In 1988 the crew of the US Navy missile cruiser Vincennes shot down an Iran Airlines passenger jet, an Airbus A300, with two surface-to-air missiles. All 290 people on board died. The crew of the ship claimed that the aircraft appeared to be an attacking enemy fighter plane, despite the fact that it was in Iranian airspace, climbing, and on its normal daily flight path. It was also, you know, a passenger jet. Which doesn't look much like the F-14 Tomcat that the Navy claimed to think it was.

You can read up on the incident (and its primary cause, the sociopath/Captain of the Vincennes) if you care to; an exhaustive account is not necessary here. What makes this incident interesting to me is its use as a classic example of a phenomenon called "scenario fulfillment." In highly regimented organizations like the military, individuals are a part of a larger system. In order for that system to work effectively, participants are trained extensively. They go through drills, simulations, and live exercises ad nauseum until carrying out their responsibilities becomes second nature. In the context of Iran Air 655, however, the crew of the ship were so locked into the drill that taking it to completion – fulfilling the scenario of "enemy fighter attacking" that they had probably repeated a thousand times in training – was simply the logical end.
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And "completion" in this case means shooting down the enemy plane. That's what they're trained to do, and as soon as someone said "We're being attacked!" their training took over. Of course, avoiding "mistakes" like this is the reason the military has officers who are supposed to use their judgment based on the available information, but I guess that safeguard isn't very effective when the officers are belligerent. But I digress.

The past three decades have seen unprecedented changes in American law enforcement. Among the most notable is the militarization of police. The police, despite being civilians by definition, have adopted the equipment, weapons, tactics, and attitudes of the military. We now have suburban police departments purchasing IED-proof armored vehicles designed for Afghan war zones.

Helicopters, armor, high-velocity rifle ammunition, stun grenades, "less lethal" weaponry – you name it, and cops have gotten their hands on it. Why? Well, thanks to the War on Drugs they've decided over the years that all of this is necessary. The only limit to what they require is imagination. If you can dream up a threat, you can justify more weapons, more equipment, and more paramilitary tactics to put it all to use. It doesn't matter that a coordinated terrorist attack on the Pigsknuckle County Courthouse is as likely as the second coming. In a world in which the Supreme Court is making decisions based on hypotheticals from Jack Bauer and the writers of 24, the public and political system accept just about anything police ask for at face value.

The point among all of this is simple: police essentially do what they are trained to do. The more they are trained in military-style tactics, the more options for the use of force they are given (rubber bullets, batons, chemical sprays, grenades, etc.), and the more their training focuses on the possible rather than the probable, the more likely they are to carry out their jobs in ways that contradict their mission to Serve and Protect. Cops don't break up crowds with swinging batons and CS grenades (adopted with their launcher directly from the military hardware market) because the situation calls for it. They do it because that's how they're trained to break up riots. It doesn't matter if the crowd is violent or not; every crowd becomes a riot in their minds once the training scenario begins to happen in real life. They break down doors and enter homes with weapons drawn because that's how they're trained to serve warrants. They pepper spray or tazer anyone who appears remotely aggressive (Or not, you know. Either way.) because that's how they're trained to deal with aggressive people.

The above image is of the UC-Davis police before the infamous pepper spraying incident. These are campus cops – ask any cop and he will giggle while explaining that campus police are the lowest form of life in his profession – with the full array of modern, military-style riot gear and weapons. Where is the campus on which they work? Kabul? The Sudan? Yes, campus police face the prospect of having to break up a drunken 3 AM congregation now and again, and breaking up a crowd can be dangerous. But clearing out the morons gathered in the street at bar time is not exactly going door-to-door through Normandy in 1944.

The more they are trained to apply force, the more often it will be applied. The more force they have to apply, the more they will apply. The more they are militarized, the more they will act like Delta Force operatives in Tora Bora rather than street cops in Des Moines. The farther American police go in this direction, the more ordinary citizens will get that unsettling feeling that leads your more radical friends to declare that we live in a Police State controlled by storm troopers. Because to an alarming extent, they are starting to have a point. Bearing in mind that police are public servants, why has this gone unchecked?

I think the answer is simple enough. An inattentive public isn't interested as long as it happens to someone else. The political system is fanatically eager to Get Tough on Crime. And the people who are supposed to be in charge of law enforcement, to lead it, have eschewed judgment for the indulgence of their wildest "What if?" fantasies. The scenarios for which they train might or might not be reality, but they will certainly become reality given the time. Maybe that's why the number of riots instigated by police seems to dwarf the number that they've protected society from – give a man a hammer and oddly enough all of his problems start to look like nails.


  • It just gets so depressing when you realize that almost all this country's problems essentially have their roots in Nixon, and that slimy,lawbreaking motherfucker never served so much as a minute in jail thanks to Gerry "Wet Tissue Paper" Ford.

    Can we exhume his corpse and stick his head on a pike just on George Washington Parkway in DC? I think that would do a world of good.

    And we can put Reagan's on 495.

  • One more interesting note: I did know about this incident, but I hadn't heard about it in so long it had passed from my active memory. Isn't it interesting that, in all the "debate" about the Iranian "threat", not one news source has ever even mentioned this in passing?

    Do you think they've forgotten in Tehran what we did to 290 innocent Iranian civilians?

  • An inattentive public isn't interested as long as it happens to someone else.

    I'm pretty sure you can cut and paste this sentence into nearly every article you write, no?

  • baldheadeddork says:

    Excellent post, Ed. I'd only add that in the list of reasons why the populace has allowed this, you shouldn't overlook the entertainment factor. Not only does the Supreme Court use 24 as a reference point, at the other end of the spectrum a vast number of viewers look at the six o'clock local news as entertainment. Good chiefs and sheriffs resist that, but there are too many Joe Arpaio's who cynically twist law enforcement, entertainment, and local news to achieve the para-military ends you write about.

  • Two thoughts:

    1) The Iranian passenger jet downing was scenario-fulfillment, sure. But most large-consequence end-states also have checks to ensure there's no disconfirming data that you're in the scenario. So I think there was another bias in place, there.

    And, to be honest, one of the problems with the militarization of Law Enforcement isn't that it's probably unnecessary overkill. It's that the real military gets day-in, day-out, intensive training for very specific scenarios, including the 'scenario confirmation' training that was missed in your opening anecdote.

    The real problem is that this same level of training isn't available to all cops (some of whom assuredly got it during their service in the military, but …not all.)

    2) Let's also not forget the power of perception. It's working very hard against the UCD cops, right now. (Despite the fact that their fear about perception may have contributed to it: )

    But it's also quite possible that somewhere, someone thought that if you put a bunch of tough guys (or, at least, heavy guys) in menacing looking gear, that will be enough to discourage the gathering of people we want to discourage. Deterrence is *frequently* the primary goal of police equipment, not utility. [I recently saw this taken to absurd extremes in Manila, where every small business has a security guard with a big-ass weapon. My son pointed out to me, loudly, that "he has a rifle!" about a kid guarding 7-11, and our taxi driver laughed and said "yeah, but it probably doesn't have bullets in it, and nobody knows if it works".]

    So, the problems arise when the "controlled" no longer respond based on perception, and instead utility is needed. Oops. And, given the prevalence of you-tube-ready smartphones, and people seeing things like this, I think the cover is blown for a lot of folks. Which could, unfortunately, lead to increasing instances in which less-trained cops are forced to "utilize" equipment that was mostly meant for show.

  • I was reading Radley Balko the other day and he was on a tear about some Arizona cops who basically murdered an Iraq vet who had no drugs in his apartment (luckily, they didn't murder his wife or daughter).

    All well and good — hey now, maybe us dirty libruls can finally hold hands with the Randroids?

    Well, then he goes on to explain how things like the War on Drugs (started if I remember correctly by a media blitz by Nancy Reagan) and the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan and the crackdown on civil rights in places like Arizona and Alabama illegals were acts of ZOMG BOTH SIDES DO IT TOO.

    Somewhere, Megan McCardle is explaining how she isn't _actually_ a Republican to someone.

  • Middle Seaman says:

    I do agree with the points made by this post. Yet, I see a potential alternative scenario/explanation resulting with same sad reality. My university has less than 20,000 student, the tuition is about $50 grand a year and the last riot on campus never occurred. Why does the university PD have more than 3 officers? The school doesn't need more than that.

    The nature of human organizations is to evolve to bigger and more multifunctional organizations. When you have 50 instead of 3 officers, you suddenly need fake tasks and goals, etc. Police in the US tends to be violent to start with (e.g. putting down strikes by killing strikers), gravitating towards a military-like organization is just a single step forward.

  • It certainly doesn't help that the captain of the Vincennes not only never got any kind of censure for his actions, he got an award for exceptionally meritorious service for the time period in which this incident took place, from Bush the First. He also gets some points for public sympathy since his wife was almost killed in a pipe bomb incident that destroyed the family minivan.

    I read yesterday a story about an Iraq War veteran Marine who was killed by police in Arizona, in a drug raid that turned out to be an apparent case of mistaken identity. It seems to fit this bill perfectly.

  • Chris "Limey" Lewis says:

    An excellent blog post – however, on the "Campus cops with guns" thing, I think it's probably a reaction to incidents like Columbine, Kip Kinkel (I think that was his name) and Virginia Tech and other school/college campus shootings that have occurred, more than a response to improbable "terrorist attack" scenarios.

  • Our general political problem is an inattentive public that doesn't care as long as "it" happens to someone else. This is the fundamental foothold which catapults the fascist right to power–and it looks like they'll be back again at the end of next year. Outstanding piece on the militarization of our police!

  • I think there's another historical thread here too. The logic of Prepare for Anything and Anything Will Happen is almost exactly the same logic of neocon foreign policy. Just look back at the early 1970s Team B exercises, in which a bunch of Really Dangerous People (Dick Cheney and a bunch of the PNAC gang, before we know who they were) convinced the CIA that its entire intelligence apparatus was *all wrong* because it didn't account for enough *possible scenarios*.

    As the military and intelligence officers who came of age in that paradigm have trickled their way into police departments all over the country as consultants, it's no wonder they'd bring this notion of pre-emptive force with them.

  • I like the larger typeface; less squinting before 9 a.m. (Or is it a change on this end?)

    Great, trenchant post as usual.

    What's needed is a report from some ex-policeman who quit and went on to get a degree in sociology or something, someone articulate who can look back and analyze his training and indoctrination from a first-person perspective. There MUST have been some defections in this madness.

    Anybody have a URL or two?

  • What I have learned in the last six weeks is that all those things black people have been saying about the police are true!

  • As ugly as that is, in the case of larger universities it riot gear is somewhat necessary.

    Think of the riots that broke out at Penn State: even before the most recent riots over the Paterno matter, students were rioting over wins and losses and they were rioting when OBL was killed.

  • Another simple reason this has gone unchecked is because a whole lot of Americans know a cop or two personally, and people tend to think in think in first-person terms.

    Cops, like teachers and postal workers, are one of those jobs that exist everywhere in the US, and most people are bound to know a former classmate/in-law/neighbor/co-worker's son/friend's dad/teacher's husband/old boyfriend/whatever who's "on the job". You know him (or maybe even her) personally, maybe you're not real close or whatever, but s/he is just a normal person. Sure, there may be some abuses by some cops somehwere, but they're "isolated incidents" and the local cops are okay, really, your cousin's husband Mike was a cop right in this town for 25 years and he's an okay guy when you see him at the holidays, and what's-his-face who you played baseball with in high school joined the force and he wasn't a bad guy either, in fact you heard he helps support his mother on a cop's salary. I mean, yeah, people sometimes do bad things, but it's wrong to demonize cops…

    It is wrong to demonize individuals, but the abstract idea that very bad things can happen despite the fact that cousin Mike is an okay guy, because those two things are NOT mutually exclusive, can be suprisingly hard for a lot of people to wrap their heads around. So they don't. Complex, abstract concepts like "scenario fufillment" never really crop up – unless your some kind of oddball who reads, or something.

  • Can anyone hypothesize why we've seen SO much police involvement in the most recent protests? What is it about these gatherings that has law enforcement on such high alert? I want to have a ready answer when the tea party loons point to all this and say "see? When WE were marching, not a SINGLE ONE OF US was arrested…"

  • Having actually flown the Airbus 300, I have no idea how the Navy managed to mistake one for an F-14 of all things.

    It has a pretty good climb rate – but it's slow even by airliner standards. Cruise speed is .80 mach and you hit the overspeed warning around .82

  • Let's face some facts, folks – this is all in preparation for the time when the 95+ percent of us have had enough.

    I keep telling people, we revere and study the wrong Revolution.

    We need to look more closely at the French one for guidance.

  • c u n d gulag:

    The French revolution resulted in a despotic dictator who engaged in perpetual war to maintain popularity. Do you really want that?

  • c u n d gulag says:

    Yeah, you got me.
    I know, but I was talking about their actual ACT of revolting, rather than the consequences.

    Oh well, humor *fail*.

    Btw – 'deep cay says,' isn't "a despotic dictator who engaged in perpetual war to maintain popularity," a fairly decent description of Little Boots 8 years, and the years under the next Republican to become President?

    With all of these paramilitary police around, our "Free Speech Zones" under the next Republican President are bound to be that much quieter.

  • I love all columns relating to cognitive biases, if only for the constant reminders to check myself. More, please — particularly with examples from history and the military.

    But I do have a couple of issues. First, we should not include campus security in the category of police. They are not screened, trained, or empowered in the same fashion as cops, and their function and goals are different. They should not be given nightsticks, much less guns; their primary tool is (or should be) the radio. Get locked out, need a late-night escort to your car, see a shady looking loitering behind the bike shed, and that's your guy. The campus cops I've met were often a reliable source of low-grade marijuana, but I'm not sure they are even required to know First Aid. I think this sort of employee, when given a riot shield, body armor, and firearm-shaped apparatus, puts them on like a costume and begins a role-playing act.

    Second: we must never start associating or equating the police with the military. Generally speaking, their functions and goals are exactly opposite. I'll spare you the sales pitch, but if you haven't read Terry Pratchett's Jingo, you need to go do that now. I'll wait.

  • I see these former military sociopaths in DC a lot. In fact, my contracting company recently took me off a contract because of a "personality conflict" I had with a former Navy D-bag who was given a directorship because all of his navy boys already had one. This guy couldn't manage himself out of a paper bag. Totally crazy and inherently stupid. The personality conflict I had with this guy basically amounted to the fact that I refused to salute him and call him sir. "Unfortunately for you, Captain D-Bag, this is a civilian agency and I am not under military command. Therefore, I will not kiss your ass." Not to mention the fact that he was doing some shady contracting stuff with another IT firm which I then exposed to the contracting officer. Some of the most honest people in government in DC are the contractors because we have to follow the law very closely or end up on the front page of the Post. Some of the most corrupt are government workers because it takes an act of God to fire them and they love to power trip by ingratiating themselves within the web of power in DC. Anyways, being an IT professional and liberal affords me the opportunity to work near the highest levels of our authoritarian government because non of the right wing tards know how to run IT systems. Either I get out or stay and monitor. It's my own personal conflict.

  • Crocodile Chuck says:

    re: USS Vincennes: You overlooked the best part – that the cruiser thought it was targetting an F-14. How did Iran, the 'enemy', wind up being equipped with advanced US fighters in the first place? Emblematic of the USA's whole sorry legacy in this country's history: the Peacock Throne, Mossadegh assasination via the 1953 CIA coup, creation of British Petroleum, etc, etc. UPSHOT: the downing of the Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie five months later. Payback is a……

  • Not a black guy in the picture above. just noticing the Whiteness.

    the War on Blacks/Drugs was the first step of the War on the Rest of Us.

    First they came for the Blacks, then they came for _____, and so on.

  • "however, on the "Campus cops with guns" thing, I think it's probably a reaction to incidents like Columbine, Kip Kinkel (I think that was his name) and Virginia Tech and other school/college campus shootings that have occurred, more than a response to improbable "terrorist attack" scenarios."

    Most of the money has come from DHS grants with money set aside for terrorist related first response

  • @DaMoose: Holy Spit!!! That's crazy! If we had a different composition in the SCOTUS, I'd be all for let it be challenged and thrown out contravening the Bill of Rights. This group who knows.

  • @ladiesbane: "First, we should not include campus security in the category of police. They are not screened, trained, or empowered in the same fashion as cops, and their function and goals are different."

    You're wrong with regard to the University of California, at least. There is one police force that is responsible for all the campuses, roughly something like a sheriff department or highway patrol just for campuses. And they are armed, trained, and deputized just like any other state cop you encounter. They don't do any of the things a smaller campus security crew might do, like unlock doors for you. They do regular law enforcement, like beatings and political suppression.

    It's pretty fucking gross actually. Officer Pike, of the pepper spraying incident, makes ~$110k/yr according to public records. A lecturer working their ass off and teaching 9 classes a year in the system will make ~$45k.

  • I believe you are correct about the relationship between training and actions. There is another aspect to these programs, however. I strongly suspect that the equipment and training is funded by federal grant money (to the states, where it is redistributed). If so, there is pressure on these organizations to justify their budgets to keep the money coming. Breaking up riots, capturing terrorists, etc., does that.

  • CitizenScientist says:

    Great post Ed. This is an issue that hasn't been covered enough (obviously), so thanks for your thoughts.

  • deep cap Says:

    "As ugly as that is, in the case of larger universities it riot gear is somewhat necessary.

    Think of the riots that broke out at Penn State: even before the most recent riots over the Paterno matter, students were rioting over wins and losses and they were rioting when OBL was killed."

    Notice that the Penn State students were not teargassed, clubed, tasered (and probably not even arrested). And I believe that you're confusing 'riotous celebration (with vandalism)' with an actual riot where the police *need* such equipment.

  • Build it and they will come says:

    Someone was arguing that large intimidating entities employed by police forces, whether large burly men in riot gear, or armored hummers are really there to deter bad behavior. Unfortunately, that ignores the reality. If they have it, then it is basically a must to use it, in order to justify wasting cash on it.
    This brings to mind an incident from last spring. At Western Illinois University there was a riot. There was a large campus block party which got a little out of control when some jackasses started a bonfire in one of the front yards. Had the cops approached it like they would have in the past, with the town cops out on patrol, the outcome, in all likelihood, would have been a few arrests and the fire being extinguished. But it wasn't just the town cops there. Somebody decided in advance to have the special swat/riot squad for the Illinois western region set up and waiting for this party. So a bunch of thugs in riot gear took the very first chance they got to put their training into use. They lined up, and with pepper spray and batons in hand and the sonic alarms going off, proceeded to march on the entire block of college kids leisurely spraying as they went. Basically, starting a riot by needlessly confronting a bunch of drunk college kids, some of who responded by throwing crap at the advancing line of so-called police officers. In this day and age of budget shortfalls, do we really need to waste huge amounts of cash on a special tactical for the Western region of Illinois? But the fact that there was one pretty much guaranteed that it would be used. Whether or not the folks that ran this team saw this as a chance for a "live" training exercise or just wanted to justify the existence of their special team doesn't matter. They pretty much provoked a riot, which of course proves that they need such a squad to prevent……you get the idea

  • well! we were attacked in the Gulf.. and the USS Stark was sunk! by those bastards…

    err our friends the Iraqis! so in retaliation, we shot down an Iranian Airliner.

  • and the police are always looking for an excuse to use their new stuff. NYC cops got several brand new high powered speedboats.

    they also had a bunch of zodiacs with an M-60 on it and the would "escort" the SI Ferry across the harbour.

    and now their are like two dogs on each side of the ferry 24/7..

    what a waste of money

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