Tanks, flash grenades and tear gas don't belong in the hands of street cops in America.
These war toys are the stuff of war, and no matter how much conservative talk shows want to hype it, there is no street war in the United States of America. Or there wasn't until the authorities in Ferguson, Mo., rolled out their surplus Mine Resistant Ambush Protected tanks this week to intimidate the residents of a town who were mourning the death Saturday of an unarmed black teenager at the hands of police.
Thank goodness President Barack Obama and the Missouri governor, Jay Nixon, intervened in the fiasco in the St. Louis suburb Thursday after a night of police overkill and huge clouds of tear gas fired at demonstrators.
The governor on Thursday appropriately replaced local police officers with the Missouri State Highway Patrol and ordered the patrol to let peaceful protesters continue to protest -- as is their constitutional right -- without dangerously aggressive police demands to disperse.
The governor's belated action followed President Obama's public denouncement of "excessive force" by the police and the "bullying" and arrest of journalists trying to cover the news and aftermath of 18-year-old Michael Brown's death. Three very credible witnesses have said Brown was shot running away from police, and again when he -- with hands in the air -- turned around as if to give up.
Police have said Brown stole cigarillos from a convenience store and on the way out the door, shoved a pursuing clerk. That physical contact threw the theft into a classification of a strong-armed robbery -- a felony in Missouri. But police there also have said the street conversation and altercation that resulted in Brown's death was not related to the alleged theft that occurred just minutes before.
As has happened in many towns and cities -- including Chattanooga -- restoring a sense of justice in Ferguson is now becoming job one.
Clearly the problem isn't simply one of police and policing. If so, the tanks and gas bombs would have stopped protests, not escalated them. The problem actually is one of human respect, representation and justice. Ferguson, Mo., is a town of 21,000 people and 69 percent of them are black. But the town has one black council member, and the police force numbers about 55 officers, only about five of whom are black.
Respect is an aspect of law enforcement that often has been overlooked. Remember Adam Tatum? Tatum, with cocaine in his system, kicked a door at Chattanooga's Salvation Army federal prisoner halfway house and brandished a knife in June 2013. Responding officers struck Tatum more than 40 times with a baton, shocked him with a Taser, sprayed him with Mace and punched him in the face a number of times before -- with multiple breaks to both legs including a compound fracture -- Tatum was handcuffed. Even after he was handcuffed and sitting outside, an officer walked over to him, yelled at him and kicked him over. Two officers were fired for using excessive force.
Remember Alonzo O'Kelley? He was a 15-year-old who police said was shot once in the back by Chattanooga Housing Authority police in July 2009 after he pointed a gun at the CHA officer. Witnesses said the boy had dropped the gun and was running away when the officer fired.
Remember Alonzo Heyward? He was the 32-year-old suicidal man with a rifle outside McDonald's restaurant on Rossville Boulevard just two weeks later. Walking with gun in hand, he led officers to his home on Seventh Avenue. Unable to talk Heyward into dropping the weapon that he held to his own throat, officers tasered him. When Heyward clenched and his arms fell with the gun, police feared he was going to fire on them and six officers shot at him 59 times, leaving 43 entrance and exit wounds. No charges were brought against the officers after a Tennessee Bureau of Investigation probe found that Heyward's gun had fired toward the officers. The projectile struck the ground.
These days, respect is getting a helping hand in Chattanooga with a new police chief, Fred Fletcher, who believes in building relationships, not hard feelings and lawsuits.
Ferguson, Mo., needs a dose of the same.