It has happened before. After the Viet Nam war, many mustered-out servicemen sought jobs in law enforcement. Then began a series of acts of police violence. We are seeing it again in Ferguson. Why? How?
Back then it must have seemed quite innocent. The money to hire more police was filtering down from the federal government. The servicemen were disciplined and used to a chain of command. They already knew how to use weapons and looked good in uniforms. What could go wrong?
But something did go very wrong. Police violence such as beating an unresisting suspect to a pulp, swat teams breaking into the wrong house and tearing it apart, and lines of armed police attacking peaceful demonstrators became common events for a while. In my own town, I witnessed a police riot over a drug bust gone bad. However, over the next decade, continued protests and lawsuits led to early retirements and reassignments, and a more peaceful time followed.
Now we are seeing the return of police violence in many communities. The intent in Ferguson and many other places seems to be to provoke the citizenry into confrontation then beat up and arrest everyone. How could this happen?
Soldiers are taught that when they are sent out with guns, they are to find and kill an enemy. Search and destroy was the ultimate mode of battle in Viet Nam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. This is what these individuals knew when the returned, not protect and serve. It was a mistake then to hire many of these returning vets as police officers. Most of them never had the right temperament to start with, and it would have taken much retraining to learn that aggression should be the last course, rather than the first.
Don't get me wrong. Most returning servicement would have made good cops with the proper training, but back then we did not screen the applicants carefully, and it seems to be happening again with the same results. Put these men in camo and give them military weapons, and many of them would instinctively consider that they were back in a war zone and act accordingly.
As long as police officers are allowed to see ordinary citizens as a potential enemy, as long as they are permitted to consider violence the only way to solve civil problems, as long as they are not punished appropriately when they go over the line, peace will be elusive.
So, how's it to be? Protect and serve or search and destroy?