Set aside for a second what caused the St. Louis riots this week. Also set aside the fact that there is no connection between anger directed at social injustice and looting a shoe store.
The Atlantic ran a story today with a picture of three officers dressed in fatigues, military style rifles raised at a small young man with arms up. One can understand the weapons, at least in a riot situation. Police should be able to protect themselves in dangerous situations.
But what about the combat fatigues?
The militarization of American police continues unabated. Reports of small town and even campus police obtaining armored personnel carriers strike most people as absurd. SWAT style raids have hit farms who sell raw milk to willing customers as well.
Add to this the outpouring of stories where police needlessly shoot dogs. In Mason County, police shot a dog on its owner's property where no crime had taken place.
The Posse Comitatus Act of 1878 expressly forbids the US military from acting in a law enforcement capacity within the country. It passed before the rise of city and state police departments, as well as much of the federal law enforcement apparatus. Police departments need equipment and weapons in case they must confront the most dangerous elements.
They, however, should not be outfitted in military style apparel unless a specific situation calls for it.
And we cannot allow police departments to grow into alternative military units. The US Army in 1898 had about 28,000 officers and men. The New York City Police Department now has around 40,000 officers.
Traditionally, city police wear blue uniforms. Some say that this goes back to the London Metropolitan Police Department who supposedly chose the color to distinguish police from the army. State Police, however, wear uniforms similar to those worn by the US Army during the First World War. Many states formed their police after the war and used surplus uniforms. As military uniforms quickly evolved, most state police kept the old style.
Beyond the uniforms, the tactics and equipment of the police have grown to more and more resemble the military. Rarely, this may be necessary, but not for routine use.
Appearances matter, though. Police in fatigues inspire more fear and less confidence in those they are sworn to protect.
American police cannot go around like Sheriff Andy Taylor with a broad smile and no gun. But likewise, they cannot approach every situation like Samuel L. Jackson in SWAT. Police safety must be upheld, but the public is losing confidence in police to do their jobs with discipline and restraint.