The War at Home

Images of warfare abound these days, from Syria, Gaza, northern Iraq…and Ferguson, MO. As Dylan Scott (TPM) notes, the images out of Ferguson have been “harrowing.” “American law enforcement decked out in military fatigues, patrolling the streets in armored vehicles that look like they were plucked out of Afghanistan or Iraq.” 

I have blogged in the past about the distribution of war surplus to domestic police forces via the Department of Defense’s 1033 program (here and here).  Unsurprisingly, Ferguson and St. Louis County have both benefited from the 1033 program. Although precise information is difficult to come by—the Pentagon only releases information on tactical equipment for counties—USA Today has a partial list for St. Louis County, which includes twelve 5.56 mm rifles, six .45 caliber pistols, night vision equipment, vehicles, a trailer, and a generator.

National Journal has some images of the police response in Ferguson, in a piece aptly titled: “What a Militarized Police Force Does to a City.” Terrence McCoy (Washington Post) has an article on the use of tear gas in Ferguson. As McCoy explains:

Despite its ubiquity across the globe and in United States, tear gas is a chemical agent banned in warfare per the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1993, which set forth agreements signed by nearly every nation in the world — including the United States. The catch, however, is that while it’s illegal in war, it’s legal in domestic riot control.

Sven-Eric Jordt, Yale School of Medicine, is quoted as saying: “Tear gas under the Geneva Convention is characterized as a chemical warfare agent, and so it is precluded for use in warfare, but it is used very frequently against civilians. That’s very illogical.”

It is also illogical to provide police forces with military grade equipment based on the urgency of the war on drugs or the war on terror. As recent stories reveal (recounted in a fine piece by Radley Balko, WSJ), SWAT teams and the technology they have been provided through 1033 and Homeland Security grants have been used judiciously to break up illegal poker games at VFW halls, to stop underage drinking in a New Haven bar, and to apprehend Tibetan monks whose visas had expired in Iowa.

Balko concludes: “What would it take to dial back such excessive police measures? The obvious place to start would be ending the federal grants that encourage police forces to acquire gear that is more appropriate for the battlefield. Beyond that, it is crucial to change the culture of militarization in American law enforcement.”

Until that occurs, one fears, the war at home will continue.

One thought on “The War at Home

  1. If you click through to Balko’s WSJ opinion piece, you will quickly find that it has appended one of the longest lists of corrections that you’ve ever seen. Open, timely, and forthright corrections are commendable and all-too-rare but, after a certain point, they indicate not an admirable commitment to intellectual honest but rather a sloppiness and slipperiness in the initial article. Everyone makes mistakes but this was egregious.

    The cases that Balko raises (at least the ones that didn’t have to be corrected) are truly heinous and intolerable. However, in addition to Balko’s unusually high error rate, there is also the worrisome absence of a denominator. USA is a big country and there are a lot of police interactions. Inevitably, accidents and tragedies will happen in a country this size.

    While I have no doubt that the police has an embarrassment of riches in military hardware and there tactics are therefore unsurprisingly overly confrontational, it seems evident that Balko is trying to overstate his already strong case.

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