Ferguson and the Lessons of Conflict Zone Policing

August 19, 2014
Enduring Freedom

The actions and equipment of local police in Ferguson, Missouri have attracted national, and global, attention. Civil unrest gripped the city in the wake of the shooting by a police officer of 18 year-old Michael Brown. While instances of rioting and violence have occurred during the ensuing protests, the response of the police has shocked the world more than anything else: shock at their aggressiveness, shock at their military-grade and -surplus equipment, shock at their apparent attempts to run the town of Ferguson like a police principality.

As op-eds on the topic have graced most major newspapers, web magazines, and blogs, I’ve tried to bring to bear my own perspective as a former U.S. Army officer, combat veteran, and analyst on conflict policing – three areas of expertise that I never thought would be so readily applicable to events in small town America. Ferguson, Missouri is not a conflict zone in the traditional sense, of course. But there is an overlap between the civil unrest currently on display there, which constitutes the high end of domestic policing, and the unrest often seen at the low end of conflict environments. This unrest – characterized by protests, minor and localized riots and looting, and sporadic violence – exceeds the “normal crime” that most cities experience every day. Government approaches also overlap, particularly considering the approach taken by local law enforcement agencies in Ferguson this week.

There are some fundamental problems with what these police officers are doing and how they are doing it. Constitutionally, it appears they were trying to prevent Ferguson’s residents from exercising their right to assemble, and it is pretty clear they are infringing on the rights of a free press. There is also a moral irony at play: the police are responding to a spontaneous protest about excessive police force with deliberate and organized excessive police force at a far greater level. But there are fundamental issues related to how we think about, how we form, and how we use police effectively that we can draw lessons from as well.

As a researcher and analyst of policing during and in the aftermath of conflict, the type of “high-end” policing that the Ferguson Police Department is using is remarkably similar to the places and concepts I have studied over the years. It is disturbing that such parallels can be drawn between a town in Missouri in 2014 and, say, Kosovo in 1999 or modern day Kabul, but so it goes. While the actions of Ferguson’s citizens and allied activists are not equal to the violence and unrest seen in those conflict zones, the police response appears remarkably similar. And this is where our most basic lesson on policing, that police exist to enforce the rule of law and protect the population, has broken down. With offensive weapons and tactics, the Ferguson police give the impression that they are protecting themselves at the expense of the population.

From an academic standpoint, we can refer to the American dons of police studies: Bob Perito of the U.S. Institute of Peace and David Bayley of the State University of New York in Albany, who together authored The Police in War. Perito and Bayley categorize five levels of insecurity: war, insurgency, subversion, disorder, and normal crime. They also distinguish six types of police officers: uniformed general, non-uniformed criminal investigators, stability police, armed units, covert intelligence agents, and border police. They are very clear, based on their collective experience of study and practice, that stability police – police with masks, shields, batons, and other nonlethal weapons – should handle disorder and armed police – police with assault rifles, sniper rifles, and other lethal weapons – should handle subversion and insurgency. These conclusions relate directly to something well known to anyone in military studies: the principle of proportional response. If the people you want to control have guns, you respond with guns. If they have less-than-guns, you respond in kind. Using armed units against unarmed civilians violates the expectations that citizens have of their government, and not just in the United States. I have explained at Vox how I think the police should be handling this situation, but the core issue is that their failure to respond proportionally has become their single greatest reason for their failure to diffuse this situation. I encourage anyone interested in this phenomenon to read up on what happened in April 2003 with the 82d Airborne Division in Fallujah. These failures have long-lasting consequences.

The second major lesson we should draw is about the consequences of militarizing our police. As has been reported in many outlets, the U.S. government has been supplying state and local police across the country with surplus military equipment through what is called the 1033 program. Over the past few years this program has transferred over $500 million worth of vehicles, weapons, ammunition and other assorted equipment, with preference given to agencies engaged in counter-drug and counter-terrorism operations. The Department of Homeland Security provides nearly equal grants to purchase such equipment. There are over 12,500 local law enforcement agencies in the United States (according to the most recent Justice Department census) with an additional 1,500 agencies at the state level. Half of the local agencies have less than 10 sworn officers and over 9,000 of these agencies serve populations of fewer than 10,000 citizens. If we couple this information with the fact that over 8,000 distinct state and local agencies received benefits from the 1033 program, it stands to reason that many of the recipients were small and dispersed agencies with limited oversight, many of whose engagement with counter-drug and counter-terrorism operations is far from intuitively obvious. It is a recipe for disaster.

A number of people have already written informatively on the topic (for the academically inclined, I recommend the work of Dr. Peter Kraska at Eastern Kentucky University), but the results are well known to people who study the subject of policing in conflict. Great scholars such as Bill Rosenau, Cornelius Freisendorf, and Jorg Krempel have written on the natural result of equipping police like soldiers: they begin to act like soldiers. Further, and much worse, they actually end up acting like poorly trained soldiers because they have military tools but are insufficiently trained on that equipment. These pseudo-soldier police often end up exacerbating the conflict they are theoretically attempting to quell. If we militarize the police – in uniform, in equipment, in training – the police will act like a military, or worse, a militia.

Thankfully it appears that Missouri state officials are taking steps to diffuse the situation. Hopefully justice will be served for the citizens of Ferguson, the reporters covering it, and the family of Michael Brown. The employment of the Missouri National Guard, specifically a military police unit trained to police civil unrest, may mark a turning point in events, if only by providing a buffer between the citizens and police of Ferguson. That said, the basic lessons outlined here, if heeded, should prevent such ineffective policing from happening again in the United States. Citizens do not have much say in how police forces are deployed, but they should demand a say in how they are equipped and they should speak up for what is appropriate in their communities. These are also lessons for how we approach policing in conflicts, particularly through security cooperation and building partner capacity. Domestically and internationally, we need to help police forces become what they need to be to address the real challenges they face instead of stoking the flames of conflict.


Jason Fritz is a senior editor at War on the Rocks. An Army veteran of the war in Iraq, he is a doctoral student in the Department of Justice, Law and Criminology at American University. Jason has consulted on and researched various elements of conflict policing over the past 5 years.


Photo credit: The U.S. Army