Ferguson and the Rise of SWAT Armies

Ferguson and the Rise of SWAT Armies

By Carl M. Cannon - August 17, 2014

Competing theories on curbing crime and keeping the peace in America’s teeming municipalities have long preoccupied law enforcement. “Community policing” is one approach. The harder-edged “proactive” policing is another. Now a new technique has forged itself into the national consciousness—“Ferguson policing,” let’s call it.

If Ferguson policing’s precepts are murky, perhaps that’s because its proponents don’t feel obliged to explain it to the media or community activists—cops just arrest them instead.

Who knew the 53-officer police force in Ferguson, Mo., even had all that military equipment and SWAT gear? Why do they have it? The answers to those questions—and how Missouri’s highway patrol ended (if only temporarily) four nights of rioting—take us back in time and into the rich history of the storied, influential, and sometimes notorious LAPD.

A century ago, about the time Hollywood was establishing itself, civic leaders in the City of Angels realized they had an actual metropolis on their hands. With the Progressive movement in vogue, reformers fashioned a city charter that diluted the power of political parties, thereby weakening patronage. As part of that process, they set out to create a professional police force not beholden to political bosses, and less corrupt than its counterparts back East.

It took a while to blossom, but it did. The upright Sgt. Joe Friday of “Dragnet” fame was fictional, but he was not a myth. Jack Webb and the department he portrayed on television became a national role model for honest cops. But this virtue came with a price, one hidden from view until some cataclysmic event—the Watts riots in 1965 or the Rodney King drama in 1991-1992—exposed the underlying flaw in Los Angeles’ style of government.

The city charter that allowed the department’s professionalism to develop also engendered its unaccountability, and its isolation. The autonomy granted the police chief virtually ensured a political rivalry between the chief and mayor, and when South Central went up in flames in 1992, Mayor Tom Bradley and Police Chief Daryl Gates were not on speaking terms.

That estrangement complicated the city’s response to the riots, but the problems were long in the making. Watts took place at the end of the 16-year-reign of William H. Parker. Famously incorruptible, Parker was also so emotionally remote that “Star Trek” creator Gene Roddenberry, a former LAPD officer, reportedly based “Mr. Spock” on the chief. To Parker, the two traits went together. His officers were trained to keep citizens at arms’ length, the better—or so Parker thought—to resist temptations for bribes and favoritism. It worked, but only up to a point. Sgt. Friday was famous for his “Just the facts, ma’am” dictum. Less remembered is his edgy line from one episode: “You’re a cop, a flatfoot, a bull, a dick, John Law…They call you everything. But never a policeman.”

The limits of the Parker approach became apparent during Watts, which started over a traffic arrest and escalated into rioting that claimed 34 lives. Parker himself called for support from the California National Guard. Activists found soldiers patrolling the streets of Los Angeles to be a fitting symbol. They had long considered the LAPD an occupying army. Parker had the opposite reaction: He wanted those toys for his officers.

The rush to militarize was on, epitomized by SWAT units. Their deployments have increasingly come under scrutiny when they do things like storm minor drug offenders’ houses in the middle of the night, shooting pets and terrorizing spouses with automatic weapons—sometimes at the wrong addresses—or when they’ve ponderously established perimeters around active crime scenes while victims were being shot in homes or schools.

They’ve also been used as crowd control, even during peaceful demonstrations, which is what happened in Ferguson. Some consider this a misapplication of SWAT, but the real problem is deeper: This was its original function, developed in Delano, Calif., by police looking to control—some would say intimidate—Cesar Chavez’s striking United Farm Workers. It was Daryl Gates, a Parker protégé, who liked what Delano was doing. By 1967, Los Angeles had its own SWAT units.

After the department’s SWAT team prevailed in violent confrontations with Black Panthers and SLA guerrillas—and with help from a Hollywood television series named “S.W.A.T.” and generous Justice Department grants—thousands of U.S. police departments began buying the high-powered weapons, body armor, and other SWAT accoutrements.

At the same time, under the tenure of Chief Ed Davis, the LAPD embraced “community policing.” It started with the “Basic Car Plan,” which divided L.A. into management districts and assigned patrolmen to each one. Basic Car was supplemented by Neighborhood Watch programs that brought officers into private homes for brainstorming sessions on reducing crime, an approach Davis conceded Parker would have considered “insane.”

Davis supplemented these innovations with “Team Policing,” assigning lieutenants, detectives, and juvenile officers to specific neighborhoods. The results were impressive. As crime rates spiked nationally, they remained static in Los Angeles.

In the 1990s, New York City took Team Policing to another level. The NYPD divided the city into grids, held police commanders accountable for their sectors, encouraged aggressive stop-and-frisk policies, and generally projected an aggressive law enforcement stance. These methods cut crime dramatically; they also resulted in numerous lawsuits, wrongful death and brutality settlements, and claims of police brutality and racism.

Whatever the relative merits of community policing vs. proactive policing, at the time of the Rodney King trial the LAPD under Daryl Gates wasn’t really doing either one, partly because it was woefully understaffed.

It had other problems, too. A 1994 ACLU study showed that 83 percent of LAPD’s officers lived outside Los Angeles’ city limits—293 in Simi Valley, where the officers who beat King were tried and acquitted, leading to the riots.

It is not known where Ferguson’s 53 police officers live, but it is known that 50 of them are white, in a town two-thirds black.  In response to civic unrest after last week’s police killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown, those officers turned out in force, in all their riot gear and SWAT splendor, while the brass stonewalled the community and street cops arrested journalists.

But if Chief Parker’s ghost still lives, so does the spirit of Ed Davis. This guardian angel made his appearance Thursday in the form of Missouri Highway Patrol Capt. Ronald S. Johnson, a Ferguson native. Tasked with quelling tempers, Johnson walked with marchers, hugged them, and talked openly to reporters.

“I grew up here, and this is currently my community and home,” Johnson said. “When I see a young lady cry because of fear of this uniform, that’s a problem. We’ve got to solve that.”

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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