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. 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.