The images are jarring.
Looking more like Roman legionnaires than police officers, helmeted men stand shoulder to shoulder behind body-length shields in the streets of Ferguson, Mo. One officer on top of an armored vehicle trains a scoped rifle on the crowd.
With bricks and bottles of flaming gasoline being hurled at officers, some see the police action as a prudent and necessary means to protect officers and the public.
Others see it as only exacerbating an already volatile situation that raises concerns about the militarization of American police agencies.
Consider what happened about 2 a.m. Thursday, for example. More than 50 police officers in full protective gear drove three black armored vehicles to the Ferguson Police Department. Officers pointed guns at the crowd and told everyone to disperse immediately or face arrest. Protesters, who raised their hands and dropped to their knees, later departed, some shouting expletives at the police.
“This is police terrorism at its finest,” said Kyra Rayford, a 24-year-old from St. Louis who was waving a sign across the street from the Police Department. “They’ve been using unnecessary aggression and force. They’re violating our civil rights.”
Since 1990, a U.S. Defense Department program has transferred millions of dollars in surplus military equipment to police departments of every size and in every region. Because of what’s happened in Ferguson, some now are questioning the wisdom of that program.
“Obviously the police in Ferguson weren’t trained to deal with this equipment, and even if they were, Ferguson is a little, small city and if you can imagine these tanklike vehicles rolling down the street like this was Beirut or Baghdad … I think there’s something wrong with that,” said U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, a Missouri Democrat.
Another member of Congress, Rep. Hank Johnson, a Georgia Democrat, said Thursday that he intends to introduce a bill that would restrict that Defense Department program.
“Militarizing America’s main streets won’t make us any safer, just more fearful and more reticent,” Johnson said.
Predictably, the view from inside one of those armored vehicles is a little different.
Kansas City Police Capt. Tye Grant said that on more than one occasion, Kansas City officers have hunkered inside one as bullets pinged off the armor.
Though the vehicles may appear intimidating, such equipment actually increases the range of police options short of resorting to deadly force, he said. If an officer out in the open is shot at, he may be forced to resort to deadly force to protect himself or others more quickly than if he has the protection of an armored vehicle.
The vehicles also have been used to rescue victims and citizens from dangerous situations, he said.
“It’s not done just to be militaristic,” Grant said. “It’s all about safety.”
Barry Brodd, a retired police officer and police tactics consultant, said that in a crowd control situation, the goal from the police prospective is much different from the day-to-day activities of a beat officer on the street.
“The goal is intimidation,” Brodd said. “You want to try to get the crowd size down to as little as possible.”
Then officers can deal with the small percentage of the crowd that is actually causing trouble, he said.
Police just clearing out and letting people loot and destroy property is just not an option, said Steve Ijames, a retired deputy police chief in Springfield who is an internationally recognized expert in police crowd control tactics.
“Once you’ve got people burning down buildings, you have an obligation to be there,” said Ijames, who has trained police forces in 35 countries.
But police also have to be sensitive to the rights of people, Ijames said, and not crack down or display force if crowds are peaceful.
“That’s what separates us as free people from other countries,” he said. “We should be facilitating that. If not, they are going to get angry.”
It only takes one or two angry people in a large crowd to incite trouble, said Stephanie Sarkis, a Florida mental health professional who has written about the relationship of crowd psychology and rioting.
And if people already are tense and emotional, being confronted by a forceful and intimidating police presence only increases the potential for rioting.
Once trouble escalates, the anonymity of being part of a crowd can lead people to do things they wouldn’t otherwise do, Sarkis said.
Professor Ken Novak, chairman of the department of criminal justice and criminology at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, said what has happened in Ferguson has been a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation for police.
“One way to avoid conflict is to show force,” Novak said, calling that “right out of the police playbook.”
But in Ferguson, he said, that tactic does not appear to be effective — and may in fact be making things worse.
“What do you do when that show of force is not working?” he said. “How can you reasonably de-escalate from it?”
Novak said that the situation in Ferguson is almost identical to what happened in Cincinnati in 2001. The police killing of a black teenager led to several days of rioting that was brought under control only after a dusk-to-dawn curfew was imposed.
A curfew has not been imposed in Ferguson, but officials with the U.S. Department of Justice are working with local officials to calm the situation.
Attorney General Eric Holder said Thursday that the Justice Department will provide assistance “to help conduct crowd control and maintain public safety without relying on unnecessarily extreme displays of force.”
While saying that instances of looting and “willful” efforts to antagonize police will not be condoned, Holder added that police must respect the community’s desire to protest peacefully.
“The law enforcement response to these demonstrations must seek to reduce tensions, not heighten them,” he said.