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Missouri shooting shows blurred line between police and the military

Aug 15, 2014 - By The Orange County Register (Santa Ana, Calif.)

Despite the return of American warplanes to Iraq, the nation's attention is rightfully riveted on Ferguson, Mo., where residents are reeling from days of protests and riots.

Touched off in the wake of an all-too-common occurrence -- the police shooting of a young black man under ambiguous circumstances, at best -- the civic disorder has been marked by not one, but two, kinds of activity that make Americans profoundly uncomfortable.

First, there is the looting and other criminality. These acts all too predictably ramp up in cities when chaos increases, regardless of whether a police presence does, as well. For many Americans, however, that's not the extent of the problem.

Many are troubled by the way that members of America's underclass jump at the chance to commit wanton acts of violence and steal totems of leisure and entertainment, like expensive flatscreen TVs. It's the kind of response to neighborhood trouble that undermines faith in the social safety net.

At the same time, a growing number of Americans are losing their once rock-solid faith in the biggest safety net of all: law enforcement itself. The militarization of local police forces has quickly become a widely acknowledged problem.

Ferguson, a suburb of St. Louis, has brought the issue into sharp relief. Protesters chant "Don't shoot," while law enforcement officials, decked out in camouflage and armor, fire tear gas canisters and point startlingly massive weaponry at unarmed American civilians. These officers don't even look like riot police. They look more like an invading army.

As one self-described veteran of the 82nd Airborne told an editor at Business Insider, "We rolled lighter than that in an actual war zone."

Americans accurately sense that more than optics are at work here. It's one thing for a police officer, in the normal course of his duties, to wind up using excessive force. It's another for an entire force to transform into a much more menacing and alien presence.

War-fighting experts know well that a very special kind of training and combat readiness must accompany the use of military equipment. It isn't a knock on America's police to point out that many of them lack such training. Our strongest instincts about the nature of a free society virtually scream to us that they should lack it. After all, where tyranny is found, a national, militarized police force tends to be found with it.

The distinction between police and warriors is essential to keeping their functions separate. Civilians simply cannot -- and should not -- view militarized cops as friendly neighborhood officers committed to serve and protect. Certainly, there will be times when police require the use of a SWAT team. Americans are justifiably alarmed, however, that so many police departments seem to believe that militarization should be the rule, not the exception.

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