Why are police using military gear in Ferguson and how did they get it?

Player utilities

This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman, you're listening to The World. If I say "Militarization," you may be thinking Iraq. That also seemed to be what was on President Obama's mind when he stepped to the mic today while vacationing.

President Obama: First of all, we continue to make progress in carrying out our targeted military operations in Iraq.

Werman: But Obama also had another violent place in his thoughts today.

President Obama: Second, I want to address something that's been in the news over the last couple of days and that's the situation in Ferguson, Missouri.

Werman: Today on The World, we're talking militarization, not in Iraq but in Ferguson, Missouri, where we caught with a US correspondent for The Guardian newspaper in London, Jon Swaine. I asked him how he was covering the aftermath of the police shooting of Michael Brown, the 18-year-old African American killed on Saturday.

Jon Swaine: The way I explain it is that after several years at war overseas, the United States has begun, as it scales down those efforts, transferring, and sometimes selling, military equipment and hardware to regional police forces. We might not, until now, have actually seen the result of that in full beam and it's kind of shocking when it does come into view like this.

Werman: That's pretty stark. What's happening Ferguson is not a war but many are using war analogies to describe what's going on there. I even saw a headline today that read "Baghdad, USA." You accept that, it sounds like.

Swaine: It's not a war, let's stress that. But some of the equipment being used by the police is military equipment. There are stun grenades, there's teargas grenades, they are carrying assault rifles, they're driving these huge armored trucks, atop which police officers with sniper rifles and night vision goggles are perched with their guns trained on protesters. For a lot of these protesters that I spoke to last night, they do feel like they're in some sort of urban war zone and the thing they keep stressing is that this is not sending them back to their houses. This is angering them and getting them back out into the streets.

Werman: Who have you been speaking with in Ferguson and what are they telling you?

Swaine: Mostly I've been talking to people who live near where Michael Brown was shot, people who have been out in the protests, people who last night were kind of crouched with me behind buildings and trees and posts while gas canisters were fired down these residential streets that we were sitting in. Obviously sometimes they're too concerned about getting out of the way of gas to talk but when they do talk, some of them have been saying pretty shocking things. They've been talking about how this is a battle between these young predominantly African American residents and the older predominantly white police force and that this is a battle that's going to continue.

Werman: How does the racial component that a lot of media US media are clearly picking up on, how does that fold into your coverage, because there was a similar thing that happened in Tottenham in north London in 2011, a 29-year-old black man shot by police.

Swaine: Well, the racial component definitely seems to be playing a role here. People bring it up when I talk to them, unprompted. They say, first of all, they're angry about the death of one of their friends but secondarily they're angry about their treatment at the hands of this police force, 94% of which is white, when 67% of the population in this small town is black and many are disadvantaged and poor. And so people keep bringing this up, that this is a white authority force using these heavy weapons against a black group of young men and it seems to be an important part.

Werman: Is that the kind of thing that readers back in the UK are asking you about and are you getting responses from your coverage?

Swaine: The responses I'm getting from people in the UK is just startling bafflement, if you like. The images are obviously so powerful, of these cops in Army khaki with assault rifles, with goggles, with helmets, facing down in their trucks these young guys with balaclavas to guard their mouths from gas. The stark disparity that they're seeing and what's being unleashed here really has surprised people, that this is the United States, the world's leading superpower, the richest country in the world and yet this is happening on the streets.

Werman: That was Jon Swaine with The Guardian newspaper reporting from Ferguson. Yeah, those pictures Jon talks about are pretty scary. The gear looks like something the military would use in Iraq or Afghanistan. That intrigued us, so we got in touch with G.W. Schultz to find out more. He's a homeland security reporter with the Center for Investigative Reporting. He told The World that the current militarization of local police departments started after 9/11.

G.W. Schultz: After September 11th, Congress rushed to flood state and local governments with federal dollars to protect themselves against threats from terrorism. But since terrorism events are psychically a huge blow but they're very rare, a lot of communities had a difficult time figuring out how to spend that money. Money is everything from Washington. If Washington designates money for a certain purpose, suddenly everyone is going to decide that they have a reason to spend that money. So if Washington says "We have a counterterrorism problem in this country, we're going to give you billions of dollars to confront it," the state and local communities will come up with a threat that arguably maybe didn't exist prior to September 11th, let's say. That's one of the problems with public safety since 9/11, is we've earmarked a lot of money for counterterrorism purposes, so suddenly everybody had a counterterrorism problem. We suddenly had a whole lot of money to spend on an issue that was, to this day, well over a decade after 9/11, that we're still struggling to define.

Werman: The weapons and the police in Ferguson have people referring to the town as "Fergistan" and you get these surreal videos of police patrolling through the streets there like it's a war zone. Last year, during the manhunt for the Boston Bombers, local law enforcement didn't need to make up a threat, it was clear. But we saw how militarized things had become locally. How does it actually impact the public when local police look and act like an army?

Schultz: That's an extremely important question because at the end of the day, what you're going to hear from police departments is they're going to say "We need to protect our people. Officer safety matters. No one wants to see cops getting killed." So who wants to strip down a police department from protective gear if it's available to them? Especially if the DOD doesn't have a need for certain types of equipment anymore and is able to give them to cash-strapped law enforcement agencies. But again, optically, for some of these agencies when they end up on the front page in the wake of a big story like this, if you're head to toe in lots of very thick, protective gear, you can radiate an image of being in a war zone in a country that's very unsettled by that. And that's a problem.

Werman: From a police perspective, do they really believe a Kenyan mall shooting could happen at any moment?

Schultz: Yes, absolutely. Charles Ramsey, who is the head of the Philadelphia Police Department, used to head up the D.C. Police Department, yes. Even though Ramsey and others will accept that these are highly unlikely events, but if you're in a position of leading the police department in D.C. or Philly or New York or L.A. or Chicago, if you're unprepared for events like that and if it happens, your legacy is going to be defined by the fact that you were perceived as not being prepared for that event. That's how a lot of law enforcement officials think in the United States.

Werman: What sort of feeling do you get when you're around the police officers who are all suited up in this armor and these heavy weapons?

Schultz: Well, it's the American in me that's a little unsettled by it. By I also interact with police a lot through my job, so I know that these individuals don't wake up each day and set out to violate people's civil liberties. There's a lot of cops in the United States, thousands, who didn't become police officers to ruin people's lives. They're well-intentioned. That doesn't change the fact that police are really struggling with their identity in the last couple of days. A lot of Americans are really unsure of how to react to Missouri and are, with that said, still upset with the shooting and this won't be the last one, I can tell you that.

Werman: G.W. Schultz, a reporter at the Center for Investigative Reporting, joining us from station KUT in Austin, Texas. Thanks very much, G.W.

Schultz: Thank you sir.