have morals and ethics there is a healthy portion of the population that does not, and they would take advantage of it in the worst possibly ways. Reality is society has slipped so far we’ve become tangled in our own net, and it does not seem to be getting better anytime soon.

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