As ever, speaking for myself and not my employer.
Ferguson Missouri has been patrolled by body armored, heavily armed and equipped, nominal police officers. As Matt Yglesias notes, among many others, this hasnât worked out so well. Reporters have been arrested, largely peaceful crowds have been tear gassed, and the situation is getting tenser. As Kelsey D. Atherton documents with testimony from veterans, U.S. military doctrine and training intentionally cuts against what was being done there.
Having gone to grad school during the Iraq War and having followed humanitarian interventions before that, thereâs a range of reasons that taking a para-military approach runs into trouble. If youâre interested in reading more about grappling with the line between military and policing and various attempts to effectively straddle it, check out Where is the Lone Ranger When We Need Him? by Robert M. Perito for the U.S. Institute of Peace.
Military and paramilitary approaches can be escalatory
James Gerrond notes âIn the USAF, we did crowd control and riot training every year. Lesson 1: Your mere presence has the potential to escalate the situation.â This is fairly easy to understand on a human level. Being around people with weapons out, particularly if you donât trust them, is just stressful. That can even extend to body armor, which is why many NGOs intentionally eschew it even in conflict zones. Worse, if heavy-handed tactics are used in response to genuine provocation or simply without justification, those already protesting suddenly have more cause. Ferguson does not have a notably higher violent crime rate than the nation as a whole. This entire thing was quite avoidable.
Policing is challenging and political
Military force is hardly apolitical, but in the strict sense of the term national defense and a focus on external enemies means that the military isnât responsible for enforcing the domestic social order, be it good or ill. However, when keeping the peace, particularly in reference to a protest, police canât avoid confronting the fissures and fault lines in society. This of course is especially true when they represent the target of the protest. Most any occupying military will want to rely to the extent possible on local police forces, but those forces will often have political problems of their own if the country has notable existing fault lines.
The question of whether people trust the those patrolling the streets is both squishy and critical. CSISâs Bob Lamb put out a report this summer on assessing legitimacy that does a good job of nailing down the concept and what it provides:
Legitimacy is a worthiness of support (or, in some contexts, of loyalty or imitation), and illegitimacy is a worthiness of opposition. Legitimacy sustains and illegitimacy impedes. In the short term, legitimacy also induces compliance with demands and requests and encourages supportive participation and public action, while illegitimacy induces opposition.
The Ferguson Police Departmentâs legitimacy was already tarnished by the shooting of Michael Brown and was further squandered through their choice of tactics. Most everyone is now hoping that the Governor Nixonâs deployment of the State Highway Patrol will change that dynamic not because they know the territory better or theyâre more trained in crowd control, but because theyâre avoiding escalation and are trusted in a way that the local police no longer are.
Weâll know soon enough if that works, but I think thereâs a good chance it will. The most successful form of foreign intervention, as Rolan Paris elaborates, are peacekeeping operations. The biggest advantage peacekeepers have is legitimacy. They are coming into a situation with the agreement of all major parties to a conflict.
Last nightâs police response in Ferguson was certainly an example of ineffective militarization, but itâs important to remember all the advantages they had. They lived there, they knew the territory, they spoke the language. Itâs that much harder for even far better-trained outsiders to play that role. Peacekeeping shows that it can be done, but I suspect that a key enabler of success is having a measure of legitimacy from the start. Meanwhile, Iâm gratified that there appears to be a widespread realization that our police forces shouldnât try to act like occupying forces: they arenât good at it, and it makes their job harder in the first place.