FERGUSON • The focus on continuing protests here turned Thursday toward paramilitary tactics and equipment that critics — even among some law enforcement leaders — say have provoked violence from the crowds.
Calls for St. Louis County and Ferguson police to “demilitarize” the response ranged from people on the streets near where an unarmed teenager was shot Saturday to U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill and Attorney General Eric Holder.
Writing in Time magazine, U.S. Sen. Rand Paul said scenes in Ferguson resembled “war more than traditional police action.”
Tactical officers in body armor and ballistic helmets do look far more like soldiers deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan than the police of decades ago, who often managed riots with a miner-style hard hats and wooden batons as their only special gear.
Ferguson’s tear gas may be familiar through the generations. But use of armored vehicles, a sonic blaster to disperse crowds with sound and .60-caliber rubber “Stinger” rounds for “pain compliance” are relatively new to the work.
Tim Lynch, director of the CATO Institute Project on Criminal Justice, said police use of military weapons and tactics accelerated after the 2001 terrorist attacks, in part because of Homeland Security grants.
He complained that federal money is “distorting decision-making on the local level” by giving away “M-16s, grenade launchers, armored vehicles.”
Otherwise, Lynch said, a police chief faced with limited dollars “is going to be more sensible.” He said departments that perceive a real need would make it a priority for their own money.
“The downside is that we are starting to blur the civilian police mission with the military mission and when that happens, there are unnecessary, violent confrontations between the police and citizens such as we’re seeing in Ferguson.”
He continued, “It’s only when there has been some kind of horrible tragedy, like somebody getting shot or somebody getting killed during one of these paramilitary raids ... that the hard questions start getting asked — the questions that should have been asked since the beginning.”
But in a news conference Thursday, the Ferguson police chief, Thomas Jackson, whose department does not have a SWAT team of its own, defended the concept.
“The tactical units will be out there if firebombs start getting thrown, property is getting destroyed, shots are being fired, people are being shot at. We have to respond to deadly force,” he said.
“The whole picture is being painted a little bit sideways from what’s really happening,” Jackson said. “And it’s not military. It’s tactical operations. It’s SWAT teams. That’s who’s out there. Police. We’re doing this in blue.”
Full details of the tactical gear being deployed in Ferguson by the St. Louis County police and other agencies are not available.
The Department of Defense’s 1033 Program may have provided some of the equipment, but it isn’t clear how much of this gear was purchased from other federal programs or local budgets.
The 1033 Program has transferred more than $4.3 billion in surplus military equipment to thousands of law enforcement agencies and others. It is intended for “counternarcotics and counterterrorism operations, and to enhance officer safety,” according to the Missouri Department of Public Safety website.
The department will not release specific destinations for tactical equipment that includes weapons and night vision devices.
According to federal data, various police agencies in St. Louis County received 12 5.56mm rifles and six .45-caliber pistols between Aug. 2, 2010, and Feb. 13, 2013. They also received 15 “reflex” gun sights, four night vision devices and three night sights, as well as a $10,000 explosive ordnance robot, three helicopters, seven Humvees and three cargo trailers. One helicopter alone was originally worth $200,000.
State data obtained in 2012 show that St. Louis County police received at least two helicopters, computer equipment, two old SUVs and roughly 20 Kevlar helmets since 2007.
Ferguson received medical supplies, computer equipment and dozens of large backpacks and wool blankets through the program, records show, as well as a generator, a trailer and several utility vehicles.
Ferguson police spokesman Tim Zoll said his agency has no military level weapons or armor, except for two Humvees donated by the Missouri National Guard after a tornado.
Despite reports that military “Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected” vehicles, or MRAPs, were used on Ferguson streets, a spokesman for the Missouri Department of Public Safety said none has been supplied to agencies in St. Louis or St. Louis County. Some other Missouri communities have received them, including St. Charles County.
Lt. David Tiefenbrunn of the St. Charles County Sheriff’s Department said Thursday his agency has not yet used its MRAP. He said his department’s BearCat, an armored truck bought with Homeland Security funds, is on the streets with the county’s multijurisdictional SWAT team.
St. Louis County police also has a BearCat, bought with federal grant money, and its larger cousin, the BEAR, purchased more than a decade ago. BearCats cost up to $275,000, and BEARs up to $350,000, the manufacturer says.
Officials confirmed that at least those three armored vehicles were used Wednesday on the streets of Ferguson.
Tiefenbrunn said his SWAT officers carry .223-caliber rifles, similar to an AR-15, bought after Los Angeles police were badly outgunned in a dramatic shootout after a bank robbery. The local SWAT officers also have less-lethal TASERs, bean bag rounds for shotguns and a paintball-like gun that shoots pepper balls.
He also said the team there trains two full days a month.
St. Louis County police Lt. John Blake said his department bought AR-15 rifles after that heavily publicized Los Angeles holdup.
As for militarizing the police, Tiefenbrunn said, “Our actions are based on what we’re faced with on the streets. America is becoming more heavily armed.”
Chuck Raasch of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.