By James A. Gagliano
The Hill opinion contributor
In the summer of 2014, a nondescript American heartland city of less than 21,000 was suddenly and violently introduced to us. Ferguson, Mo. became somewhat ubiquitous, earning first name recognition typically reserved for celebrities with a high Q-Rating, like Madonna, MJ, and Beyoncé.
But Ferguson’s synonymity with A-list celebrity fame takes a wicked detour into infamy with the events that transpired on Aug. 9. A white police officer, Darren Wilson, shot and killed an unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown. Despite conflicting witness accountings, a post-shooting investigation conducted by the Department of Justice later determined that Brown had attacked Wilson and that the shooting was justified.
In the immediate aftermath of the incident, angry residents protested and some turned to violence by burning stores, looting, and rioting. The police response was swift and formidable. Riot gear was donned, snipers deployed, and armored vehicles moved into position.
When a grand jury failed to indict Wilson in November of that same year, protesters reassembled and some violent agitators in their midst again destroyed property, sniped at police, and necessitated a stout police response.
The imagery of angry, and in some instances, justifiably aggrieved protesters confronting police seemed surreal. The protesters in street clothes, met by police outfitted in military style garb and weaponry. Skirmish lines seemed to be established, the line of demarcation being Ferguson’s police department’s mechanized vehicles. The scene was eerily reminiscent of the advance by George Patton’s Third Armored Division at the Battle of the Bulge.
No matter the criminality exhibited by some of the protesters, the imagery was powerful and surreal, and dismayed many Americans who watched on their televisions or viewed photos posted on social media. How could this happen in an American city? Ferguson appeared to have descended into a police state. And the militarization of its police force came under harsh scrutiny.
The Obama administration’s response was swift, and culminated in the issuance of an executive order banning the procurement of certain military hardware and equipment. The new restrictions would curtail the post-9/11 practice of certain surplus military gear — even riot shields — being made available to police departments; many which were struggling to operate on slashed budgets during the economic downturn.
However, the current president, hell-bent on disassembling his predecessor’s legacy, has vacated Obama’s executive fiat with an executive fiat of his own — rolling back the restrictions and again making available certain surplus military equipment to police departments.
To meet the continually expanding 21st century threats of violent criminality and terrorism, police departments across the nation have long clamored for additional protective gear and better platforms for necessary force usage. This action has no doubt pleased them.
But this reversal has certainly been met with an expected hue and cry from those who associate military gear with police brutality. Providing more lethal tools to police, the argument goes, lends to an easier escalation on the force continuum.
Plus, the look isn’t exactly what we imagine when we think of “community policing.”
The arguments for and against can both be rooted in decent folks attempting to reconcile the sometimes disparate positions of public safety — and the safety of the police as well — with the desire most of us have not to reside in a police state. And while the military gear and equipment currently made available to police departments are not “machine guns,” “fragmentation grenades,” or “flame throwers,” for some, the very notion of armaments suitable for combat being deployed by police has serious constitutional and potential-for-lethal-abuse issues.
American citizens have a right to be protected by their police. They also have a reasonable expectation not to be abused by them, brutalized by them, and to reside in communities policed by units that don’t look and act like occupying armies.
But police have the right to feel safe as well.
Yes, they sign on to do a job that requires the assumption of more risk and danger than the average civilian profession. It takes courage, moxie, and guts to enter the ranks of professional law enforcement. Your typical reward will often be undue criticism, Monday morning quarterbacking, and the omnipresent chance that your next call could result in you being grievously injured or killed.
I spent the better part of a week on location in Las Vegas, Nevada, for CNN, providing insight from my position as a Law Enforcement Analyst. I witnessed, up close, the bloodied, debris strewn “killing field” that one deranged madmen had littered with bodies the night prior.
Armed with an arsenal of rifles modified with an aftermarket product that turns semi-automatic weapons into fully-automatic weapons of mass destruction, the killer claimed the high ground, and systematically mowed down innocents from his perch on the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino.
Before he succumbed to a self-inflicted gunshot wound, the murderous psychopath had wounded a hotel security guard who disturbed his diabolical shooting frenzy, and slain an off-duty cop who was attending the concert. The gunman’s suicide blessedly ended the slaughter, and was discovered when police employed an explosive breach on his hotel room door and stormed his suite.
Tragically, fifty-eight innocent lives were ended. It was the largest mass casualty incident in U.S. history. And yet, as incomprehensible as it may seem, it could have been much worse.
In the immediate aftermath, trying to make sense of the horror, some have inaccurately opined that this was the first time in history that the police were outgunned.
How soon they forget the Prohibition era.
They’d also be forgetting the Miami bank robbers that murdered two FBI Agents on April 11, 1986. It wasn’t a fair fight. The bank robbers had high-powered rifles and automatic weapons. The shootout resulted in the stodgy, tradition-based, resistant-to-change FBI finally deciding to issue its agents semi-automatic pistols, replacing the revolvers they’d carried for decades.
And how about the North Hollywood shootout on Feb. 28, 1997, that saw two more bank robbers, outfitted in Kevlar, and heavily armed, forcing outgunned responding police officers to retreat to a local gun shop, in order to procure rifles, shotguns, and ammunition necessary to meet the threat.
And more recently, you’ll recall the San Bernardino radical Islamist terrorists who killed fourteen and wounded twenty-two others in December of 2015. The husband and wife team were armed with heavy weaponry and homemade bombs. The police interdiction of the fleeing killers on a California highway was eerily reminiscent of a roadside engagement between U.S. Military forces and insurgents in Iraq.
No, the Las Vegas shooter wasn’t the first sociopath to outgun the responding police, and he assuredly won’t be the last.
We talk a lot about necessary “national conversations.” We seldom really engage in them. Once the dust settles, and memories fade, and the next “story du jour” arrives, we move on.
The Las Vegas massacre has triggered a seemingly bipartisan effort amongst lawmakers to tackle the “bump fire stock” work around that allowed the murderer to circumvent our assault weapon laws. Let’s hope Congress, the White House, and the NRA can find the courage to go through with their promises to consider this.
And let’s also hope that when next police respond in riot gear to a violent protest or bravely run towards the sound of automatic weapons fire, armed only with their service pistols — as we witnessed in Las Vegas — let’s hope the issue of the “militarization” of America’s police forces gets an earnest hearing.
We can argue the specific items of equipment and debate the required training mandated to accompany any issuance of same. But the next time someone argues that police don’t need equipment designed for war, recall the event that just transpired at the Route 91 Harvest open-air country music festival, and ask yourself this question:How would you deign to meet that threat?
James A. Gagliano is a CNN law enforcement analyst and retired FBI supervisory special agent. He also serves as an adjunct assistant professor at St. John’s University and is a leadership consultant at the Thayer Leader Development Group (TLDG) at his alma mater, the United States Military Academy at West Point. Follow him on Twitter @JamesAGagliano.