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Are Ferguson Cops Fueling Mob Psychology By Donning Battle Gear?

Image: Riot police clear demonstrators from a street in Ferguson

Riot police clear demonstrators from a street in Ferguson, Mo., on Aug. 13. MARIO ANZUONI / Reuters

When cops in Ferguson, Missouri, or any American town swap their peace officer look for soldierly garb and gear — black helmets, camo pants, M-16s and armored vehicles — many civilians view them not as law enforcers but as machine-like invaders, police experts assert.

The unprecedented militarization of police agencies — including a $4.3 billion Pentagon buildup dubbed “from warfighter to crimefighter" — has painted a new layer of ugly on the historical tension between the “blue line” of cops and the roiling emotions of demonstrators, according to some law experts.

In fact, when riot shields are raised, the seemingly simple fact that civilians can't see the cops' faces flips a psychological switch for some citizens in the crowd — and that image acts to dehumanize the officers, said Norm Stamper, who served as chief of the Seattle Police Department during the 1999 WTO riots.

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"It makes a huge difference. We are social creatures, we are human beings. We need to see people's eyes and we need to see people's expressions," said Stamper, who worked 34 years in uniform and holds a PhD in leadership and human behavior.

"When it's all hidden behind a military presence — like a Kevlar helmet — people aren't going to see the face of that officer. Citizens, in effect, depersonalize their police officers for very understandable reasons," Stamper added.

A fellow former top cop agreed that in the minds of those standing against a line of battle-ready officers, the person behind the badge vanishes.

"They see the police as occupiers," said Stephen Downing, retired deputy chief of the Los Angeles Police Department. "That’s a very natural reaction."

In Ferguson, following the fatal police shooting last Saturday of unarmed, 18-year-old Michael Brown, many locals turned into protesters and marches were mixed with riots. But Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson made a tactical error by deploying his military-clad officers early on, Downing argues, asserting that such a move will pacify the masses only when officers already enjoy a “reservoir of good will.”

“You’ve got a bunch of police officers on the street dressing up in this military mode. Their chief of police is allowing them to make that sort of show of force. So, they are reacting in a show of force as if they have transitioned into a military mode rather than remaining law enforcement officers dedicated to keeping the peace and preserving life,” Downing said. “You can do neither when you have a show of force that is excessive beyond the need for crowd control.”

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Any shift away from community policing — genial collaboration between cops and civilians — has been exacerbated by the rapid acquisition of military weapons and material by municipal and county law-enforcement agencies across the country, said Jody Armour, a Roy P. Crocker professor of law at the University of Southern California. He is an expert in racial profiling and excessive-force issues.

When peace officers don war-zone wardrobes, the look naturally injects an adversarial gap between officers and civilians, Armour added.

“Military armaments put more emotional and psychological distance between officers and citizens, and they undermine the ‘to serve and protect’ credo stenciled on the doors of many police cruisers,” Armour said.

But the psychological divide goes both ways, the ex-police chiefs agree.

The routine duties of a uniformed patrol cop typically involve pulling over a driver or answering a dispatcher's instructions to head to a home.

"It's usually, in those situations, just two human beings," Stamper said. "Yes, there's distance between somebody who's got authority and somebody who sees themselves on the receiving end of that authority. But there's a feeling of: 'Well, I can talk to this person, maybe even reason with this person.'

"Now, one of the things that happens is, even when a cop is no longer in that military garb, when they go back to their basic working blues, they don't turn it off. They may, in fact, find themselves behaving the same way they did when they were in that military uniform. That's a major concern I have," added Stamper, author of "Breaking Rank," an unvarnished look at work of policing America today.

Stamper served as police chief during the 1999 “Battle in Seattle” protests amid a ministerial conference of the World Trade Organization. He expressed — in a 2011 essay — regrets about how he directed his officers when some 40,000 demonstrators gathered, writing: “My support for a militaristic solution caused all hell to break loose.”

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Of course, tactical, heavily armored forces are sometimes needed when bad stuff goes down — school shootings, hostage situations or when armed individuals barricade themselves and threaten family or neighbors. Then the local SWAT team is summoned.

“Their mission is never a military mission. Their mission is always a law enforcement mission,” said Downing, formerly of the LAPD. “The law enforcement mission is to preserve life and order. The military mission — they have an enemy and their mission is to kill that enemy.”

In the best departments, when highly schooled SWAT outfits are called to action, their previous, long hours of preparation help them remain calm enough to make smart, professional decisions — no different than they would act when they wear regular police uniforms, Downing said.

“The problem is, American law enforcement has been provided all of this military equipment, basically free by the government, so that the government can leverage local enforcement to fight the war on drugs and the so-called war on terrorism. And there (sometimes) is no training,” Downing said.

“There are too many officers on the street sliding into these bullet-proof vests, putting on the fatigues, boots and helmets, getting to ride on these armored vehicles. And when they strap into that equipment without the proper training, they are going to metamorphize into a military posture,” Downing said. “That's what the testosterone is doing to them absent the training.”