Local law enforcement responds to Ferguson

The tragic events in Ferguson, Missouri have brought into sharp relief a subject not unknown, but rather lingering at the edge of our collective consciousness: “the militarization of policing.” Sarah Stillman’s essay in The New Yorker and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ essay in The Atlantic are a couple of thoughtful, provocative responses. When Coates writes that

Black people are not above calling the police—but often we do so fully understanding that we are introducing an element that is unaccountable to us. We introduce the police into our communities, the way you might introduce a predator into the food chain,

white readers might take umbrage, until we think for a moment. We might note, for example, that lynching has never been declared a federal crime. In 2005 the Senate apologized for this embarrassment, prompting Sen. Mary Landrieu to observe, “There may be no other injustice in American history for which the Senate so uniquely bears responsibility.”

The brutal treatment of one black man after another by white police officers has to be understood in the shadow of slavery, the violent overthrow of Reconstruction, and a twentieth century marred by the violence of the Klan.

For the more immediate context for today’s environment, Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow is once again an essential source:

The transformation from “community policing” to “military policing” began in 1981, when President Reagan persuaded Congress to pass the Military Cooperation with Law Enforcement Act, which encouraged the military to give local, state, and federal police access to military bases, intelligence, research, weaponry, and other equipment for drug interdiction. . . . In the years that followed, Presidents George Bush and Bill Clinton enthusiastically embraced the drug war and increased the transfer of military equipment, technology, and training to local law enforcement.

After Sept. 11, 2001, the tools and strategies of the War on Drugs were readily redeployed for the domestic War on Terror. Ten years on, in 2011, Arthur Rizer and Joseph Hartmann wrote in The Atlantic,

In an effort to remedy their relative inadequacy in dealing with terrorism on U.S. soil, police forces throughout the country have purchased military equipment, adopted military training, and sought to inculcate a “soldier’s mentality” among their ranks. Though the reasons for this increasing militarization of American police forces seem obvious, the dangerous side effects are somewhat less apparent.

After Ferguson, these dangerous side effects are all too apparent. In Chapel Hill we have the recent memory of our police force’s decision, in 2011, to deploy a S.W.A.T team in a setting that many of us had reason to question. With other elected officials, I have been fielding questions from people who want to know: exactly what types of military equipment do our police and sheriff’s officers possess, and exactly what are their policies for deploying them?

I’m pleased that our four jurisdictions–Chapel Hill, Carrboro, Hillsborough, and Orange County–have today issued a joint statement reassuring us of their understanding of these issues outlining their plans to address our questions publicly and soon.


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