A friend of mine, who was a police officer for 30 years, weighed in on my despair of what is going on in Ferguson
“As soon as that officer got out of his car, he intended to shoot him (Brown),” my friend said. “When you pull the trigger, you are intending to kill the target.”
As I agonized over the fact that Mike Brown had been killed, even I knew that police shoot to kill. Years ago, as I studied journalism and our class visited a police department, I asked the question of why police didn’t just shoot a person’s knees. That way, I said, the perpetrator could be stopped in his/her tracks, right?
No, the police officer who was teaching the class said. “We shoot to kill.”
My ex-cop friend affirmed that answer. “The bullets police use are designed to spread; they bounce around when they hit you. They mushroom so they can do more damage.” (I had remarked on how a bullet that entered Mike Brown in the forehead had gone in his eye, moved around, come out of that eye, gone back in that eye, and then exited near his collar-bone, according to the New York Times. ) http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/18/us/michael-brown-autopsy-shows-he-was-shot-at-least-6-times.html?_r=0) “Police use those and think they’re being more humane. Military bullets go through one person into the person who’s behind the person initially shot. The idea is to stop the threat; you need something that is going to kill, not just wound a person. You are trained to kill. When you would someone, you’ve actually missed them.”
That was and is a troubling thought. By Sunday, August 17, crowds in Ferguson had been out on the streets for several days, hours each day, marching, praying, shouting for justice in the death of Mike Brown. There had been violence after sun fell; local police, in full riot gear, used tear gas and pointed assault weapons at the already-troubled members of the community. Instead of quelling the violence, the police action only caused more agitation.
I was disturbed at what I was seeing. There was more and more talk about the militarization of police forces in the United States. The author of a book, The Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces, said on a CNN interview: “Using tear gas is illegal.”
My head jerked; up to that point, I had been only half-listening to all the discussion about military weapons being used by the Ferguson Police Department; maybe I thought it was just hype, or maybe I was just weary of seeing people struggle against a system which had historically meant them no good…
But the statement about the tear gas got to me. I had seen the huge tank-looking trucks; I had seen police perched upon them; I had seen the smoke from the tear gas, and I had seen the police – lots of them – advancing toward the crowd with those guns drawn. It seemed like I was looking at a picture of a battle in Iran or Iraq or Gaza. But no, it was here, in the United States. I remembered seeing police with those guns cocked and ready to fire, moving menacingly toward the crowd; the image of the light coming from them had actually made me shake. (I am not sure if the light was a night-light or a laser which would allow a more accurate shooting). I heard people say how badly the tear gas burned their eyes, their throats. I heard people say that tear gas was dispersed in their back yards. The looters got gassed, but so did many innocent women and children. The thought had bothered me ..
So, when I heard author Radley Balko say that tear gas was illegal to use, my antennae went up. Why in the world are authorities letting police use tear gas if it’s illegal?
My cop friend tried to console me. “It’s the more humane of the gasses that are available,” he said. “In the military, there is a gas used that can cause a person to “crap their pants” immediately.”If you ban tear gas in riots, they could use another. There is sonic equipment available and it sends out sound waves that cause confusion and headaches. They use that over in Iraq.”
It was too much information, too much, too quickly, at a time when I was grappling with my outrage that such tactics had been used against the crowd. I had seen tear gas used plenty of times, going all the way back to the Detroit riots. I took its use for granted. But now I was hearing that it was illegal to use it in civil disturbances…and I was disturbed. My friend continued to talk.
“Having this stuff is one thing,” he said. “Knowing when and when not to use it is another thing.”
My friend, on a roll educating me, said that the militarization had been going on since the 1960’s. “Right after the Civil Rights movement ” he said, “weapons and equipment used in the Vietnam War started coming into our country and given to police departments.” Back then, the police used heavy-handed violence on students, primarily white, protesting against that war. A politician at the Democratic National Convention in 1968 observed that America was becoming a “police state.”
Now, local police departments are being supplied military equipment by the Pentagon. These are weapons and equipment used in the Iraq War.
“Police,” he said, “are training for another terrorist attack. SWAT teams train for “urban warfare.” They are trained to ‘be’ or act like the military,” he said.
“Police departments don’t know what they’re doing,” said the ex-cop. “They get these weapons and get a six-hour training. They always over-react because they don’t now how to deal with people.”
On the unrest in Ferguson, my friend said, “This is what I call a “police riot.” Any time a situation is escalated by one side, that side is responsible. The people in Ferguson were agitated, and the police reacted by shooting rubber bullets, using tear gas. The police caused the escalation.”
“The weapons being used haven’t help because they shouldn’t have been used in the first place. They responded to the people’s unrest with military weapons. It should never have been done.”
He encouraged me to be realistic. “All of this happened because of fear,” he said. “The way police operate now is based on fear of what has happened before. Police officers follow orders. They are a para-military organization. They follow orders and instructions. Who’s giving the orders? The chief. The elected officials. It all comes back to local politics.”
My friend paused, then added a sobering thought. “Fifty percent of the general population is mentally ill,” he said quietly. “I would bet that fifty percent of any police department is probably mentally ill, too.”
“The officer in the Ferguson case should go to prison…but my gut says he won’t. He would go to prison because under no circumstances should this shooting have happened this way. It shouldn’t have happened. I’ve seen it from the inside.”
Undoubtedly, another officer would disagree with my friend. Regardless of that , a couple of things really resonate: that the police shoot to kill …and that the police acted out of fear. That seemed clear to me; what I saw looked like an army confronting a mortal enemy, absolutely intending to kill them if it “became necessary” in their view.
The thing is, angry African-Americans are not an enemy. They are a people who have too often not experienced justice in the justice system, a people who have seen their children shot by police over and over, with little to none action taken against those officers. Too often, they have heard, the police were right, that the shooting was “justified.” Too often, as they have mourned the loss of their loved ones, they have also decried the lack of justice afforded them.
No, they were not “the enemy.” The police, however, seemed not to know that …or to care.
A candid observation …