FERGUSON, Mo. — To people on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, and many around the world who watched Wednesday night’s violence unfold, it seemed like a scene out of another country.
“They are now firing into the crowd,” a reporter is heard saying as loud blasts and fiery sparks show tear gas canisters apparently being shot by police. Screams follow.
“They’re firing rubber bullets,” a reporter with KARG Argus Radio is heard saying in a video of the events. “They’re attacking reporters, they are attacking civilians. They are firing up on the media.”
Spent crowd-control grenades were found laying in the street.
All the details of just what happened in the city Wednesday night amid protests over the shooting of an unarmed teen have yet to come in. Multiple law enforcement agencies have been at the protests from the city, county, and state levels. In the chaos, it was not immediately clear which agencies did what exactly.
But to some security experts, this much is certain: the actions of police made things worse.
“You’re in trouble when your SWAT team is on the front line of dealing with a civil disturbance,” Gen. Russell Honoré said Thursday.
In 2005, Honoré was dispatched to New Orleans to lead recovery efforts after Hurricane Katrina, when the federal government said it was facing “urban warfare.” Honoré famously told authorities to lower their weapons, and defused the tense situation.
“I’ve seen this done successfully in the past where you have your front line policemen on the front until people start throwing things. Then you have your riot control squads in the back,” Honoré said Thursday. “The tactics they are using, I don’t know where they learned them from. It appears they may be making them up on the way. But this is escalating the situation.”
“Any time we have policemen pointing weapons at American citizens, they need to go through retraining,” Honoré added. “And I think we are about 24 hours too late.”
Unclear how the violence began
Alderman Antonio French of St. Louis says the demonstrators who were protesting the killing of an unarmed teen did nothing to provoke the fighting.
But the official police account of what happened has not yet come in. And news photos showed some young men in the crowd lighting Molotov cocktails.
Police said they responded with force only after the Molotov cocktails were thrown at them
French said it was the police who started the violence, and protesters responded.
Throughout the week, authorities in Ferguson have said the armored vehicles and weaponry have been in place to keep the peace.
“We welcome the peaceful protests,” Ferguson police chief Thomas Jackson said Wednesday.
But Joey Jackson, an HLN legal analyst, said police actions show that’s not true.
“In the event that people, limited people, are protesting in a way that is negative,” he argued, police “need to isolate those people and perhaps respond to them as opposed to firing upon the crowd in general.”
Mike Brooks, a former Washington police official who now serves as HLN’s law enforcement analyst, cautioned against the rush to judgment. “If there were, being thrown, rocks and bottles and Molotov cocktails, then they had to respond in kind,” he argued.
But Brooks also said he has serious questions about the arrest of two journalists inside a McDonalds by an officer who, according to reports, refused to provide his name.
“Why did the police come in and ask them to leave?” Brooks asks. If there were a problem, it would be “up to the manager, the general manger of that establishment, to ask them to leave. I want to know what department these officers were from. And if I ask an officer, ‘What is your name and badge number,’ that officer better give it to me.”
The militarizing of U.S. police
To some, the events in Ferguson highlight a growing danger.
“Police militarization has been among the most consequential and unnoticed developments of our time,” The Huffington Post’s Washington Bureau Chief Ryan Grim said in a statement decrying the arrest of one of the site’s reporters.
Just weeks ago, the American Civil Liberties Union issued an extensive report on the issue. “American policing has become unnecessarily and dangerously militarized, in large part through federal programs that have armed state and local law enforcement agencies with the weapons and tactics of war, with almost no public discussion or oversight,” the report said.
The weapons are meant to help in the “failed War on Drugs,” the report said. “Instead, the use of hyper-aggressive tools and tactics results in tragedy for civilians and police officers, escalates the risk of needless violence, destroys property, and undermines individual liberties.”
“Militarization of policing encourages officers to adopt a ‘warrior’ mentality and think of the people they are supposed to serve as enemies,” the report added.
Some veterans slam Ferguson police
Some in the military community say the problem is that police are getting the equipment without the same training and rules.
“To call this militarization doesn’t characterize the military very well,” says Josh Weinberg, an Army veteran who focuses on security issues for the Truman Project. “We always were trained in escalation of force.”
The police apparently “had their weapons up and pointed at protesters who are obviously unarmed,” he said. In the military, he learned that “your force posture matches the threat. You only raise your weapon if one is raised at you.”
With a pointed weapon, Weinberg says, “You could make a mistake, maybe get startled, put your finger on the trigger and shoot somebody who doesn’t deserve to be shot.”
And threatening people unnecessarily can increase the tensions and danger, exacerbating the situation, he says. “A crowd kind of has a mind of its own that develops over time, depending on what threat they perceive.”
Weinberg isn’t alone. “As someone who studies policing in conflict, what’s going on Ferguson isn’t just immoral and probably unconstitutional, it’s ineffective,” Army veteran Jason Fritz wrote on Twitter. He’s now senior editor of War on the Rocks, which analyzes national security issues.
“Our (Rules of Engagement) regarding who we could point weapons at in Afghanistan was more restrictive than cops in MO,” wrote Jeff Clement, an author and former Marine Logistics Officer.
These were just a few of the tweets included in a storify being shared widely online Thursday morning, with this line at the top: “The general consensus here: if this is militarization, it’s the s***iest, least-trained, least professional military in the world, using weapons far beyond what they need, or what the military would use when doing crowd control.”
Police sometimes need military equipment, experts say
“You do need a tactical element,” for dangerous situations, Brooks noted.
Weinberg agrees. “In today’s world, you have up-armored criminals. And many times police need to get into denied areas where criminals or terrorist elements have a fence and protect it with their own automatic weapons from fortified positions. You need high-powered weaponry. Criminals today and the amount of weapons they have, it’s really scary.”
But the way Ferguson police used some of that equipment didn’t make sense, he argues.
The videos showed “a bunch of guys on top of an armored personnel carrier,” he says. “When we’re rolling around in Afghanistan, you don’t sit on top of an APC. That defeats the purpose.”