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Ferguson Protests, Police Response Highlights Dangers of Militarized Police

The shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri and resulting protests seems like just the most-recent in a long line of incidents that highlight the sprawling chasm between where we as a country would like to be on racial issues and where we actually are. In the ensuing protests yet another man was shot by Ferguson police, although unlike young Michael Brown this man was allegedly armed with a handgun which he trained on police, according to BuzzFeed News. However rather than the racial issue, what seems most prevalent to me is the light this sheds on an overmilitarized and overzealous police attitude.

Despite how one feels about the shooting of an unarmed teenager – who may or may not have resisted arrest and tried to get a police officer’s weapon before being shot – it seems much easier to accept that anyone, black or white, would be shot if he or she trained a weapon on a police officer. The reason for this is a simple: If someone points a weapon at you, it is safe to assume that he or she plans to use it.

It is this essential truth that makes the image above from Jeff Roberson of the Associated Press, which went viral this week, so disturbing. Business Insider noted the highly militarized SWAT team and their equipment consisting of “short-barreled 5.56-mm rifles based on the military M4 carbine, with scopes that accurately hit a target out to 500 meters*,” a sidearm, body armor, and “at least four to six extra magazines loaded with 30 rounds each.” And while certainly troubling, it is not the most disturbing part of the image.

The man in the photo with his arms raised is literally looking down the barrel of police rifles, seemingly for the crime of walking along the street. He carries what looks to be a school bag; his pants are not sagged (as if that really matters), and his hands are raised. Whether they are pointed to the sky in protest or actual surrender is irrelevant. Yet, despite this at least one officer is pointing his rifle at him.

While serving in Iraq, many soldiers I knew (I was not combat-arms) complained about the restrictive ROE. Invariably, someone would point out that while they posed a risk to troops’ safety, the larger mission. Shooting an unarmed civilian may keep you alive, but would lead to more death, more war, and mission failure. As BI author and veteran of Afghanistan Paul Szoldra put it, “You can’t win a person’s heart and mind when you are pointing a rifle at his or her chest.”

Also while serving overseas, we soldiers were ordered to give ultimate deference to any news media we encountered. Yes, we were coached about how to address certain questions and avoid comments that could be sensationalized, but we were instructed to either be truthful or refer the reporter up the chain of command. Yet in Ferguson last night two reporters were arrested by police and soon released with no paperwork or information about who arrested them. Elsewhere, a SWAT team fired tear gas at a news crew from Al Jazeera America and began to dismantle their equipment. The incident was caught on video by KDSK, where an officer can be heard saying “We don’t want you [the news] here.”

No one denies that the police have a difficult and dangerous job. Yet, the trend of late seems to have fallen on the side of allowing them to kill those who should be presume innocent in the name of protecting themselves from harm. Yet, if the police wish so desperately to look and be equipped like the military, perhaps it’s time they started to behave like them as well.


Photo by Jeff Roberson/AP via Twitter

*Dependent, of course, on the skill of the person pulling the trigger.

About the author

Joshua M. Patton is a father, veteran, and writer living in Pittsburgh, PA. Along with news and current events, he writes about parenting, art, and personal stories. His serial fiction story "The Prophet Hustle" is available at JukePop.com and a forthcoming independent ebook about the cam-modeling industry "Dirty Little Windows" will be available later this summer.