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Gary Pieters Headshot

The Changing, Militarized Face of Policing Shatters Public Trust and Confidence

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The civil unrest in Ferguson brought to the forefront many compelling civil-rights issues of public importance, including the social outcomes of police interactions with citizens in communities beset by social and economic disparities; the use of lethal force by police; racial profiling; the right to public protest; and militarized policing that leaves a community feeling less secure and more under siege.

Watching the protests in Ferguson, Missouri, from a distance here in Toronto, Canada, by way of livestream, my instant reaction to the chaotic crisis-management of the militarized police was one of suspended disbelief.

It was obvious that the callous display of policing-oversight leadership, tactics, behavior, presence and actions in the immediate aftermath of Michael Brown's death in Ferguson did very little to put at ease an already grieving community.

I am still trying to deconstruct why the Ferguson community's outpouring of grief, loss and anger was met with such an impersonal, aggressive and unrelenting show of militarized police use of force uncharacteristic of peacetime policing. Given the war-like policing of the Ferguson protests, what will be the impact in the short, medium and long term on the public trust and public confidence in their local police in that community? What message does it send to other communities across America and Canada and around the world when their quest for public accountability of their police is exercised by way of street protests and/or rallies?

The militarized police actions in Ferguson were captured on live video, streaming as they happened, providing a visual shock of a community's worst fears of punitive policing that makes citizens feel less safe, victimized and deprived of the civil, human and constitutional rights that society holds dear.

Significant to this observation was the quashing of people's legitimate right to protest police violence, aided and abetted by the curfew declared by the governor of Missouri. Additionally, the use of sound cannons/acoustic sound devices, tear gas, rubber bullets and other militarized weapons and equipment on the streets of Ferguson collectively penalized/punished an entire community, a fact that seems scary in America during peacetime.

In some cases, it can be argued that ruthless arrest of journalists, community leaders, politicians, and some civilian peacemakers who were trying to deescalate rising community anger during the protests indicated the militarized police's lack of knowledge of the community and lack of desire to engage those who had the community's best interests at heart on the front lines of the protests and community rallies.

What has happened in Ferguson has left many across the United States and Canada and around the world feeling deeply unsettled that rather than deescalating the situation, the militarized police response had the reverse effect of making communities feel less secure and vulnerable and served as a cautionary tale of how fundamental civil and human rights as well as constitutional rights can appear to quickly evaporate at the hands of militarized police. This militarized police response in Ferguson is one that citizens, commentators, researchers and policy makers alike will use as a textbook study in civil and constitutional rights.

Fifty years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a milestone that has not escaped mention in the Ferguson civil unrest, the actions in Ferguson over that past two weeks also brought to the forefront that there are still wide disparities in the racial landscape of America.

The takeaway is that it will take a more optimistic, responsive and progressive approach by the civilian and law-enforcement leadership in Ferguson to restore trust, stability, and social cohesion that has been shattered over the almost two weeks of unrest in Ferguson, Missouri. It can be done.