The day after Alton Sterling was shot dead by a Baton Rouge police officer, authorities handed over the shooting probe to the U.S. Department of Justice, with the parish’s top law enforcement official vowing, “We did not want another Ferguson.”
That’s proved true in one sense. Over days of protests on the streets — in the neighborhood where Sterling was killed, outside police headquarters and in downtown — Baton Rouge hasn’t seen the days of rioting that occurred two years ago after the police shooting of a teenager in Ferguson, Missouri.
But officers on Sunday streamed onto a skinny residential street in Beauregard Town, some with their hands near the triggers of military-style rifles, others manning armored vehicles, one of which was seen driving slowly into protesters’ bodies. That kind of military-style equipment was the subject of much criticism after Ferguson, with the contention the display of force built up hostility between local communities and the police.
The sight of masked officers confronting hundreds of demonstrators was set against charming Southern homes and blooming crape myrtles on a quiet street — not the bustling highways officials earlier said they were trying to keep open. Protesters had moved onto the residential France Street after being nudged away from Government Street.
State Police Col. Mike Edmonson defended the lawmen’s response, saying they were being hit with chunks of concrete on Sunday. The officers weren’t injured because they were wearing helmets, he said.
Of the 50 people arrested at the Sunday protests, none were accused of attacking lawmen, according to the East Baton Rouge Sheriff’s office.
Despite the clashes on Sunday, local officials maintain that Baton Rouge has avoided a Ferguson-like scenario.
East Baton Rouge Parish district attorney Hillar C. Moore III, who’d said last week that part of the decision to involve the Justice Department was to avoid a Ferguson repeat, reiterated Monday that Baton Rouge overall has “absolutely” not repeated mistakes that law enforcement made in Ferguson.
“I think all things are going well under the circumstances,” he said.
Displays of military-style equipment like armored cars, assault-style weapons, gas masks, riot shields, and ear-splitting sirens called LRADs — all of which have been deployed in the past few days during protests about Sterling’s killing in Baton Rouge — are some of the very practices the Justice Department’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services criticized in its definitive report analyzing what went wrong in Ferguson.
“You would think Baton Rouge would watch Ferguson and learn a lesson. Apparently they didn’t,” said Peter B. Kraska, a professor at Eastern Kentucky University who’s studied police militarization for the past 25 years. A former probation officer, Kraska has worked with over 70 police departments on training and reforms.
The protests come at a time when local agencies have been adding to their arsenals of military-style equipment. In May, the East Baton Rouge Sheriff’s office, which has deployed many of its deputies at the demonstrations, acquired a Lenco BearCat armored car for $299,915. The agency now has two such vehicles. The Baton Rouge Police Department owns two armored personnel carriers.
Military-style rifles are also commonplace in many local departments. The State Police issues Bushmaster XM-15 rifles at a cost of about $700 a pop to each of its 1,000 or so troopers, Maj. Doug Cain said.
Law enforcement officials from the Baton Rouge Police Department, State Police, and Sheriff’s offices for East Baton Rouge, Calcasieu, Ascension, Livingston, Caddo Parishes — all of which have been called in to assist with the Sterling-related protests — declined or did not answer questions about how many officers with rifles have been deployed during the recent protests, citing officer safety issues.
The mere appearance of military-style machinery in Ferguson served to escalate, rather than calm, clashes in that community, the Justice Department report found.
“Collectively, the use of fully outfitted tactical officers, some of whom were deployed with rifles and PepperBall launchers, contributed to the public (and media) perception that the police were a militarized force ‘invading’ their neighborhood,” the Ferguson report concluded.
And in an example that calls to mind the exact situation in Baton Rouge on Sunday, the report found: “While the LRAD (high-pitched alarm) may be appropriate to disperse crowds, using it in conjunction with an armored vehicle escalates the hostility of the crowd and creates a negative public image.”
Police in Baton Rouge used an LRAD for the first time on Sunday.
A notable difference between Ferguson and Baton Rouge, however, is in the first city stores were looted and property was set on fire in the first few days after the killing of Michael Brown by a police officer, some of which prompted the militarized response. Baton Rouge protesters, on the other hand, have largely focused on occupying the streets. State and local officials have said they will not allow protesters to be in the streets, in part to protect them from traffic.
“The gas masks themselves were pretty intimidating,” said Lt. General Russel L. Honore, the retired U.S. Army leader who coordinated military response efforts after Hurricane Katrina.
“My concern is, with those homes there and all the people in the houses, that would not have been a good place to do (show that weaponry), particularly when the protesters weren’t being violent,” he said after viewing hours of videos, imagery and other coverage of protests in Baton Rouge on Sunday.
Honore added that officers in tactical gear should not be wandering around crowds in the heat as they did in Baton Rouge, with military-style rifles strapped to the fronts of their bodies. Instead, tactical officers should wait in air-conditioned buses so that they’re rested and able to deploy only if necessary.
“Something is not right in that department in terms of amount of equipment and amount of training,” Honore said of the Baton Rouge police. Two officers from the agency were also captured on video during the protests pointing weapons at peoples faces in an effort to scatter the crowd, which BRPD officials have said they are reviewing.
Department spokesmen did not respond to requests for comment.
Gov. John Bel Edwards, who said early Sunday he didn’t think police overall were using excessive force against demonstrators, said through a spokesman Monday he still believes police have been “moderate.”
“I think it’s a misrepresentation to say that (the most intense incidents) are what’s taken place,” said Richard Carbo, the governor’s spokesman. He emphasized that many of the protests, and reactions by police, have been peaceful.
Carbo said even though officers rushed onto private property to arrest at least one protester on a woman’s porch, the actions appeared justified if the arrestees had been seen breaking the law earlier.
“I think the law enforcement folks have a strategy of identifying these folks and while they might not move in to actively arrest the agitators at the moment that they’re causing problems, it might be a delayed arrest,” Carbo said.
But experts like Kraska said that tough-on-crime approach is missing the point. Just because some demonstrators break the law by being in the street, for example, it’s not worth creating public anxiety by using officers wearing military-style gear to arrest those people on minor offenses.
“In some of the most oppressive countries in the world, when they have civil unrest, the worst they’ll bring out is maybe riot gear,” said Kraska, referring to batons, shields and masks.
“To see full blown paramilitary police officers walking ... along that armored personnel carrier,” he said. “From any democratic sensibility, that’s just obscene.”
Follow Maya Lau on Twitter, @mayalau.
This article was updated on July 12, 2016 to clarify the type of weapons used by law enforcement.