Jet-black rifles leveled at unarmed citizens and mine-resistant vehicles once used to patrol the roadways of Iraq and Afghanistan rumbling through small town America. These are scenes playing out in Ferguson, Missouri, which has been racked by protests for the last week following the fatal shooting of an unarmed 19-year-old named Michael Brown.
For veterans of the wars that the Ferguson protests so closely resemble, the police response has appeared to be not only heavy-handed but out of step with the most effective ways for both law enforcement and military personnel to respond to demonstrations.
“You see the police are standing online with bulletproof vests and rifles pointed at peoples chests,” said Jason Fritz, a former Army officer and an international policing operations analyst. “That’s not controlling the crowd, that’s intimidating them.”
The protests in Ferguson began in earnest just a day after Brown was killed, when a prayer vigil for the slain teen turned into an evening of looting.
Missouri’s governor moved on Thursday to calm the situation, naming an African-American captain of the Highway Patrol to oversee security in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson.
Capt. Ron Johnson, who grew up in Ferguson, told reporters he would take a new approach after complaints that police have used heavy-handed tactics, arresting dozens of protesters and using teargas and pepper pellets to break up crowds.
President Barack Obama, seeking to defuse tensions in Ferguson, called on police to respect peaceful demonstrations.
“There’s also no excuse for police to use excessive force against peaceful protesters or to throw protesters in jail for lawfully exercising their First Amendment rights,” Obama said.
Scriven King, a 10-year veteran of the U.S. Air Force’s law enforcement component and a SWAT officer, attributed the initial spasm of violence to a lack of leadership and mismanagement of public perception on the Ferguson Police Department’s behalf.
“The first thing that went wrong was when the police showed up with K-9 units,” Scriven said. “The dogs played on racist imagery. … It played the situation up and [the department] wasn’t cognizant of the imagery.”
King added that, instead of de-escalating the situation on the second day, the police responded with armored vehicles and SWAT officers clad in bulletproof vests and military-grade rifles.
“We went through some pretty bad areas of Afghanistan, but we didn’t wear that much gear,” said Kyle Dykstra, an Army veteran and former security officer for the State Department. Dykstra specifically pointed out the bulletproof armor the officers were wearing around their shoulders, known as “Deltoid” armor.
“I can’t think of a [protest] situation where the use of M4 [rifles] are merited,” Fritz said. “I don’t see it as a viable tactic in any scenario.”
Ferguson police have defended their handling of the protests and said some demonstrators have been trying to “co-opt” peaceful protests. But while the Ferguson and St. Louis county police departments may have made their presence felt in the streets, they have made only limited use of social media.
“They’ve kept people in an information black hole,” King said, mentioning that their decision not to share details about operations more widely has only exacerbated the situation.
“There has not been a dialogue about the tactical situation the officers faced,” he said, referring to the fact that there might have been a reason that caused the officers to respond with such heavy equipment. “There could have been threats to the officers, but that information has not been shared to the public.”
As the violence continued to escalate over the course of the week, King said, Ferguson police also exacerbated tensions by allowing individual officers to engage with protesters.
“Officers were calling the protesters ‘animals,’” King said. “I can’t imagine a military unit would do that in any scenario.”
King added that if it were a military unit in a similar situation there would be a public affairs officer or civil affairs engagement team that would help bridge the gap between the riot control elements and the general population.
“I would hate to call the Ferguson response a military one,” he said. “Because it isn’t; it’s an aberration.”