The “great awakening” of Ferguson changed nothing: Police militarization in 2017

Soldiering on…
Soldiering on…
Image: AP Photo/Jeff Roberson, File
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The killing of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, on Aug. 9, 2014, set off a national conversation about police methods and biases. During the protests that followed, images of cops in head-to-toe military-grade armor, sitting atop vehicles that looked like they were ready for war and not for a suburban street in the middle of the US, steered the conversation to the topic of police militarization.

Much attention at the time was focused on the 1033 program, through which the US Defense Department transfers unneeded military equipment to local police departments. Then-president Barack Obama issued an executive order in 2015 to ban the government from sending certain kinds of military equipment to police departments. But the effect was largely symbolic—a report from In These Times shows that transfers under the 1033 program have not decreased since the events in Ferguson.

Three years after the events and the start of an intensified discussion about police reform, and militarization specifically, we checked in with one of the country’s top experts on the topic, Peter Kraska, a professor at Eastern Kentucky University’s School of Justice Studies, to see whether anything has changed. Kraska testified in front of the US Senate shortly after the events in Ferguson, and is the author of the book Militarizing the American Criminal Justice System. The interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Quartz: The events in Ferguson triggered more widespread awareness of police militarization. But did the facts on the ground change at all in the aftermath? 

PK:  Ferguson was the first real awakening about police militarization for mainstream America. There was a lot of fanfare — what should we do with the 1033 program, should the police become “guardians” instead of “warriors”?  It was a lot of hand-wringing, and some introspection about where the police institutions should head and where they’ve been. But in terms of that resulting in anything that ratcheted back police militarization, I would say absolutely not.

There were certainly symbolic political gestures that took place. The White House convened a commission on the 1033 program, but the assumption was that police militarization was caused exclusively or even primarily by the Department of Defense giving police departments military goods. This just simply is not the case.

The White House came up with a seven-point plan to scale back the program, but if you looked at each one of those seven points, they meant nothing. One of the points, for example, was that police can’t get weapons larger than .50-caliber. Well, no police department in their right mind would want any weapon beyond a .50-caliber anyway, and those were not given out to begin with.

QZ: If police militarization didn’t stem from the 1033 program, what did it stem from?

PK: It really reached its height of formation and activity in the late 1980s and 1990s drug war. Yes, the military was a little bit involved, but mostly it was the result of a lot of federal money being pumped into policing for the war on drugs, as well as under the auspices of community policing. It became amped up after 9/11, when the Department of Homeland Security was formed. It gave a tremendous amount of money  in funding for local police departments so they could buy armored personnel carrier vehicles and they could better outfit their SWAT teams.

QZ: The Trump administration has been talking about re-instating the banned elements of the 1033 program, but since you’re saying the bans didn’t have much effect, are you expecting different avenues of militarization to ramp up?

I don’t think the trend line of police militarization is going to necessarily accelerate, but if there was any possibility of a pause in the trend post-Ferguson, it has certainly died with the Trump administration, because of the power of the rhetoric coming out of the White House. There is this expectation that “we’re here to re-fight Jeff Sessions’ war on drugs, murder rates are up, so we gotta get back on the streets, and we gotta do all these punitive things we were doing before.”

We have 18,000 different police departments, so it’s really hard to say exactly where they’re all headed. My fieldwork in the real world of policing shows that mostly departments are just doubling down on the punitive and the militarized things they were doing in the first place.

QZ: What else does the rhetoric portend?

We’re six months into the Trump administration. We’ve heard a tremendous amount of rhetoric around revamping the war on drugs, and the war on crime. We’ve heard all of the inflammatory stuff about [international crime gang] MS-13 that Jeff Sessions likes to talk about. We know that civil asset forfeiture just got a huge boost in popularity because of the messages coming out of the White House, so I think the million-dollar question is what effect is all that going to have.

I would argue that right now there’s a segment of the police community that is pushing back against the rhetoric, waiting to see what happens and saying “we’re not going to go whole hog into that,” and there’s also a segment that has always wanted to go into this direction. They are going to see a carte blanche.

It’s going to depend a lot on how this administration plays out, and where the ideological trend ends up going. Actually, the better word is “cultural trend,” because policing is driven as much by material goods and funding and goodies from the Department of Defense as it is from cultural messages. If their cultural messages are “be warriors, get out there and fight the good fight,” or “ you’re the frontline soldiers in the war on crime and drugs,” that’s going to have a real impact, particularly when it’s coming from the White House.

QZ: Has much else about policing changed in the three years since the events in Ferguson?

It’s very hard to talk about the police institution with a broad brush. For every regressive police chief you can find that would say, “blue lives matter and black lives don’t,” you can find another progressive police chief who will say, “wow, we’ve got a significant problem and here’s the neat thing that we’re doing to try to combat it.”

One of the things that’s really important to remember is that the regressive element of policing has never gone away and has never been reformed. Just look at the 25 years of community policing efforts that were supposedly going to democratize policing and make it more responsive to communities. What does that devolve into because of a regressive mindset? It devolves into more stop-and frisk, zero tolerance, all the kinds of punitive and militarized stuff that the original community policing reformers would’ve really hoped would’ve been pushed to the side.