By Jamelle Bouie
The most striking photographs from Ferguson, Mo.,, weren't of Saturday's demonstrations or Sunday night's riots; they're of the police.
Image after image showed officers clad in Kevlar vests, helmets, and camouflage, armed with pistols, shotguns, automatic rifles, and tear gas. What's more, Ferguson police have used armored vehicles to show force and control crowds.
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In one photo, riot gear-clad officers are standing in front of a mine-resistant ambush protected vehicle, barking commands and launching tear gas into groups of demonstrators and journalists.
Ferguson police were treating demonstrators — and Ferguson residents writ large — as a population to occupy, not citizens to protect.
This is part of a broader problem.
In his book The Rise of the Warrior Cop, journalist Radley Balko notes that since the 1960s, "law-enforcement agencies across the U.S., at every level of government, have been blurring the line between police officer and soldier.
Driven by martial rhetoric and the availability of military-style equipment — from bayonets and M-16 rifles to armored personnel carriers — American police forces have often adopted a mind-set previously reserved for the battlefield."
This process ramped up with the "war on drugs" in the 1980s and 1990s, as the federal government supplied local and state police forces with military-grade weaponry to clamp down on drug trafficking and other crimes.
And it accelerated again after the 9/11 attacks and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, when the federal government had — and sent — billions in surplus military equipment to state and local governments.
Since 2006, according to an analysis by The New York Times, police departments have acquired 435 armored vehicles, 533 planes, 93,763 machine guns and 432 mine-resistant armored trucks.
Overall, since Congress established its program to transfer military hardware, local and state police departments have received $4.3 billion worth of equipment.
Accordingly, the value of military equipment used by these police agencies has increased from $1 million in 1990 to $324 million in 1995 (shortly after the program was established), to nearly $450 million in 2013.
At the same time as crime has fallen to its lowest levels in decades, police departments are acquiring more hardware and finding more reasons to use SWAT teams and other heavy-handed tactics, regardless of the situation.
According to an American Civil Liberties Union report released this summer, 79 percent of SWAT deployments from 2011 to 2012 were for search warrants, a massive overreaction that can have disastrous consequences, including injury and death.
The ACLU finds that 50 percent of those impacted by SWAT deployments were black and Latino. Of these deployments, 68 percent were for drug searches. And a substantial number of drug searches — 60 percent — involved violent tactics to force entry, which lead predictably and avoidably to senseless injury and death.
The fact that police are eager to use their new weapons and vehicles isn't a surprise. Put simply, when you give anyone toys, you have to expect they'll play with them.