The recent events in Ferguson, Missouri, have touched off an interesting and important debate in the United States: Is the “militarization” of American police forces actually advancing the ability of the police to “serve and protect”?
The images of police using tanks and military-style weapons to suppress the protests over the fatal shooting — by a policeman — of a young Ferguson man, Michael Brown, have disturbed many Americans.
Most alarming to many were the depictions of police aiming their automatic weapons at the demonstrators, as if they represented an invading army rather than American citizens exercising their rights.
Among the critics of the police conduct in Ferguson is Lt. Max Geron, who is in charge of both the media relations and the community affairs units of the Dallas police department.
Geron wrote his master’s thesis on police and protests at the Naval Postgraduate School and is considered a scholar on securities studies.
“The ideal police response to a protest is no response at all,” Geron told Radley Balko, who writes a blog on criminal justice, the drug war and civil liberties for The Washington Post and is the author of “Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces.”
The people who are protesting, Geron added, should be allowed to “exercise their constitutional rights without interference.”
It is his belief that “most protesters will meet, protest and go home when they feel they’ve made their point” and that “if they’re not breaking any laws, they can be left to express themselves.”
Geron even opposes setting a deadline for protesters to end their demonstrations.
“When you establish arbitrary rules that have no basis in law,” he warned, “the police then feel they have to enforce those rules or look illegitimate.”
Geron’s views are not likely to win favor among many policemen, and they may seem more idealistic than practical when the demonstrations include looting and arson, as they did in Ferguson.
On the other hand, would the looting and arson have occurred had the police in Ferguson heeded Geron’s advice and let the demonstrators simply express their outrage? Those who defend the criminal behavior associated with the Ferguson protests argue that without the looting and arson the American public would not have been so attentive.
But that’s a specious argument. Besides, the criminal behavior only increased the sympathy for the embattled police and did not win any support for the protesters.
Even President Obama has taken note of the national concern over the militarization of local police forces in the long and complex aftermath of the 9/11 tragedy.
The federal government, badly shaken by what happened that day and understandably eager to make sure local police forces were adequately equipped to combat domestic terrorist threats, began distributing all kinds of military equipment.
But there are legitimate, logical questions about how well the local authorities have been trained to use these tools and how, in fact, they have used them.
The president ordered a comprehensive review of the strategy of equipping local police with military-grade body armor, mine-resistant trucks, silencers and automatic rifles, White House officials reported last week.
The review will judge the merits of continuing to provide that kind of military equipment to local police and whether the police are properly trained to use it appropriately, the officials added.
The government will also examine whether it adequately monitors equipment inventories and how the government-donated policing equipment is used.
This review and a national debate over the way local police conduct themselves in these situations are both necessary to preserve our freedoms.
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