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Why the police in Baton Rouge look like they’re dressed for war

"She has a poster, you have a shotgun," one protester yelled as Baton Rouge police rushed onto yards and sidewalks to arrest demonstrators on July 10. (Video: TWP)

Police departments have received waves of criticism over the past two years for using military-grade equipment in relatively benign situations, and recent protests in Baton Rouge have reignited the debate over the role of such hardware in American policing.

Photographs and video shot over the weekend show Baton Rouge police, sheriff’s deputies and other law enforcement officers clad in body armor and gas masks and wielding semiautomatic rifles. In one sequence, riot police and SWAT officers flank an armored vehicle as it eases through a relatively peaceful crowd, a scene that looks similar to a military patrol through a hostile city. The juxtaposition of the equipment and protesters is reminiscent of the unrest in Ferguson, Mo., in the weeks after the police shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown.

Baton Rouge’s display of military-grade equipment followed last week’s fatal shooting of Alton Sterling as two Baton Rouge police officers tried to arrest him. Protests there turned violent over the weekend; the Baton Rouge Police Department said that one officer’s teeth were knocked out and that a number of firearms were confiscated during one of the rallies.

This is the military-style equipment used to respond to the attack in Orlando

According to Jason Fritz, a former Army officer and an international policing operations analyst, the resurgence of military equipment and heavy-handed tactics in Baton Rouge is the byproduct of a state-centric approach to policing, one of the two policing philosophies most commonly seen in the United States.

In Baton Rouge’s case, Fritz says, the police are there to disperse protesters and protect themselves.

This is opposite of what has been seen in Dallas in the days both before and after Thursday’s killing of five officers there, according to Fritz. “They’re there to protect the citizens first and then themselves,” he said of Dallas’s citizen-centric approach.

Officers in Baton Rouge “want to play soldier,” said Brandon Friedman, a former Army infantry officer who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. On Sunday, Friedman tweeted the now-iconic picture of armor-laden Baton Rouge police moving to arrest a woman standing in the middle of a street.

“These cops clearly don’t have good relationships with their own community. They feel like the answer to this is to come down with the boot,” Friedman said. “It’s an entirely ineffective way to deal with it.”

Friedman compared the Baton Rouge police’s response to the protests to his time conducting counterinsurgency operations in Iraq. The units that tried to meet civil uprisings with force usually found themselves in a “downward spiral” when it came to gaining the community’s trust.

“Units that strove to have good relationships with the community usually incurred more risks but generally had a better outcome,” Friedman said. “Baton Rouge is making a lot of mistakes, and they look ridiculous.”

One image from the weekend shows two Baton Rouge SWAT officers armed with semiautomatic carbines affixed with close-quarter optics. One officer has two 30-round magazines clipped together so that, if needed, he can reload faster. The officer is wearing a tactical-style, low-profile helmet with a night-vision boom attached — although it is missing the actual night-vision device.

Other pictures taken during the protests show officers with gas masks and heavy shoulder pads, known as deltoid armor.

Police departments across the United States have received military equipment from what is known as the 1033 Program. The program allows the U.S. government to offer excess defense articles to police departments. While departments can receive sandbags and other small items under the 1033 Program, they can also get armored vehicles such as Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles, which were used in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In May 2015, President Obama moved to prohibit the transfer of certain items, such as bayonets and grenade launchers, to police departments under the 1033 Program.

[Military veterans see deeply flawed police response in Ferguson]

While some of the equipment seen on Baton Rouge’s streets might seem overboard, one officer insists that it’s not a “one size fits all” approach and that just because certain tactics work in Dallas doesn’t mean they’re going to work in a city like Baton Rouge.

The officer, who patrols a larger Southern city, spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not permitted to talk to the media.

“People are going to say that it looks militarized if the guy is just supposed to be doing normal patrol duties and he looks like he just stepped off a Blackhawk [helicopter], then, yeah, that’s a bad look,” the officer said. “But if you’re out there with no cover and you don’t know who they are or where they’re coming from, I think some of it is justified.”

He added that in a lot of cases protesters are bused in from surrounding areas or are from out of town and that police departments share intelligence with one another, often prompting responses that might not jibe with the actual situation in the community.

“I’m thinking of deleting my Facebook,” the officer said, clearly frustrated at the amount of criticism leveled at his profession in recent weeks. “All of a sudden millions of people are use-of-force experts, but no one’s signing up to be a police officer.”

Abigail Hauslohner in Baton Rouge contributed to this report and it has been updated to reflect additional details about the 1033 program.