Rand Paul, the U.S. senator from Kentucky who wants to be president, has identified two troubling elements that fueled the violence in Ferguson, Mo., where an unarmed African American 18-year-old was shot and killed by police.
In a commentary written for Time, the libertarian said, “Anyone who thinks that race does not still, even if inadvertently, skew the application of criminal justice in this country is just not paying close enough attention. Our prisons are full of black and brown men and women who are serving inappropriately long and harsh sentences for non-violent mistakes in their youth.”
After seeing the treatment of Micheal Brown, they might be the lucky ones. He was shot and killed in a controversial confrontation with a police officer in Ferguson, that sparked the riots.
President Barack Obama has also called for calm and decried the violence. But Paul cited the increased militarization of police in America as a trend that must be reversed: “There is a legitimate role for the police to keep the peace, but there should be a difference between a police response and a military response.”
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This is a fundamental point that cannot be ignored.
Police departments across the nation have obtained military-grade weaponry. When trouble occurs, officers dress in battle fatigues, armored vests and helmets that would be appropriate on the battlefields of Afghanistan. An op-ed in Friday’s Bee detailed the types of military hardware now being used by police departments across the nation – 435 armored vehicles, 93,750 machine guns, 432 mine-resistant armored trucks. In all, $4.3 billion worth.
Part of this escalation in arms is a reaction to criminal gangs, who also are better armed. The gang members who robbed a bank and took hostages in Stockton last month used assault rifles in firing on police. Police used commensurate firepower to kill them, and, tragically, a hostage.
Police are not fighting terrorists in the streets of America. So we wonder, as does Sen. Paul, why the need for tanks and mine-resistant trucks.
A combination of disproportionate sentencing, militarization of police and the failed war on drugs is helping turn many of our cities and suburbs into ghettos where despair, violence, gangs and absentee parents have become the norm.
“Most police officers are good cops and good people. It is an unquestionably difficult job, especially in the current circumstances,” Paul said. “(But) there is a systemic problem with today’s law enforcement.
“Not surprisingly, big government has been at the heart of the problem. Washington has incentivized the militarization of local police precincts by using federal dollars to help municipal governments build what are essentially small armies – where police departments compete to acquire military gear that goes far beyond what most of Americans think of as law enforcement.
“When you couple this militarization of law enforcement with an erosion of civil liberties and due process that allows the police to become judge and jury – national security letters, no-knock searches, broad general warrants, pre-conviction forfeiture – we begin to have a very serious problem on our hands.”
Putting himself in the shoes of Michael Brown, Paul wrote: “If I had been told to get out of the street as a teenager, there would have been a distinct possibility that I might have smarted off. But, I wouldn’t have expected to be shot.”
And reporters seldom expect to be arrested. But two reporters working inside a Ferguson McDonald’s were arrested for doing nothing more than pointing a camera at police officers, who outnumbered them six to two. Such actions speak of police officers who do not feel accountable to anyone or any other authority.
We don’t often agree with Sen. Paul, but he has astutely summed up the powder keg that was lit in Ferguson and presented all Americans with concerns that must be confronted and addressed.