Ferguson, Missouri is a small town on the eastern outskirts of St. Louis with a population of around 21,000 people—that’s less than Wailuku. This month, the Midwestern town went from a quiet suburb to a warzone.
By now, most folks know about the killing of Michael Brown. Brown was eighteen years old, black, and unarmed when he was shot several times by a white police officer in broad daylight. People in the community gathered in outrage at the killing.
The police response to the protestors, however, was astounding. It started with mass arrests. Journalists were picked up and detained for not leaving a McDonald’s fast enough. Days later, an elected official for the City of St. Louis who had been very critical of the police was arrested while sitting in his parked car. (He’s African-American.)
Then there was their gear. The Ferguson Police Department looked more like a part of the U.S. Army in Iraq or a battalion in the Eastern Ukraine than a municipal police force. Unarmed and predominantly black protestors were met with cops decked out in helmets, shields, rubber bullets, and combat boots. They fired deafening noise devices, spectacular light bombs, and tear gas into crowds and busy intersections.
They patrolled the streets in armored cars resembling tanks or Humvees armed to the teeth. The clash between citizens and police has raised a troubling question: just how militarized have police forces in this country become? This police force in Missouri isn’t an anomaly. The amazing display of excessive force from Ferguson has simply highlighted a national trend.
A lot of the gear used by the Missouri cops came from the federal government. For almost twenty years now, the Department of Defense has had a program that granted excess military items to local police forces. The long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have apparently created a surplus of big, heavy, military vehicles. Many vehicles, known as mine-resistant ambush protected vehicles, are sold or sometimes even given to local police forces here in the United States.
That’s just one program. Other programs assist police departments in purchasing military assault rifles, armored vehicles, shields and helmets. The militarization of our police force shows that the police can—and often do—declare war on its own citizens. From the Occupy Wall Street movement in New York City to Ferguson, militarized police forces appear to be the response to protesting citizenry. Politicians of all stripes, from President Barack Obama to Senator Rand Paul, have come down hard on the Ferguson Police Department.
Can it happen here? Maybe it already has. Remember the Bearcat? Last year, the Maui Police Department acquired an armored vehicle known as the Lenco “Bearcat” that can withstand a .50-caliber projectile. That’s the same ammunition size used in World War Two for anti-aircraft guns. The U.S. Coast Guard uses .50 caliber rifles to disable armed helicopters. I’m not sure if a .50 caliber weapon had ever been used on a police officer on Maui. Make no mistake: the bearcat can take the hit.
But the vehicle caused a minor stir. Many just could not fathom why the police needed something so vicious. Folks wondered why the County spent $280,000 for such a beast of a machine.
The mayor came to the defense of the police. Mayor Alan Arakawa wrote that the bearcat would “ensure the safety of our officers and the citizens of Maui County.” It is unclear if a federal grant was used too.
The mayor also reported that then-police chief Gary Yabuta told him that Maui wasn’t the only county with such a vehicle. He said that Honolulu and the Big Island had bearcats, and soon Kauai would have one too.
Our mayor provided gave a scary scenario in which the bearcat could come in handy. He reminded us about the hostage standoff in Kahului a few years ago. In that situation, the vehicle would have been an asset for the officers who had to get into the line of fire.
The mayor has a point. A vehicle that can withstand enormous firepower would always be an asset for officer safety. But even he had to admit that something as dramatic as a hostage standoff is infrequent on the Valley Isle.
So what do with the bearcat in the meantime? Has it been used since it was purchased? How much does it cost to maintain it? Couldn’t we at least use it as a float in the Maui Fair parade?
Perhaps the Ferguson police had this problem too before Officer Darren Wilson shot Michael Brown to death. Then, the shooting sparked civil unrest they finally found a reason to use all that gear from the Pentagon. It makes me wonder what we will end up using the bearcat for someday. Let’s hope never.