Much of the coverage of the Michael Brown shooting and the borderline psychotic reaction by the local police has focused, justifiably, on the increasing militarization of podunk police forces across the country. The rest of us have been talking about this since the tsunami of surplus hardware started flowing during W's second term, but to the country at large (and media) this is a new phenomenon. Certainly there is some need in major metropolitan areas for a wider array of hardware. The NYPD, for example, should probably have a bigger selection of vehicles and tools than the Pigsknuckle, AR police force simply because the former is going to deal with a much larger and more complex variety of situations. But now we are seeing the consequences of making military hardware available – essentially for free – to anyone who wants it. Turns out that the people who want it also want to use it. Shocking, really, to see that a gaggle of yahoos who thought they needed Mine Resistant armored vehicles and .50 cal sniper rifles to patrol strip malls are eager play with their toys.
Many current and ex-military commentators have noted that "militarized" is a misnomer to describe the police in Ferguson, as the actual military is better trained, better organized, and operates under stricter rules of engagement. They also note that those cops were armed with and wearing far more "toys" than actual soldiers wore to do foot patrols in Iraq. The deadly farce looked bad enough to actually shock a few normally complacent or cop-loving portions of the public. It looked like exactly what it was – a bunch of out of control adolescent bullies playing soldier and showing off that they hadn't a clue what they were doing. That's how you end up with a guy dressed like GI Joe sitting atop a vehicle with a SR-25 sharpshooting rifle (unit cost to the Pentagon: $6000). If the cops actually thought or expected that they would get fired upon, what kind of idiot would sit on top of the truck out in the open? A big one. Or one who knows he isn't actually going to be fired upon and simply wants to intimidate people.
The dead giveaway that the problem in Ferguson is one of the mindset of law enforcement, and that police militarization is indeed a serious problem more broadly, is the widespread wearing of camouflage by the officers. Of what conceivable practical use could green or desert camouflage be in a suburban environment? Gonna help you blend in with the Taco Bell or the liquor store? Even if they did wear something that helped conceal them, that would be counterproductive to the entire purpose of policing in a situation like that; law enforcement wants to be visible to act as a deterrent to violent or property crimes in a public disturbance. There is only one reason those cops would wear camo, and it has nothing to do with practicality. It is an integral part of playing out their Soldier fantasy. It "looks cool." It makes them feel tougher and act more boldly. It cements the idea that they are not cops responsible to Serve & Protect the public; they are soldiers fighting The Enemy, and The Enemy is everyone else.
It is facile to say that "some good" may come of the young man's death if it leads to meaningful law enforcement reform. These events do seem like a tipping point, though, to bring together the Rand Paul right and the Maybe Stop Killing Black Men left to pare back the level of aggression, violence, and firepower used by police across the country. The pipeline of free military hand-me-downs is certain to be curtailed or at least subject to a higher degree of scrutiny, and the question of why cops can have $25,000 worth of body armor and weapons on their person but not a cheap, tiny microphone and/or camera.
PS: Anecdotally, an Afghanistan veteran friend told me that in two tours, he never once leveled (pointed) his weapon at anyone who had not already fired at him, which isn't a surprise given that the Army has actual rules of engagement. Go through the photos and videos from Ferguson and count how many instances you see of a podunk cop pointing a rifle at an unarmed person. I found at least a dozen and I didn't look very hard.