The Fergusons We Already Forgot

There's no shortage of examples of militarized U.S. policing gone wrong in recent years. 

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(AP Photo/Stevan Morgain)

Police in full riot gear firing tear gas into a residential neighborhood in Ferguson, Missouri: The image was shocking to many citizens of the United States. To many others, it was no surprise at all, simply part of a pattern of escalating police tactics that includes SWAT teams breaking into people's houses in the middle of the night and suppressing peaceful demonstrations with paramilitary techniques.

The American Civil Liberties Union released a report in June of this year called "War Comes Home: The Excessive Militarization of American Policing" [PDF], which includes a statistical analysis of 800 SWAT deployments in 20 separate jurisdictions just between 2011 and 2012. “[T]he use of hyper-aggressive tools and tactics results in tragedy for civilians and police officers, escalates the risk of needless violence, destroys property, and undermines individual liberties," the report concludes.

Ferguson may provide a particularly clear example of that principle. When police initially responded to demonstrators by facing off, wearing riot gear and deploying tanks and rifles, the result was escalating violence. When, later in the week, cops took off the body armor and walked among the protesters, the situation immediately calmed.

It seems like the ultimate teachable moment. But let's not forget that we've had plenty of chances to learn from similar mistakes in the recent past. Below are just some of the cases the U.S. has experienced in just the past 15 years. These lessons are seemingly slow to sink in.

This March 16, 2014 photo of an Albuquerque Police Department lapel camera still, shows a standoff with an illegal camper in the Albuquerque foothills, before firing six shots at the man. (AP Photo/Albuquerque Police Department)

March 2014, in Albuquerque, New Mexico: Police armed with rifles and clad in bulletproof vests got into a three-hour standoff with 38-year-old James Boyd, a mentally ill homeless man who was camping illegally on a hillside. Boyd had been holding two camping knives, but after a prolonged negotiation he agreed to accompany officers and turned his back to the police to gather his belongings. Helmetcam video released by the Albuquerque Police Department shows officers using a flash-bang grenade on Boyd, then shooting him in the back, fatally wounding him. As Boyd lay facedown on the ground, officers fired at him with beanbag rounds and released a police dog, which attacked his legs, shaking him like a rag doll. Boyd was one of 25 people killed by Albuquerque police since 2010. The U.S. Department of Justice found, in a subsequent investigation [PDF], “reasonable cause to believe that APD engages in a pattern or practice of use of excessive force, including deadly force, in violation of the Fourth Amendment and Section 14141 [of the United States Code].”

(AP Photo/Ben Margot)

October and November of 2011, in Oakland, California: Police repeatedly clashed with demonstrators who were attempting to retake the plaza outside city hall where Occupy Oakland had been camped for two weeks. The Oakland Police Department used tear gas, flash-bang grenades, and beanbag rounds in their confrontations with protesters. Several civilians were injured, including Marine veteran Scott Olsen, who was struck in the head and critically injured by a “less-than-lethal” projectile on October 25. The city of Oakland settled some of the protesters injury claims in 2013, paying out more than $1 million in damages. An independent investigation [PDF] found that “[y]ears of diminishing resources, increasing workload and failure to keep pace with national current standards and preferred practices led to the cascading elements resulting in the flawed responses noted during the events of October 25, 2011.”

January 2008 in Lima, Ohio: A young woman named Tarika Wilson was shot to death by a SWAT team raiding a Lima, Ohio, home as part of a drug investigation. Wilson, who was not a target of the drug probe, was holding her 14-month-old son at the time: he was also shot and hospitalized. Wilson was biracial, and race immediately became an issue in the case, which unfolded in a mostly black urban industrial community set in a majority-white rural part of the state. Of the 77 officers on the Lima force at the time of the shooting, only two were African American. Sergeant Joseph Chavalia, the white policeman who killed Wilson with a rifle, admitted in court that he fired without knowing whether his target was male or female and that he had not seen the child in her arms. He was acquitted of criminal charges in the case, but the city of Lima later settled a wrongful death suit filed by Wilson’s family for $2.5 million.

Seattle police use gas to push back World Trade Organization protesters in downtown Seattle Tuesday, Nov. 30, 1999. (AP Photo/Eric Draper)

1999 in Seattle: When the World Trade Organization met in Seattle in late 1999, the gathering of world leaders set off a wave of protests over issues including economic globalization, environmental degradation, the treatment of workers around the world, and social equity. While most protesters were peaceful, some incidents of vandalism led the mayor to declare a state of emergency (the governor did the same later in the week). The Seattle Police Department’s subsequent handling of the situation—which saw officers in riot gear deploying tear gas, rubber bullets, and pepper spray, among other militarized techniques—was widely viewed as a debacle. The department’s chief at the time, Norman Stamper, has been outspoken in the years since about the mistakes he made and how they reflect the pitfalls of militarized policing in the United States. In 2006 he published a book called Breaking Rank: A Top Cop's Exposé of the Dark Side of American PolicingSpeaking with Vox’s Amanda Taub earlier this week about the lessons that officers in Ferguson might have drawn from Seattle, Stamper had this to say:

What happened in Seattle in 1999 was a police overreaction, which I presided over. It was the worst mistake of my career. We used chemical agents, a euphemism for tear gas, against nonviolent and essentially nonthreatening protesters. The natural consequence of which are that we were the catalyst for heightened tension and conflict rather than peacekeepers, or for that matter even peacemakers. It's a lesson, unfortunately, that American law enforcement in general has not learned.

About the Author

  • Sarah Goodyear has written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog. She lives in Brooklyn.