FERGUSON, Mo. —
For four nights in a row, they streamed onto West Florissant Avenue wearing camouflage, black helmets and vests with the word “POLICE” stamped on the back. They carried objects that doubled as warnings: assault rifles and ammunition, slender black nightsticks and gas masks.
They were not just one police force but many, hailing from communities throughout north St. Louis County and loosely coordinated by the county police.
Their adversaries were a ragtag group of mostly unarmed residents, hundreds of African Americans whose fury at the police sent them pouring onto streets and sidewalks in Ferguson, demanding justice for Michael Brown, the 18-year-old who was fatally shot by a police officer Saturday.
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When the protesters refused to retreat from the streets, threw firebombs or walked too close to a police officer, the response was swift and unrelenting: tear gas and rubber bullets.
To the rest of the world, the images of explosions, billowing tear gas and armored vehicles made Ferguson look as if it belonged in a chaos-stricken corner of Eastern Europe, not the heart of the American Midwest. As a result, a call has come from across the political spectrum for America’s police forces to be demilitarized, and Gov. Jay Nixon installed a new overall commander in Ferguson.
“At a time when we must seek to rebuild trust between law enforcement and the local community,” Attorney General Eric Holder said, “I am deeply concerned that the deployment of military equipment and vehicles sends a conflicting message.”
Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., voiced similar sentiments.
Such opposition amounts to a sharp change in tone in Washington, where the federal government has spent more than a decade paying for body armor, mine-resistant trucks and other military gear, all while putting few restrictions on its use.
Grant programs that, in the name of fighting terrorism, paid for some of the equipment being used in Ferguson have been consistently popular since the Sept. 11 attacks. If there has been any debate at all, it was over which departments deserved the most money.
Department of Homeland Security grant money paid for the $360,000 BearCat armored truck on patrol in Ferguson, said Nick Gragnani, executive director of St. Louis Area Regional Response System, which administers such grants for the St. Louis area.
Since 2003, the group has spent $9.4 million on equipment for the police in St. Louis County. That includes $3.6 million for two helicopters, plus the BearCat, other vehicles and night-vision equipment. Most of the body armor worn by officers responding to the Ferguson protests were paid for with federal money, Gragnani said.
“The focus is terrorism, but it’s allowed to do a crossover for other types of responses,” he said. “It’s for any type of civil unrest. We went by the grant guidance. There was no restriction put on that by the federal government.”
While the major Homeland Security grants do not pay for weapons, Justice Department grants do. That includes rubber bullets and tear gas, which the police use to disperse crowds. A Justice Department report last year said that nearly 400 local police departments and more than 100 state agencies had bought such less-lethal weapons using Justice Department grant money.
The grants also paid for body armor, vehicles and surveillance equipment. It was not immediately clear if those grants paid for equipment being used in Ferguson.
The military also sent machine guns, armored trucks, aircraft and other surplus war equipment to local departments. Compared with other urban areas, however, St. Louis County has received relatively little surplus military equipment.
All these programs began or were expanded in response to the Sept. 11 attacks, when authorities in Washington declared that local police were on the front lines of a global war on terrorism. Terrorism is exceedingly rare, however, and the equipment and money far outpaced the threat.
“You couldn’t say that back then with as much certainty as you can say that now, though,” said Frank Cilluffo, director of the Homeland Security Policy Institute at George Washington University. After Sept. 11, few people asked whether the police would use the equipment against protesters, Cilluffo said. “By and large, I don’t recall an outcry of any sort historically along these lines.”
In most cases, the government did not require training for departments receiving military-style equipment and few if any limitations were put on its use, he said.
The increase in military-style equipment has coincided with a significant rise in the number of police SWAT teams, which are increasingly being used for routine duties such as conducting liquor inspections and serving warrants.
For years, much of the equipment has gone unnoticed. But as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have drawn down, police departments have been receiving 30-ton, mine-resistant trucks from the military. That has caused controversy in several towns.
Nowhere has the deployment of military-style equipment been more noticeable than this week in Ferguson.
Until Thursday night, police made the same tactical move: When they determined the protest was no longer peaceful, they used tear gas to force protesters off the main street and into the two residential neighborhoods on either side of it. Once protesters had been pushed onto side streets of small, one-story houses and low-slung apartment buildings, some of them said they were effectively trapped.
“Disperse! Go back to your homes!” the police shouted, often from the top of armored vehicles, through megaphones.
“We don’t live here!” several people shouted back.
Police officials have said over the past few days that they felt they had no choice but to use tear gas and rubber bullets. They cannot allow looting to happen again, they said, and dispersing the crowds is the only way to stop it.
Chief Thomas Jackson of the Ferguson police defended the use of force against demonstrators during the past five days and said heavily armed officers with military-style equipment would continue to be deployed if authorities determined that circumstances warranted it.
“If the crowd is being violent,” he said, “and you don’t want to be violent, get out of the crowd.”