The ongoing battle of Ferguson, Missouri, between rioters and looters and the forces of order, including local and state police and the National Guard, has raised the question of militarization of local police forces.
In the past, local officers patrolled in police cruisers purchased with local taxes. Now, when there are disturbances in some towns or cities, heavy-duty hardware hits the streets, with police in helmets and body armor looking like spacemen, riding in Humvees and carrying automatic weapons.
How did America get from the more user-friendly police forces of yesteryear to the military-style, 21st-century version that appears designed to scare and intimidate rather than be seen as an instrument of protection and security?
It is important to say, first, that no one except criminals and terrorists wants police to be outgunned in the course of serving the public. That is one justification for the heavy armaments with which some local officers have been equipped, particularly since the 9/11 attacks.
At the same time, it is important to note that one reason police need to be so heavily armed is that legislators and other leaders have not had the courage to pass sensible gun control laws, meaning too many lethal weapons find their way into the wrong hands, causing problems not only for the public but also for the police who must keep order.
Another appalling aspect is that gun manufacturers and dealers profit from this. They supply the weapons that are on the loose in society as well as those in the hands of police. The federal government also makes military hardware available to local communities and offers grants for purchase of military-grade arms.
This is not to say that local or state police should not have access to powerful weapons in those rare cases of major civil disturbance. But they should not become the norm and they should not cause a municipal police force to look routinely like a commando unit. The American people deserve better, as taxpayers and as potential victims of excess firepower.