The current state of chaos and disorder in Ferguson, Missouri has sparked larger debates across the U.S. on a host of issues. Some of the discussion focuses on matters directly related to the shooting of teen Michael Brown by a police officer identified as Darren Wilson. The use of deadly force by police officers on unarmed citizens always comes with controversy, particularly in areas in which police personnel are overwhelmingly white and the community is largely black. A side issue also arose over the release of video footage appearing to show Brown robbing some cigars from a convenience store. Critics immediately saw this video release as an attempt to discredit the shooting victim.
The larger debate arising from the disorder in Ferguson concerns the militarization of local police departments. A world audience has viewed footage of police with sniper rifles and full military gear, together with military assault vehicles. Many question the appropriateness of military style force and intimidation to quell unrest, particularly when the source of the unrest is community dissatisfaction with the actions of the police themselves. In the current situation overtaking Ferguson, Missouri, the use of military weaponry and equipment appears to have fueled the community rage further.
Over the last 20 years, the U.S. military has distributed over $5 billion worth of surplus equipment to local police departments. Equipment and material no longer used by the military is available to local law enforcement at no cost except for the expense of picking up the items. Typically, the military equipment flows to local law enforcement without debate or discussion. The only way the community could really chime in might be when police budgets are reviewed and a local council member notes an expense line item for armored personnel carrier maintenance and repair. The most extreme example could be a $42,000 bill for Banning, California related to an accident when an officer was attempting to drive a large, surplus giveaway tank back to Banning.
Like many other things in life, the use of military equipment by local law enforcement must be coupled with common sense. If the community is upset with the apparent overuse or inappropriate use of deadly force, then employing large and scary symbols of deadly force to quiet crowds does not make sense. On the other hand, those upset with the police response need to understand that police commanders themselves feel under siege and may not react with the most logical response if not given time to reflect on the situation. Nevertheless, that excuse does not condone the release of the video of Michael Brown stealing from the convenience store while the community situation is still tense. Brown does not need to be viewed as a choir boy in any event. Even if he did rob the store, the robbery should not come with a death penalty.
When local events go viral, finding common sense is often difficult as other agendas become involved. Unrest in the community brings in provocateurs such as Al Sharpton and the New Black Panthers. On the other side of the coin, a national audience can see Sean Hannity giving softball interviews to Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson. Appealing for cooler heads to prevail on the local level is more difficult when national celebrities with known agendas join the fray to push their causes.
The current disarray and disorder in Ferguson, Missouri is sparking a debate on a host of issues large and small. No doubt the residents of the community and the police personnel involved wish that another forum or locality could be the incubator for these discussions. The fishbowl national attention, however, may be the catalyst for reasoned discussion to occur after the chaos in Ferguson recedes.
Opinion by William Costolo