The rioting, protests and controversy continue to swirl around Ferguson this weekend, and you will no doubt be reading plenty of coverage from both sides about it. But in the background, a disturbing, larger national conversation has erupted out of the troubles in the St. Louis suburb. The hot topic everywhere seems to be a growing call to halt the so called “militarization” of the nation’s civilian police forces, highlighted by the riot suppression gear on display in Ferguson. It’s an argument coming from both sides of the ideological spectrum, too.
The IBD editorial board warns us to “beware” of this trend. John Fund, writing at National Review, worries over not just police, but a host of federal agencies being armed to the teeth. Bob Barr sounds the alarm as to how the psyche of our police must become warped when they are equipped like soldiers. Our own Noah Rothman has written thoughtfully on the subject, expressing some of his own concerns.
Frankly, I find the whole discussion to be a rather rapid rush to judgement and lacking in larger context. As far as the specific incidents in Ferguson go, we still need a lot more information before final conclusions can be drawn. The details of the initial shooting may remain in question, but what followed was well documented. Riots and looting broke out on a massive scale for such a small town, and continue this morning. The local police stood on the edge of being completely overwhelmed. And whether or not you find their level of response appropriate, this one local disturbance has turned into a national demand to defang the police. The Washington Post quickly began issuing advice on how to tame the cops. Clearly the nation’s legislators were listening, as Hank Johnson (D – Georgia) has already drafted legislation to do just that.
Am I the only one who finds this rather insulting to the nation’s first responders in general? Even if we are to assume that the Ferguson police crossed a line in breaking out their heaviest equipment in an attempt to reestablish control (which has not been conclusively proven at all, in my opinion), what of the rest of the country? As these critics frequently note, police departments in cities and towns of all sizes have been equipped with more modern, military style equipment for quite some time now and they don’t seem to be converting the rest of the nation into a series of oppressive death camps. And far too often, the cops find themselves in need of the “big guns” and body armor.
In case you think I’m coming in late to this debate, it’s not true. There was apparently a meeting held at some point in which Radley Balko was appointed as the go to guy for such discussions, but that dates back quite a ways. More than a year ago, Balko was pushing his ideas about so called “warrior cops” and at that time I penned an editorial stating that he was going too far.
Do we need “kinder and gentler” cops interacting with the community in a friendly fashion? It is certainly to the benefit of the police to be in good standing with a cooperative community and to know the people they protect and serve, but they also deserve a fighting chance when the situation suddenly turns violent and ugly. The rise of “warrior cops” may not be what everyone would hope for, but I don’t see any realistic alternatives.
While I both understand and sympathize with the reminiscing for the good old days, the times have changed. The era of the lovable flatfoot, twirling his baton and wagging a finger at the precocious kid about to steal some penny candy has passed us by. Have we collectively forgotten the riots that took place following the Rodney King verdict? How about the now infamous North Hollywood shootout? And for our friends on the Left, what about the next time somebody goes into an elementary school armed with a Bushmaster and a couple of 9mm Glocks? You don’t want us arming the teachers or having local residents open carrying to keep the school grounds safe. “Leave it to the cops,” you say. But should the cops be going into a situation like that with nothing more than a layer of cotton uniform and a revolver to protect themselves and take down the bad guys? Or should they have to wait until a SWAT unit from an “appropriately large city” shows up, with the shooter mowing down third graders in the meantime?
While the shooting of Michael Brown may provide a teachable moment in terms of police interactions with the community, the nearly immediate mayhem which followed should also serve as a timely reminder. The old assumptions of law enforcement and their unwritten compact with the citizenry relied on a society where the police – and the laws – were respected, and criminals were a minority who would be rejected by the rank and file residents. But when the majority of an entire community decides to break that compact, the formula changes. They realize that they outnumber – and frequently outgun – the cops. A slumbering, snarling beast is awakened and in short order the police can find themselves on the run. This is not a formula for freedom of speech… it’s the path to mayhem and the breakdown of civil society. Before you’re too quick to demand the “demilitarization” of the police, you might want to remember who it is that stands between the neighborhood you have now and South Central L.A circa 1992. And Ferguson has shown us that you don’t need a huge metropolitan area for it to happen.