Excessive Force: What Happens when Police Safety Trumps Public Safety

For the past several nights, I have been watching the feeds from Ferguson, increasingly horrified as the combined police forces rolled down the streets in armored personnel carriers or marched down the streets carrying M-16s, deploying sonic weapons, repeatedly gassing the crowds, firing rubber bullets from guns. They were distinguishable from an army only in that there were red and blue flashing lights on the vehicles and POLICE on the shields.

When the governor of Missouri declared a state of emergency and called in the National Guard, I was cautiously supportive. I naively thought that he was calling in the National Guard to protect citizens from the local police forces that had obviously gone rogue.

To the contrary, it appears that the National Guard came in to protect police headquarters, so that the combined police forces (Ferguson PD, St Louis PD, Missouri State Highway Patrol, and a fourth one I don’t remember) could continue their unbelievably militarized assault.

National Guard troops, called in by Gov. Jay Nixon Monday, protected the police command center.
ABC news

Since the state of emergency has been declared, officers of these police forces have been operating in public without nametags or badges, refusing to answer reporters’ questions about their names or even what unit they are from. They have arrested 11 journalists during the protests so far. They have threatened reporters during live broadcasts. If police in Ferguson treat journalists like this, imagine how they treat residents.

The police have stated that they need to use these tactics because they have had weapons fired at them, rocks and bottles thrown at them. As proof, Captain Johnson showed a few guns that had been confiscated during Monday night’s arrests.

Incidents from a “tiny minority of lawbreakers” prompted the police response, including shots fired and Molotov cocktails thrown, Missouri State Highway Patrol Capt. Ron Johnson said, speaking at an early-morning news conference. —ABC news

But in the midst of it we cannot — in the midst of it, and in the midst of chaos, and trying to move people on — we HAVE to be safe. We have to be safe.
— Transcript, Capt. Ron Johnson, press conference, 2:21am, 2014-08-19

You need this kind of all-out, crowd-suppressing assault to go after a tiny minority of lawbreakers?

Since when?

It sounds rather as if the police have decided that if their own safety is potentially threatened, they have the right to use any degree of force. And it’s not just showing up in the streets of Ferguson, as the armored vehicles roll out: it’s showing up in one-on-one interactions as well.

I’m a cop. If you don’t want to get hurt, don’t challenge me.

That’s the headline of a story by “Sunil Dutta, a professor of homeland security at Colorado Tech University, has been an officer with the Los Angeles Police Department for 17 years. The views presented here are his own and do not represent the LAPD.”

if you don’t want to get shot, tased, pepper-sprayed, struck with a baton or thrown to the ground, just do what I tell you. Don’t argue with me, don’t call me names, don’t tell me that I can’t stop you, don’t say I’m a racist pig, don’t threaten that you’ll sue me and take away my badge. Don’t scream at me that you pay my salary, and don’t even think of aggressively walking towards me.

He acknowledges that there are cops that violate people’s rights and act as bullies, and supports the use of body cameras by cops, but nevertheless insists that people should just do what they’re told in the moment, and trust that the justice system will provide redress.

Even I’m not naive enough to believe that the system will provide redress for everyone.

But do you see the parallel? The same mindset that produces excessive force in one-on-one police encounters — which, let us not forget, have resulted in the deaths of multiple deaths just in the past few weeks — are also producing the unbelievably excessive militarized force and repeated gassing of citizens (including crowds containing women and children who were given 5 seconds warning to disperse before tear gas was fired).

When police officers are more concerned with their own safety than with public safety, this is what happens: instead of carefully using the minimum amount of force necessary to resolve a situation without unduly endangering themselves or others, the strategy is to come in with as much force as they deem necessary to be sure of subduing the offender, with little or no regard for the safety of the offender or of bystanders.

Racism magnifies the degree of force used, because black people are perceived as more threatening than white people and thus appear to require greater force to subdue; and because too many people still answer this question incorrectly.

Essential reading:
Ferguson and the cult of compliance, by David M. Perry, a history professor at Dominican University
Michael Brown. Ferguson. from By Their Strange Fruit. Full of other links to deepen your understanding.
Time for another paradigm shift in policing by a Catholic ethicist and former law enforcement officer.

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