War Veterans Criticize the Tactics of Military-Armed Police in Ferguson

Vets are taking to social media to argue that police need military-level de-escalation training to go with all that war gear. 

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Mario Anzuoni/Reuters

Five days after the police shooting of Michael Brown, frustrated Americans—and exhausted African Americans—across the nation are seeing still more scenes of war from Ferguson, Missouri. Yet today, on day six in the standoff between police and demonstrators, the crisis may have hit a turning point. Bloomberg reports that Missouri Governor Jay Nixon is relieving the St. Louis County Police Department from duty in Ferguson. The events of last night make clear why.

Dressed in riot gear, St. Louis County Police launched flash grenades and fired tear gas at protesters, maintaining an unofficial curfew and dispersing demonstrators. Police continued a brownout on news coverage from the front, arresting two reporters (the Huffington Post's Ryan J. Reilly and The Washington Post's Wesley Lowery) and St. Louis Alderman Antonio French (who was only just released this morning). Figures as ideologically diverse as Texas Republican Senator Ted Cruz and the student body of Howard University condemned the actions of the police (albeit to different degrees).

They were joined by a number of U.S. veterans, who also took to social media to bemoan the police response in Ferguson. Veterans from deployments in Iraq, Afghanistan, Bosnia, and near North Korea have complained that the police manning the skirmish line in Ferguson have not demonstrated the type of restraint that members of the military are trained to exercise

As the crisis in Ferguson has shown, one issue with the militarization of the police is that military gear doesn't come with military training. The U.S. Army's handbook on civil disturbances states in no uncertain terms that the way that the approach that authorities take to crowd control can worsen a crisis—a factor that the St. Louis County Police Department apparently did not take into consideration. "During planning, leaders must consider that the crowd may become more combative with the arrival of a response force," the guidelines explain. 

So the first step in moving forward after Ferguson may be to complete the militarization of the police—that is, for state and local authorities to implement badly needed training to go with their advanced gear. At the very least, armored vehicles and riot gear should come with cameras.

(Mario Anzuoni/Reuters)

That's not to say that police in Ferguson or law-enforcement elsewhere across the nation lack basic training, or that their training neglects such reasonable instructions as "don't train weapons on protesters" and "don't arrest Ryan J. Reilly." But the police response in Ferguson—which Jelani Cobb likens to domestic "shock and awe"—did not appear to abide by any guidelines.

That was the criticism levied by Gen. Russell Honoré, who led the recovery in New Orleans in the crisis following Hurricane Katrina. “You’re in trouble when your SWAT team is on the front line of dealing with a civil disturbance,” Honoré told CNN“The tactics they are using, I don’t know where they learned them from. It appears they may be making them up on the way. But this is escalating the situation," he added.

The public is still no closer to understanding the circumstances under which Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old, was killed by a Ferguson police officer, who has yet to be named. And during the melee on Tuesday night, police shot another 19-year-old, reporting that he carried a weapon. That teenager is now in critical condition.

Both the 19-year-old's shooting and Brown's death deserve a thorough investigation. So, too, does the military bearing of the police. 

About the Author

  • Kriston Capps is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously a senior editor at Architect magazine, and a contributing writer to Washington City Paper and The Washington Post.