News / USA

Ferguson Riots Underscore Police Militarization in US

Riot police stand guard as demonstrators protest the shooting death of teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri August 13, 2014.
Riot police stand guard as demonstrators protest the shooting death of teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri August 13, 2014.

With little public awareness and scant oversight, the U.S. government has equipped state and local police agencies with surplus military equipment worth billions of dollars and conducted tactical military training programs with law enforcement for the past two decades.

These efforts initially were designed to counter increased crime in American cities in the 1990s as part of the "war on drugs." They have been significantly ramped up since the September 11, 2001, terror attacks, critics say.

The police department in Ferguson, Mo., which confronted protesters angered by Saturday’s shooting death of unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown by a local officer, is one of 8,000 law enforcement agencies receiving lethal equipment through a U.S. Defense Department initiative.

The congressionally-mandated 1033 Program has been run by the Pentagon’s Defense Logistics Agency Law Enforcement Support Office (LESO) since 1995.

St. Louis County police have received 12 5.56-mm rifles, six .45 caliber pistols, multiple cargo trailers and other vehicles, as well as night vision equipment through the program, a Missouri public safety official said Thursday. Ferguson is in St. Louis County.

Since its inception 19 years ago, the 1033 Program has provided $5.1 billion worth of equipment to more than 17,000 law enforcement agencies. Of that, five percent were weapons transfers, according to data shared with VOA by LESO and 0.35 percent were tactical vehicles.

The transferred military equipment includes small arms, such as pistols and automatic rifles, along with heavy armored vehicles known as MRAPs, used by American forces in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

“The federal government requires agencies that receive 1033 equipment to use it within one year of receipt, so there can be no doubt that participation in this program creates an incentive for law enforcement agencies to use military equipment,” the American Civil Liberties Union wrote in a June report.

Since the September 11 attacks, two Department of Homeland Security grant programs have expanded money available for police militarization to combat terrorism.

Officials acknowledge, though, that terror attacks are rare on U.S. soil, and equipment bought with DHS funds is used mostly for civil unrest.

Justice Department programs also can be used to fund law enforcement activities, and grantees have used awards to purchase items such as rubber bullets, tear gas and body armor, according to the ACLU report.

Reaction Mounts

In the past five days, senior U.S. officials have condemned how this equipment is being used on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri.

"At a time when we must seek to rebuild trust between law enforcement and the local community, I am deeply concerned that the deployment of military equipment and vehicles sends a conflicting message," U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said Thursday.

Four nights of confrontation between demonstrators and law enforcement personnel under the loose coordination of St. Louis County police made Ferguson appear like a war zone.
​Images of exploding tear gas, armored vehicles cruising the streets and police in full riot gear pointing military-style assault weapons at unarmed protesters flashed across television screens, shocking audiences worldwide.

Riot police clear a street with smoke bombs while clashing with demonstrators in Ferguson, Missouri August 13, 2014.Riot police clear a street with smoke bombs while clashing with demonstrators in Ferguson, Missouri August 13, 2014.
Riot police clear a street with smoke bombs while clashing with demonstrators in Ferguson, Missouri August 13, 2014.
Riot police clear a street with smoke bombs while clashing with demonstrators in Ferguson, Missouri August 13, 2014.

Internet activists from the Middle East even tweeted practical advice to Ferguson protesters about how to deal with tear gas. “Solidarity with #Ferguson. Remember to not touch your face when teargased or put water on it. Instead use milk or coke!” read one.

“I saw what everybody else saw. And I didn’t like it,” Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon told CNN Friday, a day after criticizing the heavy-handed police reaction and putting the Missouri State Highway Patrol in charge of security.

“We need to de-militarize this situation - this kind of response by the police has become the problem instead of the solution,” U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri said. “I obviously respect law enforcement’s work to provide public safety, but my constituents are allowed to have peaceful protests, and the police need to respect that right and protect that right,” she said.

Ferguson police Chief Thomas Jackson defended the use of force against protesters, nine of whom have been charged with looting and vandalizing stores on Sunday night.

“If firebombs are being thrown, property gets destroyed, shots get fired … we have to respond to deadly force,” he said.

Law enforcement officials, however, are by no means of one mind on the issue.

St. Louis Police chief Sam Dotson told The Associated Press he was so concerned about the way Ferguson officers handled the unrest that he pulled his employees out, saying the actions taken in Ferguson were not "tactics I would use in the city of St. Louis."

  • Messages written in a parking lot protest the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, Aug. 15, 2014.
  • Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson announces the name of Darren Wilson as the officer involved in the shooting of Michael Brown, in Ferguson, Missouri, Aug. 15, 2014.
  • Demonstrators raise their hands as a symbol of protest of the shooting of Michael Brown, in Ferguson, Missouri, Aug. 15, 2014.
  • Protesters raise their hands during a peaceful demonstration, as communities react to the shooting of Michael Brown in New York's Times Square, Aug. 14, 2014.
  • Women light candles while attending a vigil to honor Michael Brown, in Brooklyn, New York, Aug. 14, 2014.
  • A Missouri State Highway Patrol officer clears a path to evacuate a woman needing medical attention, in Ferguson, Missouri, Aug. 14, 2014.
  • Men carry a woman in need of medical assistance during a peaceful demonstration in Ferguson, Missouri, Aug. 14, 2014.
  • Missouri State Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson speaks to protesters while he walks through a peaceful demonstration as communities continue to react to the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, Aug. 14, 2014.

Mark Snowiss

Mark Snowiss is a Washington D.C.-based multimedia reporter.  He has written and edited for various media outlets including Pacifica and NPR affiliates in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter @msnowiss and on Google Plus

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Comment Sorting
by: Rebel Slider 1%er from: New Jersey
August 17, 2014 11:20 PM
Americans need to recognise the real problem of police militarisation. This gov't is creating a sort of "standing army" ready to oppress our fellow citizens! If you are one who thinks real tyranny can't happen in the USA like it did during Nazi Germany or other places, plz remember the Japanese internment camps during WW2. Only what? 60 yrs ago? It can, did & will happen here!! It's all in place too. Between the DHS, FEMA & now these shock trooper cops! Wake up America! We need to stop this!!!

by: riano from: ina
August 17, 2014 5:38 AM
why not used talk together for to solve the problems for win-win solution Forguson peoples and police. It is the best way, without guns and tear gas, but with prepare jobs and education.

by: ct from: stl, mo
August 16, 2014 5:15 PM
So I guess the police should just let the "peaceful" people destroy the city, pillage and burn until everything is stolen or destroyed. Of course then they'll complain that the police should have stopped it
In Response

by: Anon Forrest from: Potter Valley CA
August 17, 2014 8:30 AM
Here in Mendocino Co, CA, the local sheriff, Tom Allmen, has "deputized" a posse of religious volunteer vigilantes to snoop out and destroy marijuana with "donated" planes, helicopters, and drones. These pumped up quasi-cops steal, pilfer, and destroy. Someday, something bad will happen here, too. But we won't be confused about who our so-called public servants are, and they won't be the cops. Resist! Resist! Resist!

by: Patrick from: Ca
August 16, 2014 11:36 AM
White officers patrolling black communities is always going to look like repression, police should represent the communities they patrol

by: Bern from: USA
August 16, 2014 10:44 AM
After a frightening show of force by the Ferguson Police Department, in which they fired upon peaceful protestors and members of the press, the police release video stills of an alleged robbery involving slain teen, Mike Brown. As if petty theft justifies the execution of an unarmed man and a police state in America.

VOA, where were you????????????
In Response

by: Ed from: Virginia
August 17, 2014 2:05 PM
Bern, wherever he is, asks a really good question. From what I can see on the VOA web site, VOA has no one actually in Ferguson Missouri. Can this be?? One of the huge stories of the year, and a terrible commentary on race relations and societal tensions in America, the "Voice of America" coverage is all coming from its headquarters in Washington?? Give me a break. I'll be sticking with the BBC, even with al-Jazeera, which always cover America better than so-called Voice of America.

by: meanbill from: USA
August 16, 2014 9:52 AM
Barack Obama on June 06, 2007;... warned of the "Black Quiet Riots"... and warned that riots didn't erupt overnight, and warned there's been a "Quiet Riot" building up across the country, and the "Quiet Riots" take place everyday..... and Obama "quote" said;.. "The Bush administration had done nothing to defuse a (Quiet Riot) among blacks.".... (NOW?).... what has US President Barack Obama done to defuse these black "Quiet Riots" in his over (5) years in office?

MY OPINION?... Ferguson Missouri was quiet Thursday because Obama spoke up, and they shut the race baiter Sharpton up, and the black leaders and Democrat Governor and other Democrats, quieted the black mobs down so as to not hurt upcoming elections of Democrats.... Democrat black leaders and white Democrats, helped in quieting this black "Quiet Riot.".....

by: Niki from: UK
August 16, 2014 12:06 AM
400,000 Gazan children the United Nations estimates are in need of psychological care as a result of not just the latest war in the territory but the three previous conflicts fought with Israel since 2006.The most recent conflagration has been the deadliest, with 1,945 Palestinians killed, many of them civilians and including an estimated 457 children. On the other side of the border, some 64 Israeli soldiers and three civilians have been killed
Whether the result of Israeli air strikes, having parents or relatives killed before their eyes, hearing militants firing rockets from their own towns or themselves being wounded, the psychological trauma for Gaza's young is profound.
The symptoms range from nightmares, bed-wetting and behavioral regression to more debilitating mental anxiety, including an inability to process or verbalize experiences....militarization OR ''not''.....hopefully the same will not happen to the Ferguson's children because after all they live in USA, most democratic and free nation in the world....far from the Israel's armies and air strikes

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