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Six days after an unarmed black 18-year-old was killed by police in Ferguson, MO, the small city in the suburbs of St. Louis is in the national spotlight. The shooting immediately raised troubling questions about race and the criminal justice system. But the escalating protests and aggressive police actions- including use of smoke bombs and tear gas- are also raising questions about police tactics and accountability. We consider the militarization of police and rights of reporters covering the story.
- Matt Apuzzo Reporter, New York Times
- Mickey Osterreicher General Counsel, National Press Photographers Association (NPPA)
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, transforming architecture in the inner suburbs. We'll talk with Montgomery County's director of planning and architect Roger Lewis about the future of downtown Bethesda and other business corridors. But first, the unrest in Ferguson, Mo., and new debates about police tactics and weapons. It's been six days since Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old was shot and killed by police in the small suburban city on the outskirts of St. Louis.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIThe shooting immediately raised troubling questions about race and criminal justice. But after five nights of escalating protests and aggressive police actions, a parallel debate has emerged about the militarization of local police forces. Ferguson police have used smoke bombs, tear gas and rubber bullets on protestors, while brandishing automatic weapons, Kevlar vests and armored cars. And last night, they briefly detained and jailed two journalists. Joining us to discuss this is Matt Apuzzo. He is a reporter for the New York Times. He's written about demilitarization of local police forces. He joins us by phone. Matt Apuzzo, thank you for joining us.
MR. MATT APUZZOGreat to be back, Kojo.
NNAMDIAlso joining us by phone is Mickey Osterreicher, general counsel with the National Press Photographers Association. Mickey Osterreicher also joins us by phone. Thank you for joining us.
MR. MICKEY OSTERREICHERThanks for having me.
NNAMDIYou, too, can join the conversation. Give us a call, 800-433-8850, if you have questions or comments on this issue. Matt Apuzzo, I'll start with you. This story is unfolding 800 miles away from Washington. So like most Americans, we've been watching it from a distance through tweets and news reports. And in many of those images, it's hard to tell whether we're looking at police forces or paramilitary units. How and why does a police force in Ferguson have these military-grade weapons? It's my understanding also that we are looking at a police department from St. Louis County. Can you explain the distinction?
APUZZOSure. I mean, it -- for starters, there's a number of police agencies on the ground in Ferguson. As you mentioned, this is a relatively small kind of St. Louis exurb. So typically they wouldn't have the kind of manpower to respond to something like this. So that part isn't unusual, that you'd pull what's called mutual aid from surrounding cities, counties and maybe even the state. I don't have a list of all of the people -- all of the departments who are sending people. But that part's not unusual. What I think you're seeing is the result of over a decade of really ramping up of transfer of military equipment and purchases of military equipment by local police departments.
APUZZOYou can certainly peg this to 9/11. You can also kind of pet it back a little farther if you want to go back to the nineties and the drug war, when Congress authorized the Pentagon to start transferring surplus military equipment to police departments to help fight the drug war. But back then, I mean, we weren't fighting two wars, so there wasn't nearly as much surplus as there is now. So over the -- under the Obama administration alone, we've seen hundreds of thousands of M16s, fully-automatic M16s. We've seen mine-resistant vehicles, helicopters, tons of body armor, night-vision goggles, grenade launchers, which are used to fire the tear gas.
APUZZOAll of that has been transferred from the Pentagon to local police departments free of charge. And then obviously post-9/11 there was, you know, billions of dollars available to state and local agencies to buy this stuff themselves in the name of fighting terrorists. So that's how we got here.
NNAMDIEarlier this summer you wrote about a mostly unreported link between cities like Ferguson and Washington D.C. Has Congress or the federal government been fueling this increase in military-style weaponry and tactics, Matt?
APUZZOOh, for sure. I mean this is a very popular program. The military transfer program is extremely popular in Congress and in state and local agencies. So it's certainly not going anywhere. The argument obviously from the police department is, we need to be able to protect ourselves. We need the police to be able to respond to a terrorist attack. And so that's why you see police with, you know, as I said, tens of thousands of fully-automatic rifles and the like.
NNAMDIMickey Osterreicher, most of what we know about what is happening in Ferguson comes from the media. And as we mentioned, two reporters were arrested last night at a McDonald's where reporters had apparently been congregating for usage of the Wi-Fi and to charge phones and file stories. They were not charged but told they were taken in for trespassing. Do we know what rights they had to be in that McDonald's?
OSTERREICHERWell, you know, first of all, I look at this as what we see a lot of, what I call catch and release, which is get the journalist to stop doing whatever it is he or she is doing, which is usually reporting or taking photographs. I mean, McDonald's is open to the public. And unless, you know, someone in McDonald's called the police and said, look, these people are here and we don't want them here, they wouldn't be trespassing. And even then, if they were, I mean the normal response is, you've been asked to leave. Can you please leave? Nothing as dramatic as the response we saw and the reaction and the way the journalists were treated.
NNAMDIIn a cell-phone video taken by one of the reporters, Wesley Lowery of the Washington Post, we hear the police officer telling him to stop recording. He reminds the officer that he has a right to photograph the scene. What are the rights of press -- and for that matter civilians -- to take photographs and video in public?
OSTERREICHERThe press and the public have a coextensive right. That's a word that was used in a First Circuit decision regarding that right that recently came down. And it's pretty much the seminal decision. So if you're out in public and you can see and observe something, then you can photograph and record it, as long as you're not interfering with the officers' ability to perform their duties. And I think that's exactly what was happening. But we find time and time again officers believing that they can order people to turn off their cameras, or in this case, turn them off for them.
NNAMDIBut some people have observed, you one of them, that there are signs in McDonald's and Burger King saying, no videotaping. Do you think that bore any relationship at all to what happened yesterday?
OSTERREICHERI don't. I think that's something for the store or the corporate to enforce. I think this officer was basically saying, you can't record me.
NNAMDIWe're talking about military tactics and reporters rights in Ferguson, Mo., with Matt Apuzzo, reporter for the New York Times, and Mickey Osterreicher who is general counsel of the National Press Photographers Association. Matt Apuzzo has written about the militarization of local police departments. You can call us at 800-433-8850. Do you think police departments need armored vehicles and M16s? 800-433-8850. Do you think press freedoms are at risk in places like Ferguson? You can also send email to email@example.com. Or send us a tweet @kojoshow.
NNAMDIThis is a developing story. President Obama is expected to make a statement soon. And Missouri Governor Jay Nixon is expected to announce that the St. Louis County law enforcement will be relieved of duty in Ferguson. We will keep you abreast if either of those statements are made while we're on the air discussing this. Matt Apuzzo, I'd like to circle back to the broader issue of police tactics. Some civil libertarians have criticized local police forces around the country for using these swat teams and this new equipment in situations that are wholly inappropriate. What kind of examples did you find?
APUZZOWell, I mean there's been a huge increase -- I mean you can peg this back over the last couple decades -- huge increase in the use of swat teams. You know, we've seen -- this is out there -- that, you know, police have used their swat teams, full body armor, carrying automatic weapons, oftentimes masked, to raid a nightclub for looking for underage drinkers, in Louisiana for instance. In Florida, swat team members carried out raids on barbershops and ultimately charged people with unlicensed barbering.
APUZZOThere was, you know, there are -- no-knock warrants are a big trend right now. So that, normally, you're going to serve a warrant, you knock on the door. Hey, I'm from the police department. I have a warrant. Here's a warrant. We want to search the house. No-knock warrants, which are supposed to be used in cases where there's a real likelihood that the person on the inside of that -- inside that house has a weapon. The no-knock warrants are way up. So you -- that's where you see the guys kind of -- the police kind of sneak up, batter the door down with a battering ram and move in.
APUZZOSo those are on the rise. You know, I think the issue that the civil liberties folks have been raising for a long time on this is there's not nearly enough terrorism, thank god, in the United States for all of these departments to use this equipment to fight terrorism. So inevitably -- the criticism is, inevitably, they're going to use this equipment on us. And I think that's why -- that's why Ferguson has kind of really crystallized this idea among a lot of critics and frankly is attracting people, who haven't been paying attention to this debate, to this discussion kind of for the first time.
NNAMDIMatt, you mentioned some of the cases already. But another one you reported on, in May of this year a SWAT team in Atlanta apparently raided a suspected drug house with a no-knock warrant and severely injured a one-year-old.
APUZZOYeah. They used something called a flash grenade. It's you -- you batter the door in, you throw in a grenade and it lets off a huge bang and a big blinding light. And so it's, we'll say, disorient everybody in the room. And then the cops can come in and sort of secure the room. And just as it happened, they threw the flash grenade into a baby's crib and severely burned and severely injured the baby. And it just turned out it was also by -- this is a separate issue -- but it turned out it was the wrong part of the house that they were raiding.
NNAMDIOn to Tony on the phone in Waldorf, Md. Tony, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
TONYHey, good day, gentlemen.
TONYHey, I just wanted to comment on the militarization of the police department. And do you guys recall in L.A. not too long ago, that bank robbery in which those two guys with heavy-caliber weapons and body armor were able to hold most of the police force at bay. And the policemen had to run around to a gun shop and get some weapons that, even then, would not subdue those individuals. Do you recall that?
TONYThat's right. And see, I think you have to recognize, sir -- and I understand what you're saying -- but this is America. And a lot of people here have a lot of weapons, heavy-caliber weapons. And so what are the police to do? Now they are charged with maintaining order, right?
TONYThat's right. So what are they actually to do then if you think that they should not have these weapons and these vehicles? What are they to do when confronted by individuals? And this is common thing now.
APUZZOWell, it's actually not -- I mean, that's a great point. But I mean, we should preface that by saying it's not a common thing. I mean, violent crime as a -- violent crime is at generational lows, I think, in the United States. And that police-involved -- shootings at police are at, you know, historic lows as well. But your underlying point is a good one, which is, well, what are police to do? I mean nobody wants to -- nobody wants the police to go out unprotected. Nobody wants the police to be, you know, to be sitting ducks in the, you know, horrible event that, you know, that a bad guy has got a machine gun.
APUZZOYou know, I think what you'd talk -- when you talk to police about this, even police who kind of support the idea of having more equipment, you know, a lot of them raise concerns. You know, okay, so we've got -- now we've all got M16s. And they say, you know, we did a drill -- I was talking to one police officer who said, well, we did a drill on, you know, if there was an incident at the mall. And this cop was telling me, you know what? I'm trying to imagine a situation where something goes bad at a mall and 20 cops with M16s make it better. And so there is a debate.
APUZZOI mean you're absolutely right. We certainly don't want cops to be unprepared for a bad situation. I just think this is a good opportunity to be talking about what does that preparation look like and where's the bet line on that?
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. Mickey, back to you. Both reporters who were arrested yesterday say that they did not resist arrest but were assaulted by police. What recourse, if any, might they have if that is indeed the case?
OSTERREICHERWell, we've been involved in a number of what are called 1983 actions. It's under 42 United States code section 1983 and basically means that somebody has been deprived of their civil liberties under color of law. And that phrase usually means by a police officer. Then they have a right to sue them. We actually have one of those going on in Montgomery County right now on behalf of one of our members who was arrested for taking pictures and doing nothing more than that. The charges were ultimately dropped.
OSTERREICHERBut I think going back to the importance of being able to photograph and record in public. I mean, we've got a videotape from the unfortunate incident in New York with a chokehold death. And, you know, there rather than having eyewitnesses talk about what they did or the police talk about what happened, you can look at the tape and experts can analyze whether the proper procedures were followed.
OSTERREICHERIt's my understanding in Ferguson we've got a very -- a separate description of what happened. The officer says, I believe that the young man went for his gun. Other witnesses say that he tried to pull him into the police car. Clearly if we had a videotape of this or some evidence that showed what actually happened, that might help resolve this issue and help the investigation.
OSTERREICHERSo that's why it's really so important nowadays with the exponential amount of cameras and cell phones that people have that people, as long as they're not interfering, be allowed to photograph and record. And especially in terms of what's been going on at night, as you said at the top of the show. The only information we have about what's going on on the streets there are the media. And when they're kept entirely away from a scene, that becomes a problem.
NNAMDIYou sent a letter this morning to the police chief in Ferguson, Thomas Jackson. You note in that letter that when citizens and journalists document government activity abroad their actions are often seen as heroic. But here the same efforts to document incidents is considered suspect. And you offered the assistance of your organization in developing reasonable and workable policies and practices. Have you done this for other police departments?
OSTERREICHERYes, for quite a number. We've worked with the International Association of Chiefs of Police. We've done it with the National Sheriff's Association. One of the first places that I did it was with Chief Lanier in Washington with the D.C. metro police. I think Chief Lanier, you know, also had to react to some lawsuits that involved her officers preventing people from photographing and recording.
OSTERREICHERSo I've been doing this training around the country just because I look at it as it's one thing for citizens and journalists to know what their rights are, but if officers don't understand and respect those rights it's really not going to make any difference except later on.
OSTERREICHERAnd often, as I say, when I do the training with police, we can do this the easy way or we can do this the hard way. The easy way is for them to respect those rights and abide by them. The hard way is to get sued. As a matter of fact, we just had another lawsuit that was settled in Suffolk County, N.Y. that cost the taxpayers there $200,000 when a sergeant arrested a news photographer for doing nothing more than being out on a public street recording a traffic stop.
NNAMDIHere is Ben in Berryville, Va. Ben, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
BENThank you for taking my call. You know, I think McDonald's also has a sign that says 30 minutes only while consuming food. So, you know, maybe that's how they got him.
BENYeah but, you know, I really think the issue at its core is one of two -- it is the perception of two forms of justice. There's one set of rules if you're poor, if you're minority in terms of, you know, arresting and conviction. And then there's another set of rules if you're famous, if you're rich, if you're the spouse or a relative or a friend of a police officer. You know, I'd love to see stats on speeding tickets for relatives of police officers versus others.
BENAnd it's not -- you know, if they're friends I know you get -- the officer has some discretion. But, you know, certain very large radio hosts go to treatment for their drug addiction problems and other people go to jail. And that's -- unless there's a proactive and constant work on this feeling of two forms of justice, I don't think this is the last time we're going to see riots like this.
NNAMDIWell, Ben, interestingly enough you get the last comment on this subject. It's an ongoing story. As we said, both President Obama and the governor of Missouri are supposed to address this issue shortly. And if we have the opportunity, we will give you updates about that. Matt Apuzzo, thank you for joining us.
APUZZOHey, thanks a lot for having me.
NNAMDIMatt Apuzzo's a reporter for the New York Times. He's written about the militarization of local police forces. Mickey Osterreicher, thank you for joining us.
OSTERREICHERSure, it's a pleasure.
NNAMDIMickey Osterreicher is general counsel with the National Press Photographers Association. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, transforming architecture in the inner suburbs. We're talking with Montgomery County's Director of Planning and our own architect regular guest Roger Lewis about the future of downtown Bethesda and other business corridors. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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