Kentucky U.S. Sen. Rand Paul weighed in on the turmoil in Ferguson, Mo., claiming that “big government” is at the root of the police’s military-like response to protesters who have expressed outrage over the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown.
Brown, 18, was fatally shot Saturday by a Ferguson police officer. Police claim that Brown assaulted the officer. Witnesses say that the shooting took place after the officer told Brown and a friend to move out of the street. Brown was surrendering when he was gunned down, the witnesses claim.
“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,” Paul wrote in an op-ed published at Time on Thursday.
“The outrage in Ferguson is understandable,” Paul wrote. “Though there is never an excuse for rioting or looting.”
Heavy protesting and looting followed the shooting, and local law enforcement agencies have responded with dozens of officers and SWAT units.
Wearing military-grade equipment, carrying heavy weaponry and riding mine-resistant vehicles, law enforcement officers have fired tear gas and rubber bullets at protesters. Two reporters were also arrested Wednesday for filming an officer and for failing to leave a McDonald’s at his command.
“There is a legitimate role for the police to keep the peace,” Paul wrote. “But there should be a difference between a police response and a military response.”
He said that the images coming out of Ferguson “resemble war more than traditional police action.”
Paul cited a 2009 article from Glenn Reynolds, a popular blogger and law professor, which addressed the issue of what has been dubbed the “over-militarized police.”
“Not surprisingly, big government has been at the heart of the problem,” Paul continued. “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.”
A Department of Defense initiative called the 1033 Program distributes equipment that had been used during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many local police agencies, even small ones, have been the beneficiaries of the program. The agencies are usually required to pay only transportation fees for the equipment.
Rolling out military-grade gear “is usually done in the name of fighting the war on drugs or terrorism,” Paul explained.
“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,” he continued.
Paul also dove into the racial aspect of Brown’s shooting death. Brown is black, as is the majority of Ferguson residents. The officer is reportedly white, as is the majority of the police force and the city council.
“Given the racial disparities in our criminal justice system, it is impossible for African-Americans not to feel like their government is particularly targeting them,” Paul wrote.
“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.”
Paul, a Republican who leans more libertarian than conservative, has struggled to address the issue of race. He was heavily criticized for telling an MSNBC host that he would not have supported the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which is hailed as a major advancement for blacks.
But Paul recently teamed up with Democratic U.S. Sen. Cory Booker to improve juvenile justice and to reform criminal background checks for non-violent drug offenders. Paul has also worked with U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to reform mandatory minimum sentencing for drug offenders. Both issues are seen as a root cause for disproportionate levels of minority prisoners.