Just bear with me a sec...
The events in Ferguson have generated a nationwide debate on the "militarization" of police forces. In the context of the debate, "militarization" has referred to gear, equipment, or even clothing, given the absurdly out of place jungle camouflage sported by Ferguson SWAT teams performing (what they characterize as) "riot control."
But let's consider that camo for a moment. Would the military be so clueless as to send out combatants into an urban context dressed like that? Of course not. The haphazard waving of assault rifles, daily reports of threats or harassment, parading of over-the-top, inappropriate hardware... this is not a "militarization" of a police force, so much as it is a "soldier-of-fortunization" (or perhaps a "painballization," if it all weren't so violent and tragic).
The thing is, it might be time for a more serious look at militarizing police in a sense less skin deep than giving them surplus APCs on the cheap.
Consider the difference between police and military. We're always hearing (from the military side, at least) that ground troops are not police, and in fact that problems arise when we expect them to act as police in occupied territory (or during the US's attempts to build democratic institutions from the ground up in countries like Iraq or Afghanistan). And that's absolutely correct - it really doesn't work so well.
That's because soldiering, despite the superficial commonalities, is fundamentally different from policing. Profoundly so. The difference has been poetically expressed this way; the military is there to take territory, to attack, while the police exist to protect.
But that's not very specific, so consider the following distinctions.
Military forces and operations are large-scale and goal-driven. Over the centuries, militaries have evolved to be more effective and efficient by acting as machines. Recruits learn to be useful by suppressing the self and acting instead as a well-oiled part of a unit. Proper procedures, regulations, and a rigid hierarchy make up the nervous system of an effective military. Individual combatants do not get to make up the rules of war for themselves as they go.
In diametric contrast, consider what historically makes a good police officer, who is tasked with an ongoing process-driven mission (protect), rather than a project, or goal-driven one (win). That the police officer needs to be responsive to the community and adaptive to different situations has made subjectivity and autonomy a fundamental part of policing since the beginning of the last century. This is not to say that police don't have their own procedures and regulations, but the mission and nature of the job creates an understandable resistance to the creation of procedures and regulations that minimize individual autonomy. I have no doubt that many police academy instructors would bristle at this suggestion, but that doesn't make it less true. Given this, it's no wonder why police departments push back so hard at reformers' attempts to impose civilian oversight, or regulatory regimes on things like tasers, or whatever.
(In my state of Vermont, comprehensive taser use legislation was watered down into feelgood mush from pressure by statewide police groups, and its because it goes so much against their grain.)
So where military combatants are expected to submerge their individual autonomy in service of the mission, police officers see individual autonomy as fundamental to their mission.
And that latter model simply isn't working anymore.
There are four basic reasons for this. The first three reflect the basic qualities of modern culture; increased population density, our communication/information culture, and the easy circulation of people between different communities. All three of those factors increase the need for a uniformity of expectations of police, by the public, across the country. Increased population means more people are going to be bumping into each other, which means more conflicts. And if citizens are to have a reasonable sense of what to expect from those tasked with protecting and serving, nationwide communication and the movement of people between communities necessitate a new level of procedural uniformity between police forces.
The fourth reason is perhaps more obvious, and it is this soldier-of-fortunizing of many departmental cultures. Population pressures have for decades required police forces to grow, and that growth has encouraged insular subcultures (that often feel embattled) in larger communities. In smaller communities, the communication culture can create resentment of the expectations of "outsiders," so this subcultural siege mentality is almost inevitable from both directions.
All of this is to say that the model of the autonomous police officer is becoming obsolete, if it isn't already. Until it changes, we are likely to hear more Ferguson stories - and the way to modernize the profession is to consciously move away from the old-school frontier sheriff archetype and more towards the well-oiled machine model. That means more regulations, procedures, expectations of strict adherence, and severe consequences when those expectations are not met.
In other words, militarize.
Now before anyone says anything, of course I realize that there are examples of members of the military also acting in inappropriate, even horrific ways. This is not to say that the military is perfect, and our police challenges would be magically solved if they just act like the military.
I mean, I'm not an idiot (or at least not a complete one).
But as a template... a platform from which the 21st century police paradigm should start, its something to consider.
(Crosspost from the brand spankin new POVt.net.)