Today’s post was written by Max Geron
The tweet read:
“Honestly, of all the people that should be upset about #Ferguson, why aren’t the other police who actually do “protect & serve” speaking up?”
It came from one of the people who follows me on twitter and while not directed specifically at me, it was directed to me. It is an excellent question and speaks to what I think needs to change about law enforcement.
It’s not simply about social media use by law enforcement, although in my view that needs to improve. It’s actually how we talk about and how we respond to protest. Law enforcement officers are often quick to say that we are here to protect the rights of those who want to express dissent as well as the rights of those against whom the protest is directed. As true and simple as that statement is, the reality of it is exponentially more complicated.
The images from Ferguson, Missouri are disturbing and disappointing to those who recognize their role in law enforcement as servants of the public as opposed to strict enforcers of the law, maintainers of order or members of a paramilitary organization. While enforcing the law is a primary function and order maintenance is a part of that job, they are but components of the larger public servant role. Additionally, while police agencies are paramilitary in nature, law enforcement leaders now, more than ever, need to guard against the increase of militarization currently underway.
I’m disheartened that police unions and associations across the country are concerned about citizens photographing police while in public and have no qualms about speaking out against it. This adds to the concern of the public that we are moving more towards a police state and slowly eroding the freedoms we should cherish in this great nation.
Law enforcement leaders must guard against applying “best practices” to fluid and dynamic incidents with which they have only limited experience such as protests. They must also recognize that deploying a SWAT team is, in and of itself, a use of force and not appropriate in all circumstances – response to peaceful protests being one of those inappropriate uses.
Sometimes the most difficult thing for leaders, especially law enforcement leaders, to do is nothing or doing less. This is often what is called for, and now apparently happening in Ferguson. When the Missouri State Police reported to Ferguson, they did so reportedly without donning riot gear, which appears to have contributed to a much softer reception and peaceful march on Thursday evening.
Officers often point to the 1999 World Trade Organization protests in Seattle as justification for wearing riot gear. A segment of those demonstrators refused to engage in the negotiated management tactics employed at the time by Seattle police. Scholars have argued that a failure by Seattle PD to plan for that refusal is what added to the reasoning for the militarized response and therefore increased the resistance. [See Patrick F. Gillham and Gary T. Marx, “Complexity and Irony in Policing and Protesting: The World Trade Organization in Seattle,” Social Justice 27, no. 2 (80) (June 1, 2000): 212.]
Interspersed with the rioting came the reports of media personnel being threatened with arrest and being ordered to stop filming. Little does more to incense the media, especially the television media than ordering them to stop filming when that order is not based in the law. Compound that with arrests of some journalists and the problems were exacerbated. In very few circumstances can civilian police make such a demand of citizens (another blog post/topic altogether).
Long before Michael Brown was shot, the Ferguson police department seems not to have recognized that they were in a precarious position for several reasons. Their minority representation was not reflective of the community they were policing. In the language of social identity theory, the police in Ferguson, Missouri are a 53 person out-group with the ability to take not only the freedoms of the in-group but their lives as well. Much work must be done in that department and community to repair the perceived injustices. Police need to do more to recruit candidates that are more representative of the population they serve, while at the same time making inroads to the citizens with their current cadre of officers.
Their strategy for policing protest, if they had a formal one, seems to indicate a lack of understanding of the effect that a strong show of militarized force can have on a community that believes they have been disenfranchised by their police department. By being members of the “out group”, they were incapable of understanding the impact such a tactical display would have on the citizens of Ferguson, Missouri. Furthermore, their initial refusal to release the name of the involved officer supports the theory that they were unable to understand how that could be perceived as an inability to be objective and impartial in their investigation.
This repair effort must come not only from the police leaders in Ferguson but also from the civic and community leaders. They must come together and have the critical conversations necessary to establish expectations and understanding on how things must change to rebuild trust and increase transparency in their government.
Finally, do not make the mistake thinking this is solely a Ferguson issue, a Missouri issue or mid-West issue. This is a homeland security issue and was evidenced in the responses to the Occupy Movement in 2011 across the country. The increase in militarization is a national issue only thrust into the forefront of the American awareness by the recent events in Ferguson, Missouri. The withdrawal of soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan has left thousands upon thousands of former soldiers looking for work. For law enforcement agencies looking to hire qualified candidates, former soldiers appear to be outstanding recruits.
We are only beginning to consider the implications of the flood of former military personnel joining the ranks of civilian policing. I submit that more study into this phenomenon is needed. The issue of militarization of American policing is not just the acquisition of military equipment; it is the infusion of so many former soldiers into the ranks of the civilian police.
For American police, retention of the “servant” mindset is more critical than that of the “warrior” mindset.
Max Geron is a senior executive in a major urban police department and, according to the Washington Post, a security studies scholar.” He is the author of “21st Century Strategies for Policing Protest: What Major Cities’ Responses to the Occupy Movement Tell Us About the Future of Police Response to Public Protest,” which can be found at this link: https://www.hsdl.org/?abstract&did=753807 . The views expressed in this post are Geron’s; they do not represent the opinions of any agency or organization.