Ferguson shows it's time to demilitarize the police

West Springfield police have two M79 grenade launchers which can be used to fire tear gas. You've probably heard by now about the indiscriminate use of tear gas by police in Ferguson, Missouri by now. Although the police in Ferguson have been justifying their violent crackdown as necessary to prevent rioting and looting, it's clear to anyone who's been paying attention that the police are targeting the peaceful protesters who are angry about the police shooting of Michael Brown and the journalists who have shown up to report on them.

In two notable incidents involving tear gas, cops gassed reporters from the TV news station Al Jazeera America. In another, cops gassed an eight-year-old child.

In light of the events in Ferguson, I wanted to point everyone to a recent story we did about how the police in West Springfield, Massachusetts have two grenade launchers which they say are for firing tear gas canisters.

The grenade launchers were obtained in 1996 through the federal government's 1033 program, which transfers excess military property to police departments throughout the country free of charge, the same program which is likely responsible for much of the military-style weaponry you've seen police in Ferguson using on TV.

West Springfield Police Chief Ronald P. Campurciani has characterized the grenade launchers as antiquated, obsolete, inaccurate, and dangerous (the tear gas canisters used with them can start fires), and has said they have never been used for law enforcement purposes in the past and are unlikely to ever be used in the future.

While Chief Campurciani has said the grenade launchers will probably never be used, it would be better if we didn't have to take his word for it. He might change his mind if West Springfield becomes the site of a huge demonstration against police violence. The next police chief might also decide to put the grenade launchers to use. It would be better if the police simply did not have access to these weapons in the first place.

Even if the weapons were not considered antiquated by the police, they still wouldn't serve any legitimate purpose. Tear gas is an inherently indiscriminate weapon and has a strong likelihood of affecting bystanders even when it's being used in response to actual violence. (The same is true of many other “crowd control” weapons police use including the LRAD, a sound weapon that can cause permanent hearing loss to people within its vicinity. The Boston police have one of these.)

Although tear gas is legal for use by police, it's a barbaric enough weapon that it's actually banned for use in war by the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1993 which the US is a party to, the same treaty that Obama, after drawing his “bright red line,” wanted to bomb Syria for violating.

The events in Ferguson have shown that when we allow police to stockpile military gear, “crowd control” weapons, and surveillance equipment, we're setting ourselves up for trouble. Hopefully the protests and violent police responses playing out in Ferguson will wake people up to the fact that it's time to demilitarize the police.

Governor Deval Patrick has suspended Massachusetts' participation in the 1033 program before and he could do it again. That would at least be a start.