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Ferguson analysis: United States has militarized local policing, say experts

In the wake of the Ferguson civil unrest and police response, during a press conference at the White House on Monday, President Barack Obama urged a re-examination of programs that have equipped local law enforcement departments with surplus military gear from the U.S. Armed Forces.

Many Americans are upset with seeing police officers dressed like Navy SEAL Teams.
Many Americans are upset with seeing police officers dressed like Navy SEAL Teams.Courtesy of Police Times Magazine/NACOP

Obama is just the latest political leader or commentator to renew scrutiny of the militarizing of police departments following what Obama called a forceful police response to the violence, looting and destruction in Ferguson, Missouri following the police shooting of teenager Michael Brown.

However, President Obama doesn't come to the debate with clean hands, for in an Oct. 15, 2013, Examiner news story one of Obama's Army generals heralded the militarization of American policing, while the ACLU condemned it:

American communities continue to be increasingly policed by law enforcement officers armed with the weapons and tactics of war, according to the left-wing activists at the American Civil Liberties Union.

However, utilization of military equipment by local police departments throughout the United States – some call it the “militarization” of American policing – has been going on for quite some time. Now, observers ask whether this trend might have repercussions that are making citizens uneasy, according to a Homeland Security Newswire report.

Police departments generally receive the equipment for free, according to the report. "The gear being sent to local police includes planes, helicopters, armored vehicles, grenade launchers, assault rifles, bullet-proof helmets, night-vision goggles, and more. A few sheriff departments ordered tanks," the report states.

Last year's authorization act all but erases decades of U.S. government compliance with the letter and the spirit of the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878, a law that prohibits the use of the U.S. military to perform law enforcement functions within the United States, according to an Examiner news story that quotes police officials and others opposed to the militarizing of American law enforcement.

Originally, such deployments were the duty of National Guard, which are under the control of state governors who would call in guardsman as needed to support civil police forces, fire departments and other emergency personnel.

When Hurricane Katrina fiercely struck the Gulf Coast in 2005, especially the city of New Orleans, active-duty service members became "the federal default force," according to Donna Miles of the American Forces Press Service.

But the reason for that deployment was the inability of Louisiana's governor and New Orleans' mayor to command and control the police and emergency responders. Now the U.S. Congress and the Obama Administration have acquired the authority to use military resources in such emergencies, including deploying soldiers during an insurrection.

"Is anyone surprised at this disregard for the constitution and tradition? The military forces in the U.S., Canada and Mexico have been training in urban warfare and response to terrorist threats such as weapons of mass destruction (WMD) scenarios," said police lieutenant Walter Ingram of the Morningside, N.Y., police department.

Ingram also noted that "the Bush Administration and congress toyed with the idea of practically militarizing FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Administration). which is basically a 'bean-counting' agency. But that idea went nowhere."

But General Stultz is gung-ho about the new authorization. “In a lot of cases, there were reserve-component soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines who were close at hand with the capabilities needed, but didn’t have the authority to act,” he said. “Finally, we got the law changed. This new legislation says that now we can use Title 10 reserves.”

For these forces to be used, the law specifies that the Commander in Chief -- President Barack Obama --must declare an emergency or disaster and a state governor must request the assistance.

Stultz clarified what hasn’t changed under the law: civil authorities will remain the first responders. And when they need military support, National forces will be the first to step in when called by their state governor. “We are not trying to change any of that,” the general said.

But now, when a situation also demands a federal response, reserve forces can step in to assist for up to 120 days, added Miles.

However, political strategist Mike Baker is confused about the lack of news coverage and lack of controversy over the prospect of giving the U.S. warfighters so much leeway in operating within U.S. borders. "Imagine if President [George W.] Bush announced this increased use of military resources stateside. Does anyone doubt the media frenzy as well a the vitriol that would emanate from Democrats in both houses of the U.S. Congress?" Baker asked rhetorically.