What politicians should be saying about Ferguson (Hint: It’s what Rand Paul is saying)

August 15, 2014

Riot police clear demonstrators from a street in Ferguson, Mo., on Aug. 13. (Mario Anzuoni/Reuters)

So far, politicians have struggled with what to say about what occurred this week in Ferguson, Mo. Most urged peace and patience, but the political debate in this racially charged situation hasn't gotten much beyond that.

That was until Thursday, when Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and some other politicians seized on an issue: The over-militarization of the police.

"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," Paul wrote.

As it turns out, that issue is a political winner.

A December poll for the libertarian magazine Reason showed there is bipartisan agreement that the police are going too far by using things like drones, military weapons and armored vehicles. Strong majorities of Democrats and independents (60 percent of both) say that, according to the Rupe poll, as do 53 percent of Republicans and 60 percent of tea partiers.

Overall, Americans say these tactics go too far by a 21-point margin, 58-37.

(The Reason-Rupe poll was conducted Dec. 4-8, 2013, among a random sample of 1,011 adults on landlines and cellphones. The results among the full sample have an error margin of 3.7 percentage points.)

The poll question isn't a perfect approximation of what we saw in Ferguson (to our knowledge, no drones were used), but it shows the potential for a message like Paul's to resonate. The scenes in Ferguson were at first all about the unrest; then they became about heavy-handed policing. Law enforcement backed off its show of force Thursday night, and the scene was marked by peace.

Talking about police equipment and tactics is also less likely to inflame racial tensions — while at the same time addressing a concern that is real in the African American community. The poll shows 67-31 that African Americans think police equipment goes too far.

This isn't a totally easy political issue, however. As our own Philip Bump noted this week, the police are a powerful political force, and it's unlikely they want to see these kinds of tools taken off the table.

But as a starting point, what Paul is talking about is pretty fertile and safe territory.

Peyton M. Craighill contributed to this post.

Aaron Blake covers national politics and writes regularly for The Fix.
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Philip Bump · August 15, 2014