AMSTERDAM, September 27, 2014 — After teenager Michael Brown died on August 9, Ferguson, a suburb of St. Louis, saw the mourning quickly turn into an eruption of anger. Only two weeks later the city calmed down again. What caused this eruption of violence from protesters and police force?
Michael Brown and a friend were stopped by the police for jaywalking. Though he was unarmed, Brown ended up being shot six times, twice in the head. Police provided only limited information but claimed self-defense. They refused to name the shooter, relenting only after days of protest. Eleven days after the shooting, the county prosecutor presented evidence to a grand jury. It will take months to decide whether Officer Darren Wilson will be charged or not.
From the beginning, protesters were confronted by a military style police force. The first night brought an escalation and saw the use of rubber bullets and tear gas. It was two weeks before confrontations between protesters and police ended.
What made that situation so toxic and led to that quick and long escalation? There are some obvious answers: local tensions, outside interference, people using the protests to push their own agenda. Some other potential answers, such as the role of race and racial discrimination, are being investigated now by the federal authorities.
It is good that there is now an investigation into the culture of the local police force and how racial issues have contributed to the escalation. But limiting it to this aspect falls short. The investigation should take a broader look at the culture and attitudes of America’s police forces.
One thing worth looking into is the militarization of the police. As several researchers have found, how you dress influences your behavior. As Radley Balko observes in his book, Rise of the Warrior Cop, dressing for battle can easily turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy: you’ve dressed for battle, so battle it will be.
Over the last generation, the warrior cop has replaced the neighborhood cop. The militarization of the police has gone hand-in-hand with a focus on dramatic problems in society, like drug gang wars and shootings at schools. Because the focus has been on handling extreme situations, the character of police forces changed. But arriving on the scene straight away, armed to the teeth usually does not work if de-escalation is the goal.
In Ferguson, the police responded to the protests using military-grade riot gear and armored trucks right from the start, before there had been even any signs of violence. Aggressive police dogs were used from day one for crowd control, and an LRAD sound cannon was used to disperse the crowd. A them-versus-us tone was set from the beginning.
This quote from Chris Burbank, police chief in Salt Lake City, taken from an interview by Radley Balko, summarizes the issue at hand: “Some say not using it [military grade gear] exposes my officers to a little bit more risk. That could be, but risk is part of the job. I’m just convinced that when we don riot gear, it says ‘throw rocks and bottles at us.’ It invites confrontation. Two-way communication and cooperation are what’s important.” There is always time to escalate, but to de-escalate after an escalation is hard.
Another aspect is communication and sharing information with the public. After the Brown shooting, almost no information was provided on what happened. That didn’t help to create trust and it left room for speculation. Over time, bits and pieces of information leaked, some contradictory, and that only made it worse.
How proactively informing the public can de-escalate a situation could also be seen in Ferguson, when on day 10 of the protests, another person was shot by police. This time the police came forward within a few hours with all facts. Even in the overheated situation in Ferguson, this death did not provoke any new escalation.
A lack of accountability contributed to the initial escalation. If there is a feeling that the police are not held accountable for their actions, there is no trust in the police. Being accountable means that every death by police bullets has to be investigated and that the police have to be open about the process and the results.
In Ferguson, the police targeted journalists and tried to limit coverage of the events by news. They banned low-flying aircraft and news helicopters, took journalists briefly into custody, and even shot tear gas into a group of foreign journalists. All those measures did not make the police seem open or accountable. Those measures did not build, but rather destroyed trust into the police.
It’s time for a deeper discussion. This event should not be treated as a single event, but as a symptom of something bigger that requires structural solutions. The issue of race is important, but it isn’t the whole story. The bigger theme is escalation. This was not a local problem, but one of a chain of similar escalations, not all of them interracial.
Militarizing the police changed the character of the police, and the nature of law enforcement. It is more aggressive and acts more like an army. But the police need trust to function. Trust is not build by weapons, trust is built by being open and transparent, being accountable and by engaging with the public in a sensitive and respectful manner. The local force needs a relationship with the community they protect – and that means also that its structure has to be representative for the area.
Excessive use of force is not only against the Constitution, it’s also ineffective. A simple number shows the difference between police culture based on trust and a police culture based on armory: Where there is 1 death by police per 1 million inhabitants in the U.S. per year, 1 per 14 million in Germany, and only 1 per 27 million in the U.K.
De-escalation works and saves lives. It is time for a change in the culture of the U.S. police force. I’m sorry just doesn’t cut it.