We Created a Policing Monster By Mistake

| Sat Aug. 16, 2014 11:28 AM EDT

Although I've avoided writing about Ferguson for private reasons, I almost wrote a short post yesterday in order to make one specific point. But it turns out to be OK that I didn't, because Annie Lowrey wrote it for me and did a better job than I would have.

The point of her post is simple: Two decades ago violent crime really was out of control, and it seemed reasonable to a lot of people that police needed to respond in a much more forceful way. We can argue forever about whether militarizing our police forces was an appropriate response to higher crime rates, but at least it was an understandable motivation. Later, police militarization got a further boost from 9/11, and again, that was at least an understandable response.

But at the same time the trend toward militarization started in the early 90s, the crime wave of the 70s and 80s finally crested and then began to ebb. Likewise, Al Qaeda terrorism never evolved into a serious local problem. We've spent the past two decades militarizing our police forces to respond to problems that never materialized, and now we're stuck with them. We don't need commando teams and SWAT units in every town in America to deal with either terrorism or an epidemic of crime, so they get used for other things instead. And that's how we end up with debacles like Ferguson.

Police militarization was a mistake. You can argue that perhaps we didn't know that at the time. No one knew in 1990 that crime was about to begin a dramatic long-term decline, and no one knew in 2001 that domestic terrorism would never become a serious threat. But we know now. There's no longer even a thin excuse for arming our police forces this way.