This week, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon ordered state troopers to take over responsibility for maintaining order in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, following several days of unrest sparked by the killing of an unarmed black teenager by a local police officer. Mr. Nixon waited far too long to bring in the state Highway Patrol to calm the situation, but he was absolutely correct in his judgment that local authorities weren't up to the job and were actually making matters worse. Had police there exhibited the restraint shown by Baltimore officers on Thursday, when a peaceful crowd rallied near City Hall to support Ferguson's residents with a moment of silence, it's likely things never would have got to a point where the governor had to intervene.
The Aug. 9 shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown under circumstances that remain unclear prompted hundreds of Ferguson residents to take to the streets in protests that drew international attention. There they were met by a massive local police presence whose heavy-handed tactics only seemed to inflame the situation. Despite some reports of looting by demonstrators, the protests remained mostly peaceful, yet the aggressive behavior of the police seemed almost intended to stir up the crisis atmosphere and provoke violence.
By contrast, Baltimore's demonstrations were a model of peaceful protest. Instead of appearing in riot gear and armored vehicles, city officers made no attempt to disperse the crowd and limited themselves to directing traffic and clearing a path for demonstrators through the heavily traveled downtown. They didn't point assault rifles at participants or fire tear canisters and rubber bullets. Most importantly they didn't do anything to deter anyone from exercising their right to peaceful assembly for the purpose of seeking a redress for grievances. They were clearly there to protect the demonstrators, not to suppress them.
Thursday's protest probably couldn't have happened the way they did in the era before social media. What began as a small march by a few dozen demonstrators grew to a crowd of several hundred as news of the gathering flashed on Twitter and Facebook. Nor was the event confined to just Baltimore. Nearly 100 cities across the country witnessed demonstrations of solidarity with the Ferguson protests, with virtually no serious violence reported. Social media were the organizing force that allowed thousands of people nationwide to express their outrage over the excessive use of force by police in Ferguson.
The events there have sparked a passionate discussion over the militarization of American police departments, which have received billions of dollars worth of surplus vehicles, weapons and other equipment from the Defense Department and the Department of Homeland Security since the late 1990s. It's becoming apparent that we're paying a price for that policy. What started out as an effort to equip police with materiel they might need to protect citizens from a terrorist attack has turned them into an occupying force in the communities they serve. Paradoxically, police forces have begun to behave more like military organizations at the same time our armed forces abroad increasingly are being called on to function as police.
But if people see themselves as victims of a hostile military presence, rather than as citizens who enjoy the police's protection, they will soon cease to trust or respect the police. That is what happened in Ferguson, and it's a problem shared by too many other communities of color across the country. We need to get back to the idea of community policing, in which police departments work with the communities they serve to solve crimes and where residents trust officers enough to cooperate in investigations. In places like Ferguson, where there is a radical mismatch between the demographics of the population and the police, that challenge is all the greater.
The vast majority of police work never involves the need for armored vehicles, SWAT teams, rubber bullets or tear gas. Yet too often, as in Ferguson, that has become the first response of police to any disturbance or volatile situation. Officers think they need to dominate rather than simply maintain order. The police in Ferguson apparently thought their job was to control every aspect of the demonstrations there by bullying and intimidating residents. But in acting on that belief they only showed how out of control they themselves were. Fortunately, police in Baltimore and elsewhere were wise enough not to make the same mistake.
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