On August 9, Michael Brown, a young black man, was shot by Darren Wilson, a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, a suburb of St Louis. The incident, the circumstances of which were disputed, reignited race tensions, triggering protests and civil unrest.
The reaction of local police, however, was heavily criticised. There were concerns over insensitivity, tactics and a militarised response.
Ferguson police reportedly deployed stun grenades, rubber bullets and 40mm wooden baton rounds to quell the protests in a town whose population was relatively modest: 21,000. The tactics came as a shock nationally, reveal the extent to which local police bodies in that country have over the years become militarized. The local police also released prejudicial video footage, a move which was also heavily criticised.
Eventually, Missouri Governor Jay Nixon ordered the control for the response to be shifted to the Missouri Highway Patrol and a de-escalation ensued with mainly peaceful protests continuing for the next weeks.
On August 12, US President Barack Obama released a statement describing Brown’s killing as “heartbreaking” and stating that the Department of Justice had opened an investigation.
Just last week at the United Nations, Obama referred to the Brown shooting.
“In a summer marked by instability in the Middle East and Eastern Europe, I know the world also took notice of the small American city of Ferguson, Missouri – where a young man was killed, and a community was divided. So yes, we have our own racial and ethnic tensions,” Obama told the annual UN General Assembly meeting in New York on Wednesday. “Like every country, we continually wrestle with how to reconcile the vast changes wrought by globalisation and greater diversity with the traditions that we hold dear.”
Amid all of this, communities in the United States have become weary of the militarisation of their own police forces, a process which has been linked to a programme of the Defence Department. Since 2006, according to a New York Times report, the Pentagon has distributed 432 mine- resistant armoured vehicles to local police departments. It has also distributed out more than 400 other armoured vehicles, 500 aircraft, and 93,000 assault rifles. The move came under a clause in 1990 legislation which allowed the transfer of “excess personal property” from the military to local law enforcement agencies.
But recently, the images from Ferguson have sparked anxiety over these vehicles, leading some local communities to ask their authorities to return the armoured vehicles to the Defense Department.
On August 29, the LA Times, reported that city officials in Davis, California, directed their police department to return a surplus US military armoured vehicle to the federal government after residents – citing images seen during protests in Ferguson – expressed fears of militarisation.
The Davis Police Department was given 60 days to get rid of a US$689,000 Mine Resistant Ambush Protected armoured vehicle, which police acquired through the Defence Department.
“I am opposed to the investments that are made and then the results of those investments flowed back to our community in ways that may not hurt our community in a physical sense by are destructive in terms of not increasing our security but increasing our anxiety,” Councilman Robb Davis said at a council meeting in August. The LA Times reported that a large crowd attended the meeting to protest the acquisition of the armoured vehicle, including a man wearing a “Tank the Tank” T-shirt. The planned acquisition of the vehicles locally by the Ministry of National Security came to the fore after the ministry published advertisements showing the vehicles. It was estimated by officials that the vehicles would cost about $63 million and several dozens – of different classes – would be acquired, though these figures were later disputed. The Prime Minister, Kamla Persad-Bissessar, stated approval for only six vehicles had been granted and she further stated the vehicles would make the country safer for all citizens.
The Minister of National Security has argued that the equipment were needed as it was better to be safe than sorry. He also stated they vehicles would been needed for certain specific kinds of threats, such as attacks involving explosives. On the other hand the proportionality of the expenditure has been questioned.
Local behaviour change consultant Franklyn Dolly on Saturday last argued the vehicles could have the unintended effect of provoking unrest.
In the United States, while there is anxiety, some officials also argue that the vehicles are needed. Davis police Chief Landy Black said the armoured vehicle was needed for police protection in high-risk situations.
“We have a genuine and job-specific need for the types of equipment that most people wish that they wouldn’t have in their communities because of the nature of the job that we have,” he said. Although Davis is a safe community, Black said, certain situations have required police agencies to improve and increase their capabilities.