Ferguson police acting like 'invading army' escalated tensions, says expert
Published Friday, August 15, 2014 8:58AM EDT
Last Updated Friday, August 15, 2014 5:58PM EDT
It was a much different scene in Ferguson, Mo., Thursday night, when the frightening spectre of local police outfitted in riot gear and armoured tanks gave way to state troopers walking side-by-side with protesters.
And at least one expert says the peaceful atmosphere was likely due to police trying a "demilitarized" approach.
Margaret Beare, a York University sociology professor whose research focuses on law enforcement, says police court trouble when they walk into an unstable situation acting as though they were a military unit.
"The function between the military and what should be a public civilian police force is a completely different function," she told CTV's Canada AM.
"And when you go into any community as though you were an invading army -- which is exactly what the police looked like in Ferguson -- then you've created a completely different situation."
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, who has been watching the building anger at the Ferguson protests, commented Thursday that the use of military equipment sent a "conflicting message." The response by law enforcement to protests "must seek to reduce tensions, not heighten them," he said.
Beare would agree.
"In a democracy, the message, the belief and the reality should be that the police do no harm. It's a very simple message," she said. "The police should be controlled by a rule of law, by due process, and over and above that, by a sense of civilized conduct."
After hearing the criticism, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon stepped in Thursday, stripping the St. Louis County Police Department of their authority and assigning oversight of the protests to the Missouri Highway Patrol.
On Thursday night, Highway Patrol Capt. Ron Johnson led a police escort to the peaceful protest, marching alongside protesters in a demonstration that the Associated Press reported had "a light, almost jubilant atmosphere… more akin to a parade."
Johnson told journalists: "We're here to serve and protect… We're not here to instil fear."
Here in Canada, Beare says most police forces are excellent and strive to keep our police "Canadian."
"By that I mean a civilian force; we are loathe to bring in the military, even in an emergency," she said.
Nevertheless, there have been examples of Canadian forces choosing to fully arm themselves and then facing criticism after they clashed with citizens – most recently at the 2010 G20 summit in Toronto.
Beare said Canadian police officers and chiefs regularly attend police conferences in the U.S. and see how forces there are receiving military-style equipment, such as tactical vehicles, body armour and night vision glasses. It can be tempting, she says, to want to have the same tools.
"When they see this major, literally military, equipment, it's quite natural that they would want to have those some kind of tools or toys, if you will," she said.
But she said this week's experience in Ferguson may lead to a re-thinking of police tactics.
"Their federal government is recognizing that militarization is not the way to go -- not when you're dealing with citizens," she said.
With reports from The Associated Press