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Ferguson killing leads
to questions over the
militarisation of police

St Louis, 20 August 2014: The mayor of Ferguson, where an unarmed black teenager was shot dead by police last week, attracted ridicule and condemnation in equal measure when he maintained on national television that there never existed any racial tension in his Missouri community. While 63 per cent of the population of Ferguson are African Americans, 90 per cent of the 50-officer strong police force are white. Mayor James Knowles also thought it perfectly normal that peaceful vigils and protests over the killing of teenager Michael Brown were met by local and county police officers in SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics) trucks with their weapons drawn and pointing at civilians.

Mayor Knowles, a Republican who was elected in 2011, defended his police force in the aftermath of the shooting. Despite video evidence showing police officers damaging TV camera equipment and arresting journalists in the process of filing reports from inside a fast-food restaurant, the mayor insisted that the police was acting with restraint at difficult times. “Officers were having a difficult time, especially at night, discerning between those who wish to peacefully assemble and lawfully protest and those who wish to infiltrate and hide among the people who wish to demonstrate," he said on TV.

The pictures from Ferguson showing heavily armed police charging protestors have raised questions about the militarisation of local, county and state police forces. Since the late 1990s, and particularly after 9/11, the US defence department and the Department of Homeland Security transferred billions of dollars worth of military equipment to local police forces. Small towns across America could ask for and did receive military vehicles including tanks and armoured personnel carriers. For example, Keene in New Hampshire, with a population of 23,000, applied for a military grade personnel truck in order to be prepared for a “terrorism threat that is far reaching and often unforeseen.” The council cited as a possible target the town’s annual pumpkin festival!

In an article in Time Magazine, veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were quoted as saying that the cops appeared better-armed and outfitted in middle America than the GIs had been in the war zones.

Two days ago, US President Barack Obama urged a re-examination of programmes that have equipped civilian law enforcement departments with military gear from the Pentagon. “There is a big difference between our military and our local law enforcement, and we don’t want those lines blurred,” Obama told reporters at the White House. “That would be contrary to our traditions.”

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