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In Ferguson and beyond, police militarization may be declining

During the protests that followed the shooting death of Michael Brown, the spectacle of Ferguson police patrolling the streets in combat gear sparked another conversation about the militarization of police. Matt Apuzzo, a reporter for The New York Times, joins Hari Sreenivasan to discuss.

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  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    During the protests that followed the extrajudicial shooting of Michael Brown, the spectacle of Ferguson police patrolling the streets in combat gear with machine guns and armored vehicles sparked another conversation.

    Like a lot of police departments, Ferguson's had been equipped with military surplus provided by the Pentagon and gear purchased with Department of Homeland Security grants. But, this year, the Obama administration has curtailed those military supplies.

    New York Times reporter Matt Apuzzo has covered this issue, joins me now from Washington.

    So, first of all, how prevalent is it that police departments get this military surplus equipment?

  • MATT APUZZO, The New York Times:

    Oh, I mean, it's very, very prevalent.

    I mean, this program, this idea of military surplus, goes back to really the height of the drug war, when the idea was that local police were basically outgunned by drug gangs. And, so, the thinking in Washington was, well, we can take this extra military equipment and provide it to local police departments to help fight the drug war.

    And, obviously, like a lot of programs, it kind of ramped up even more after 9/11, and the focus became, you know, a lot of counterterrorism stuff. So, you tend to see, you know, Humvees, lately MRAPs, these giant mine-resistant vehicles, body armor, night-vision goggles and the like.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    So, what is the change now? What is the administration proposing?

  • MATT APUZZO:

    Well, so, under executive order that went through in January, basically, what the president said was, there is now a restricted group of equipment.

    That would include, like, bayonets, high-caliber rifles, tracked — tracked trucks. So, you know, these are these big troop transporters that look like tanks, but they don't have obviously the cannon mount to them. But they run on tracks. Those are now prohibited items.

    And then there's a much longer list of items, like mine-resistant vehicles or whatnot, that you can get, but you have to go through all these hoops and you have to prove that you have trained on it and you have policies on how to use it, and you have to explain why you have a need to have it.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    In addition to some sort of oversight that takes a look at what you're doing on your police force, right?

  • MATT APUZZO:

    That's exactly right. And what we saw just a few months ago, the Justice Department did a review of Ferguson's response and the sort of St. Louis region's response to the protests and riots after the Brown shooting.

    And what they said was that, you know, while some of the equipment was used appropriately, a lot of it was just really used inappropriately and unnecessarily, and that police officers didn't know who was in charge.

    And you had these — you had this armored — you had this armored car going — armored truck going around with snipers on — just sitting — like, poised on the roof of the car, pointing their weapons at civilians, and that it only — it only served to really heighten tensions and actually just made things worse.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    And, interestingly, there has been pushback about this show of force, this militarization or this posture, but, really, it took the death of Michael Brown, the reaction in Ferguson to do things that legislators and activists could not do.

  • MATT APUZZO:

    Sure. I mean, forget could not do, but there was almost no interest in doing it. This is what is really remarkable, is, think about it for a second. This idea of beefing up local police departments to fight terrorism is kind of the cornerstone of our domestic post-9/11 response.

    So, the fact that it took a death of a young African-American man in St. Louis County to force upon the country a huge reconsideration of the thinking of — that we need to heavily arm police departments to fight terrorism, I mean, it's just sort of a remarkable, because, until recently, the only discussions about these types of programs were, is my police department getting enough? How come — how come that city got more than my city?

    Those were the debates that were going on in Washington. Nobody was saying, hey, do we really need to have armored troop transporters in local police departments?

    Nobody was saying that until Ferguson. And that's just a really remarkable moment from a Washington policy standpoint.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    All right, Matt Apuzzo of The New York Times joining us from Washington, thanks so much.

  • MATT APUZZO:

    Hey, great to be here.

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