The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What is the National Guard to do when the police already resemble them?

A police officer is about to throw a tear gas canister as police try to disperse demonstrators who are protesting the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri over the weekend. One man sustained severe injures and seven protesters were taken into custody. EPA/ED ZURGA
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When the National Guard arrived in Oxford, in Little Rock, in Detroit, Los Angeles and New Orleans, its presence and the message that traveled with it was instantly clear.

"Whether it was the Vietnam riots, the Civil Rights era, it made an impression when the National Guard showed up," says Michael D. Doubler, a historian and retired Army officer who has written a definitive history of the National Guard. "They were different. They had different capabilities. They looked different."

Today, as the Missouri National Guard deploys to the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, where protesters and police have clashed nightly since the shooting last week of an unarmed black teen by a white officer, the distinctions are less apparent. This assignment, requested early Monday by Missouri Governor Jay Nixon (D), sits squarely within the traditional mission of the National Guard, even as the public has come to better recognize this part-time force for its full-time roles in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The domestic environment that the Guard enters in Ferguson, though, has changed. The local police now look an awful lot more like the military. And the situation on the ground already resembles a conflict in the late stages of law enforcement escalation. If the National Guard is supposed to bring the power, equipment and gravity of the military, it looks as if it's already there.

"When the National Guard shows up in this domestic role, it is a sign to people in the local community that a higher authority is exerting its power here, whether it be the governor or the president, and hopefully now we’re going to get all this sorted out. That’s a very important thing," Doubler says. "I hope we haven't lost that."

Ferguson, he says, will be a case study for how a community already confused about the power and intentions of local law enforcement -- armed partly with military gear -- will respond to an actual military presence meant to restore calm. "I don’t think anybody knows how this is going to affect the view of the National Guard," he says, "but we’re probably getting ready to find out."

As early as last Monday, two days after the shooting, the streets in Ferguson were full of officers dressed in camouflage and armored vehicles with gun turrets on top. The city responded immediately to the first rounds of protest and looting after Michael Brown's death with what some critics have likened to the municipal equivalent of shock and awe. That tactic left little room for a ramped-up force in the face of further unrest.

"On one level, in the case of Ferguson, it’s a little bit backwards," says Michael Noonan, the director of research at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. "You would think that escalation would [start with] the local policeman, then maybe state policemen, then the National Guard would come in, and they would have the bigger vehicles, they would be more heavily armed. You’d think there would be a natural progression there. In Ferguson, it’s almost opposite."

Now it's unclear what kind of calming effect the Guard can have — Nixon said he was sending in the soldiers to help restore order — when tensions between law enforcement and local residents have already been so inflamed. It's possible the community at this points needs to subtract officers, not add them. The circumstances that could still restore order may also have little to do with the presence and tenor of law enforcement on Ferguson's streets, but with the community's confidence in an investigation that's still unfolding.

It's possible, in other words, that there's a disconnect in Ferguson between what’s needed and who’s available to provide it. From Nixon's perspective, though, there were few options still on the table this week.

"People forget that governors don’t actually hold a lot of public safety resources," says James Carafano, a retired Army officer and vice president of the Heritage Foundation. "It's not too surprising that the governor would very quickly turn to deploying the Guard, because that’s all he’s got in the cupboard."

The Guard, Doubler says, is required to undergo annual riot control training, a legacy of its sometimes ill-equipped response to unrest in the 1960s. But the Guard -- which reports both to the President and to governor -- has also been heavily preoccupied for the last decade with an outsized role in America's major wars overseas, even as the law enforcement environment has shifted back home.

"My only concern is that the level of training may not be what you’d want," Carafano says of the specific skills that Ferguson requires. "This is a situation where it’s very sensitive, and you want to get it right the first time. You can’t really learn on the job."

Staff Researcher Alice Crites contributed to this report