THE BLOG
12/08/2014 01:09 pm ET Updated Feb 07, 2015

What Happened to Protect and Serve? Cops, Civilians and Guns

If you'll excuse my descending into cliche, the issue that began in Ferguson, Mo. is moving beyond racism to the present-day penchant of police departments to apply military thinking to civilian life.

This thinking leads cops to expect and insist on instant obedience in any interaction. If they don't get it, they escalate.

This can naturally take things in the wrong direction, a phenomenon reinforced by the intimidating appearance of surplus military equipment, widely distributed to urban, suburban, and rural departments alike from the Afghanistan and Iraq theaters .

Cops have very dangerous jobs. Anything can suddenly move from ordinary conversation to a life-or-death matter -- especially in a country that has more guns than people.

And according to the most authoritative source, the Small Arms Survey, there were least 270 million privately-owned guns in the U.S. in 2007 -- an average of 88.9 guns per 100 Americans. Since President Obama's election in 2008, another 67 million guns have been sold--a total of 337 million guns in a nation with 319.3 million people.

With that many guns out there -- Americans are the world's best-armed people -- cops can't be blamed for assuming that anybody they stop may have one. So taking this approach is probably advisable, assuming the cop wants to live.

But the result has been that cops have been encouraged to adopt the thinking of combat officers. A combat officer's job is to protect the lives of his men. He does that by killing the enemy. It's a brutal logic, but appropriate for the circumstances. And it's not a stretch to say that cops are in combat 24/7 and suffer a form of PTSD, and that this reality probably helps cops to have high suicide rates.

Still, we create the world we expect, and if cops stick to this rationale, we have to expect to see more of these incidents, however you want to label them. Even if Michael Brown's death can be explained away (I don't think it can be), Tamar Rice and Eric Garner's can't be.

In any event, the fundamental premise of this thinking is badly flawed, because cops are there to protect us, and by and large, ordinary citizens--the people cops mostly deal with--are not their enemies.

Meanwhile, MOTHER JONES has just published an excellent article proving with the available statistics they have assembled that black and Hispanic Americans are much more likely to be shot by a policeman than whites.

The usual objection to statistics like this is the assertion that blacks and Hispanics are more likely to be committing the sorts of crimes that cops encounter. But if we accept that almost all crime is economically-driven, and not an outgrowth of some baked-in ethnic malignity, what they really show is that by and large, the non-white population in this country is poorer than the white population. So it follows that the real issue is likewise economic, since overall, the black and Hispanic populations in America are poorer than whites.

To my mind, if we want to resolve this wave of racially-tinged, indefensible killings of civilians growing out of the militarization of the police -- on December 6, Phoenix, Ariz. police shot Rumain Brisbon, an unarmed 34-year-old, because they mistook a bottle of pills for a gun -- we have to address how cops are trained, the sort of income inequality that's been produced by supply-side economics, and the relentless pro-gun drumbeat coming from NRA headquarters.