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What happens when police officers see protesters as ‘the enemy’

Former senior military officials are criticizing Secretary of Defense Mark Esper for participating in a controversial photo op with President Trump and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley for walking through D.C. in his battle-dress uniform. Nick Schifrin talks to John Yang and then discusses the increasing militarization of police with Radley Balko, author of “Rise of the Warrior Cop.”

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now to questions raised by last night's police and National Guard action outside the White House.

    The president has spoken of dominating the streets, and has said that he would use the active-duty U.S. military to do so.

    Here's John Yang.

  • John Yang:

    Judy, under the law and under the Constitution, what role may the military play at a time of civil unrest?

    Nick Schifrin, our foreign affairs and defense correspondent, is here to walk us through that question.

    Nick, first of all, what have Pentagon officials been doing with regard to these protests over the last several days?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    John, defense officials say that Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley have been coordinating with governors, trying to make sure that there are enough National Guardsmen where they need to be.

    There are now 18,000 Guardsmen across 29 states and D.C. responding to the protests and the violence. But the military senior leadership has also been part of President Trump's political and rhetorical response.

    Yesterday, Esper participated in the presidential photo-op outside the White House at St. John's Episcopal Church. Today, a senior defense official made the extraordinary claim that Esper did not know about that photo -op when he left the White House. He only thought that the president wanted to review a police formation.

    And also, last night, Mark Milley walked Washington, D.C., in what's called his battle dress uniform after the president said he would — quote — "put Milley in charge."

    Multiple former senior military officials who I talked to today, John, including those who worked in the Trump administration, said that Milley's walk, Esper's participating in the photo-op, and also Esper's telling governors yesterday to — quote — "dominate the battle space," militarizes a law enforcement issue and politicizes the military.

    And these former officials were especially appalled — one of them used that word — at Milley participating in that presidential photo-op while he was in uniform.

    Using the military as the face of a controversial policy might help politicians short term, but civil military experts say long term, it degrades the military's respect among Americans.

  • John Yang:

    And, Nick, the president has said that, if cities or states can't protect life or property, that he's going to send the military in and, in his words, solve the problem for them.

    Can he do that?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Well, in a word, yes, but he has to make a legal argument to do so, and it is a dramatic step.

    Remember that Guardsman from the communities where they deploy are controlled by the governors, not by the Department of Defense or by the president. For Trump to follow through on his threat to deploy the military, either governors would have to ask for the military to be deployed, or the president has to argue that the governors cannot provide security in their own state.

    So, let's think about examples of this in U.S. history. 1992, the L.A. riots, President Bush sends in the Marines after the California governor requests him to do so. But in the '50s and '60s, about a half-dozen times, presidents invoked the Insurrection Act because governors wouldn't enforce civil rights law.

    Of course, the most famous example of this, John, 1957 in Little Rock, when President Eisenhower sends in the 101st Airborne. This, of course, is a very, very different situation.

    A senior defense official told us today that the Pentagon would prefer not, not to use any active-duty military. And to be clear, the Pentagon says there are no active-duty military responding to any of these protests.

    But, given the presidential threat, John, there are now active-duty military police outside Washington, D.C., could be deployed if they're asked to be.

  • John Yang:

    And, Nick, why can the president do that in Washington, D.C.?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    D.C. is not a state.

    In Washington, D.C., the National Guard reports to the secretary of the Army, and, therefore, the president. Federal police in Washington, D.C., report to federal authorities.

    And so what we saw in Lafayette Park yesterday, when peaceful protesters were cleared forcibly, so President Trump could have his photo-op, that was controlled by federal authorities, under the direction of the attorney general, Bill Barr.

    In D.C., the president simply has powers that he doesn't have in the states. And so whether we're talking about federal police in D.C. or the threat of sending troops into states, former senior military officials who I talk to don't question the legality of these orders. They question whether it's appropriate to use federal authorities and possibly the military to target U.S. citizens who are protesting.

    Now, John, I want to expand this conversation to policing and what seems to be an increasing military edge to policing.

    And for that, I'm joined by Radley Balko. He is the author of "Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America's Police Forces." He is also an opinion journalist for "The Washington Post," joins me from Nashville.

    Radley Balko, welcome to the "NewsHour." Thank you very much.

    So, we're talking about what you call the warrior cop. Are we seeing the blurring of the lines between the warrior, the soldier, and the traditional police officer?

  • Radley Balko:

    I think we are.

    And it's been a continuation of a trend that we have seen since about the 1980s. In this country, we have a long tradition of respecting the line between police and military, and with good reason. A soldier's job is to kill people and break things, to annihilate a foreign enemy.

    A police officer's job is to keep the peace and protect constitutional rights. When you blur the two, when you take police officers and you train them like soldiers and arm them and dress them like soldiers, and you tell them they're fighting a war, whether it's on crime or terrorism or drugs or Antifa — pick your villain — we shouldn't be surprised if we see some of the images that we have seen over the past few days, where police officers are treating the people they serve like — almost like an enemy combatant, rather than citizens with rights.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And does it go both ways? Does arming police like soldiers change the psychology of how a police officer would act and the psychology of how a protester might interact with that police officer?

  • Radley Balko:


    For the book, I interviewed a number of police chiefs, both current and retired. And one thing that sort of came out of those interviews was that, when you respond to a protest with officers in riot gear, when you respond to protests with these kind of masked, nameless faces that kind of represent everything that the protesters are protesting against, not only do — are the protesters dehumanized in the eyes of the officers, that they're — because they have been sort of trained to think more like soldiers, the police officers themselves are dehumanized in the eyes of protesters.

    And it's important, I think, that police chiefs, heads of police agencies try to sort of humanize both sides. I think we saw, with the Atlanta police chief in a video, she sort of went out and talked to the protesters, asked what they were upset about, asked — just listened to them, just took some time to listen.

    And I think that can go a long way toward de-escalating some of the tension.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And we have seen police officers even take a knee with some of the protesters and, like you said, listen. And that will often defuse the situation.

    We have also seen some of the opposite tactics, quite aggressive tactics from police officers against protesters.

    Take a look at this scene in Philadelphia we saw of police firing tear gas at protesters who were trapped against an embankment. Police say the protesters were violent. The protesters say they were totally peaceful.

    Why do we see these kinds of incidents around the country, do you think?

  • Radley Balko:

    Well, I mean, I think, on one side, people are angry.

    And on the other side, I think you have police departments that have increasingly been kind of not only taught to sort of think more like soldiers and approach their jobs like soldiers and take kind of a very us-vs.-them mentality to the job, but I think, during the Trump administration over the last three years, you have a president at the very top who has encouraged police brutality when speaking to police organizations, who has lashed out at the media.

    We have seen more attacks on journalists by police, direct attacks, knowing attacks, over the last few days than we have seen in the last several years.

    So, I do think these kinds of protests have happened, obviously, over and over and over again over our country's history. The reactions have often been sort of aggressive and militaristic.

    But I do think what we're seeing now is — seems particularly aggressive, and I also think the targeting of journalists is something — at least on this sort of scale, it's something that we haven't seen before.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Yes. Pro-media organizations say that there have been dozens, if not perhaps even more than 100 attacks, or police attacking journalists.

    We're also seeing the militarization of the police in terms of what they wear. And you mentioned the Trump administration making different rhetorical decisions. There's also a policy change.

    After Ferguson, the Obama administration curtailed some of the military equipment that police officers could purchase. Have those purchases grown since the Trump administration allowed more police departments to buy, purchase military equipment?

  • Radley Balko:

    Yes, so the program you're talking about is the 1033 Program.

    And by the time the Obama administration rolled it back, it was almost kind of a symbolic move, because a lot of police groups were getting their — police agencies were getting their equipment from — through DHS and through other programs.

    But it was a kind of an important move symbolically. And one thing the Obama administration did that they got a lot of ridicule for, I think unfairly, is that they paid a lot attention to symbolism. They cut off the really sort of aggressive made-for-battlefield-type weapons.

    But they also said anything that was painted camouflage, for example, would have to be repainted if the police — domestic police organizations were going to use it.

    And, as I said, they got a lot of ridicule for that. I think it was actually a very smart decision, because it showed that they were aware of the mind-set problem, of the idea that we have to — cops need to see themselves as part of the communities they serve.

    They need to see themselves as there to — at a protest particularly, to protect the rights of the people who are protesting. And when you dress in camouflage, and you start thinking yourself — of yourself as a soldier and the people you're supposed to be protecting as the enemy, it's hard to act as a police officer is supposed to act.

    You tend to act more like we see a soldier on a battlefield.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Radley Balko, author of "Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America's Police Forces," thank you very much.

  • Radley Balko:

    My pleasure.

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