FERGUSON, Mo. — The scene harkened to familiar images of the Iraq war: men in black helmets and body armor sitting on top of armored personnel carriers, rifles at the ready, surveying the civilian population.
Except this was in Middle America and the civilian population was made up of people demonstrating with their hands up to protest the police shooting of an unarmed black teen.
A day after St. Louis County Police clashed with protesters here, throwing tear gas canisters, shooting rubber bullets and using long-range acoustic weapons that are loud alarms meant to cause ear-splitting pain, Ferguson has ignited a national debate over local police use of military-style tactics and equipment. Is it effective policing or an excessive display of force?
The St. Louis County police department, which has been patrolling Ferguson during the unrest following the death of 18-year-old Michael Brown, has been criticized for heavy-handed tactics that include intimidating peaceful protesters.
"At a time when we must seek to rebuild trust between law enforcement and the local community, I am deeply concerned that the deployment of military equipment and vehicles sends a conflicting message," Attorney General Eric Holder said in a written statement Thursday. "The law enforcement response to these demonstrations must seek to reduce tensions, not heighten them." Those who peacefully gather to express sympathy for the family of Michael Brown must have their rights respected at all times. And journalists must not be harassed or prevented from covering a story that needs to be told."
Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon promised Thursday a "different tone" and an "operational shift" by police on the protest-wracked streets of Ferguson. He directed the State Highway Patrol to take over supervision of security.
Some critics say the military-style policing has worsened an already volatile situation.
"The police response needs to be demilitarized," said Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Democrat. "I think the police response has become part of the problem as opposed to being part of the solution. We've all got to take a deep breath and realize that the vast majority of people protesting have a constitutional right." ... They are my bosses and I want to make sure they have an environment of safety and respect."
Francis Slay, mayor of St. Louis, said the situation has been mishandled. "It creates a higher level of anxiety and higher level of anger," he said. His city's government and police force are separate from neighboring St. Louis County, where Ferguson is located. The city has no authority over the police department in the county.
Anxiety was evident in Ferguson. Since the shooting Saturday afternoon, the St. Louis County Police SWAT unit patrolled the town dressed in fatigues, carrying automatic assault rifles and driving through city streets on tanks.
The effect was a city turned war zone.
Officers faced angry protesters, some of whom destroyed parts of the city. At barricades set up near a convenience store that was destroyed in the first disturbance Sunday night, They pointed rifles at vehicles that got too close. They yelled at reporters to duck behind their cars or risk being shot in the crossfire.
The tension that had roiled the city for four days reached a breaking point Wednesday when St. Louis County Police arrived with four armored trucks. Officers in gas masks and fatigues yelled at protesters to leave. A long line of authorities formed and began addressing the crowd as if they had been rioting.
"We won't tolerate non-peaceful actions," an officer yelled through a loudspeaker Wednesday night. He told protesters to put down their rocks and weapons, though no rocks had been thrown and no weapons were visible. People who had been singing and playing drums grew angry and yelled back.
Sierra Smith, who lives in the apartment complex at the center of the protests, told the governor on Thursday that her neighborhood has been under police siege since Brown's death.
"Every night we're tormented," she said. "The police have no respect at all for the community."
But Chuck Canterbury, president of the Fraternal Order of Police, a union that represents more than 325,000 officers nationwide, defended the actions of the Ferguson and St. Louis County police. He said he had spoken with officers there who told him they have been responding to violence from people who have looted, started fires and thrown rocks and bottles at them.
He said the police here have used as much restraint as possible, including verbal commands and non-lethal weapons such as tear gas and bean bag rounds, to break up crowds. Canterbury said a large crowd that is unruly, or appears likely to become unruly, requires a strong show of force to control it.
"You don't retreat," said Canterbury, a 26-year veteran of the Horry County Police Department in Conway, S.C. "We have to protect property and we have to protect people."
He says the police are not military forces. Much of the high-tech gear seen in Ferguson is to protect police, he said.
The military appearance is "more a perception than reality," he said. "They are two different things. The military is trained to engage and law enforcement is trained to defuse."
Thomas Nolan, a 27-year veteran of the Boston Police Department who heads the criminal justice department at the State University of New York at Plattsburgh, calls the pictures coming out of Ferguson a "black mark on contemporary policing practices.
"We are are absolutely seeing the most visible manifestation possible of the militarization of police," he said.
The trend grew nationwide after 9/11, when police work expanded from community policing to include homeland security, but it is overkill to use armored personnel carriers, long-range acoustic weapons and other military weapons on civilians in the USA, he said.
"I predict that future law enforcement training will include this episode as how not to engage a crowd," Nolan said. "This will be in every police academy in the country."
Bello reported from McLean, Va. Contributing: Aamer Madhani in Ferguson