With the mess coming out of Ferguson these days, I'd like to take a moment to make a few observations.
First, the militarization of the police has been a long time coming. When I was considering a career in law enforcement in the early 1990s, for instance, the military mindset was very evident. I remember one time I accidentally brought the police way of speaking back home, and I was quickly taken to task by my uncle for using the word civilians to refer to non-police. Whether they like it, or not, city, county, and state police officers are civilians just like the rest of us; they are not serving in a military force.
While Veteran's Points in the civil service exam is an important benefit we extend to our returning military vets, it can and does open the doors at times to people who have no business wearing a badge. At one civil service exam in the Seattle area more than a decade ago, I recall overhearing a potential recruit (recently discharged from the service) telling another that his reason in pursuing a career as a police officer had nothing to do with helping others. He looked forward to violent takedowns--i.e. cracking heads. These are people who are hopefully screened out by the psychological reviews and oral board examinations, but hiring accidents take place all the time. We need to make sure that everyone who wears a badge understands that our streets are not the battlefield, and that bullying behavior has no place in our communities. (Of course, making our streets safe also has much to do with parental responsibility, but that's a topic for another day.)
That said, when officers face near battlefield conditions on our city streets, who can blame them in adopting the approach that they believe best ensures that they will return safely home at the end of their shift? There's no simple solution. As our family and social institutions begin to crumble a little bit more with each passing generation, this will likely only get worse in the years to come. I suggest that accountability and common sense are critical to leading police departments at this time. What do I mean by this?
Well, let's look at Ferguson for a moment. Instead of using a strategy that employed common sense and moderation, the department appears to have essentially thrown all that they had at the protesters immediately. Of course, this is going to simply escalate the situation and transform a small crisis into a larger crisis. The key is to use the least amount of force necessary to overcome the threat at hand--e.g. force continuum--and Ferguson appears to have been excited to show the community their new military surplus toys.
The other dimension of this situation may be the end result of too many hours of training in programs such as edged weapon defense and the 21-foot rule. Police officers are going to get hurt sometimes, but that's not an excuse for blowing a transient away because he has a small pocketknife. There needs to be some level-headed common sense approach to tactical training that doesn't leave officers too cautious when dealing with day-to-day situations. I know I'll catch some grief for this most likely, but...just because you're justified in drawing your sidearm, for example, doesn't mean you necessarily need to do so. Restraint isn't always the wrong decision.
Once in a while, there may be other options to quickly consider before taking a life. I don't believe I heard the first law enforcement critique of the 21-foot rule until I was almost finished considering that particular career path. I think it was a Port Townsend officer who pointed out that officer training programs such as the one mentioned have only served to further separate the police officer from the average citizen and create an us vs them mindset. We need old fashioned policemen walking their beats again, getting to know the people they serve, not men in blue simply watching the world from behind the wheel of the police cruiser.