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In the aftermath of the Ferguson tragedy, police militarization has become a topic of debate across the United States. Though police militarization is just now beginning to come to light, it has been a part of police departments since the 1960s. With the formation of SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics, the militarization has grown from simply federal and state agencies to local, smaller police departments. Photographs and reports of local police officers looking similar to Army soldiers have circulated about the Internet after the growing tension in Ferguson, Missouri, where a young, unarmed black teenager was shot and killed by a white police officer. While the racial aspect of civil rights has been brought to the surface, what the protestors in the name of the late teenager have faced is police officers with military-grade equipment and a military mindset. The frightening factor that assault rifles and armored Army vehicles now patrol the streets as part of the police departments is unsettling, and calls for attention in our society.
On Wednesday, 11 August 1965, a 21-year-old black man by the name of Marquette Fry was arrested for drunk driving on the edge of the Watts neighborhood in Los Angeles. After what seemingly became a violent struggle, hundreds of witnesses became enraged by what seemed to be blatant brutality on the basis of race, which seemingly sparked a riot on a scale that required the National Guard. The toll from the riots was extravagant; 6 days of rioting, resulting in 34 dead, 1,032 injured, nearly 4,000 arrested, and $40 million worth of property destroyed (Watts Riot Begins). From the ashes of this turmoil came the necessity of a force that was strong enough to handle dangerous and violent situations. Special Weapons Attack Team was produced by the Los Angeles Police Department in the hopes of combating the violence that seemed so apparent in the riots just a few months previously. A slight modification was needed, says Clyde Haberman, a reporter for the New York Times; “‘Attack’ made some elected officials wince, though. What emerged instead was Special Weapons and Tactics – same acronym but sounding somewhat less aggressive” (Haberman). The original founding group of S.W.A.T was made up of 15 groups, with 4 men within each group. Each of these men were volunteers who had specialized experience on the force as well as a military background. This fact grounds the idea of militarization in the simple founding of one of the most critical law enforcement groups within the United States of America. Meant to battle high-risk situations, S.W.A.T was armored with higher-grade protection as well as weaponry. The apparel began to mirror military apparel more often as the danger rose in society, lending a more militaristic appearance to S.W.A.T officers.
A strong aid to the militarization of police officers was the 1033 program, run through the Pentagon’s Law Enforcement Support Office. Military equipment came into local police departments at a steady rate after Congress approved the 1033 Program through the National Defense Authorization Act in 1990-1991 (Harper). In the beginning, the program was limited; equipment was for solely counter-drug purposes and only state and federal agencies were allowed access to request the surplus. Moving forward, the program expanded to include counter-terrorism initiatives as well as giving local agencies access to the equipment. As John Harper, a writer for the topic-informing website Stars and Stripes, states, “The theory behind the initiative was that the military’s unneeded equipment might as well be put to good use, rather than be destroyed or warehoused” (Harper). There was a clear definition to what the plan’s goals were to be though the expansion of the program made the definition unclear and more open.
The gear, which is acquired from the program, ranges from office tools to military armoured vehicles. Examples of the equipment given to state and local law enforcement includes night vision pieces, machine guns, grenade launchers, aircraft, armored cars and trucks, as well as Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles (MRAPs) shown below in Figure 1. In Figure 1, the number of pieces acquired by local police departments from 2006-2014 is displayed. 432 Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles have been distributed in the eight-year span, with New Mexico receiving over 40 of them. Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles range around 40,000 pounds and are able to withstand Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), something seen over-seas in acts of war and destruction.
On August 9, 2014, a young unarmed African-American was shot to death in the streets of Ferguson, a town in the suburbs of St. Louis, Missouri. The facts about the events leading up to the death are hazy, though some are concrete; Michael Brown was unarmed when he was shot, and he was only 18-years-old. Protestors came to the streets the morning after, the death having rocked the suburb into discontent. What started out peaceful escalated quickly and was met with officers who looked more akin to soldiers in Afghanistan than local police department officers. In Figure 2, a photograph taken by Luke Sharrett for Bloomberg.com shows the police officers in Ferguson, Missouri dressed in military-grade apparel and outfitted with equal weaponry.
To the protestors, the tensions began to rise as the police officers asserted dominance in the city. Not only were protestors demonstrating their outrage with Brown’s death, but also the continuance of racism in their police force. According to Violence Policy Center, a nonprofit group in Washington, Missouri had the nation’s highest black homicide rate in 2010 and in 2011 dropped to the second-highest, which leads to unsettling data. Jamelle Bouie, a writer for Slate who covers politics, policy and race, describes the situation from the eye of a reporter. “In one photo,” writes Bouie, “riot gear-clad officers are standing in front of a mine-resistant ambush protected vehicle, barking commands and launching tear gas into groups of demonstrators and journalists” (Bouie). The sight in Ferguson is one that strikes fear into citizens across the nation, seeing intimidation tactics and threats against their protests, rather than the right to protest, which is something instilled within the Constitution.
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