DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Now, the images from Ferguson - images of heavily armed police - have triggered a national debate about whether American cops have become too militarized. President Obama pointed to that concern yesterday.
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PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: There is a big difference between our military and our local law enforcement and we don't want those lines blurred. That would be contrary to our traditions.
GREENE: But policing experts have been sounding the alarm about so-called militarization for years now. And many of them say the gear itself is not the real problem. NPR's Martin Kaste reports.
MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: Sue Rahr was once the sheriff of Seattle's King County. Now she's the director of Washington state's police academy. She's one of the few people who wasn't surprised to see police militarization become a hot topic nationally.
SUE RAHR: This is something that has bothered me for the last couple of years.
KASTE: She says it really hit her about two years ago when she took over at the Academy.
RAHR: After 33 years in law enforcement, I was surprised at how militaristic the training regiment had become.
KASTE: The Academy had become a kind of boot camp, and aspiring police officers were expected to snap to attention - their eyes front like soldiers. She says the Academy was teaching these new cops to be cold and distant, instead of being friendly communicators. And she thinks there's been a nationwide evolution in the mindset of police - that it's gone from beat cop to Robocop, from guardian to warrior.
RAHR: The mindset of a guardian is I am here to protect. The mindset of a warrior is I'm here to conquer. We're not sending police officers into communities to conquer them.
KASTE: Assuming Rahr's analysis is correct, why did it happen? She thinks it started in the late '70s, when SWAT teams were invented and cops moved away from regular beats. Others blame militarization on the war on drugs, or on the Pentagon, which started giving its surplus gear to the police in the 1990s. Or maybe American police have just always had a military streak.
BRIAN BUCHNER: I mean, I think in some ways, I think there are elements of fear.
KASTE: Brian Buchner is the president of the National Association for Civil Oversight of Law Enforcement. He says the reality for cops in America is just different than it is in other developed countries.
BUCHNER: Police officers in this country have a greater level of fear that circumstances or persons that they encounter can cause them harm.
KASTE: To be blunt, American cops have an entirely rational fear of getting shot. And increasingly, they're afraid of being outgunned. Tom Nolan is a former Boston cop who's now a professor of criminal justice. He says you do need heavy weapons for some situations. The danger, though, is when the cops start to see every situation that way.
TOM NOLAN: In practice, what could happen is anytime a police officer believes that someone might be armed, it could justify taking out the semi-automatic rifle. And that's my concern.
KASTE: But does it make sense to blame the gear? Despite her intense criticism of militarization, Sue Rahr says no.
RAHR: I think the gear is a visible symptom. But I don't think the gear is driving the culture.
KASTE: She knows that people are focusing on the gear right now, that the late-night comedians are mocking the small-town police departments with their armored personnel carriers. But she says those armored vehicles sure came in handy for her when she had officers who were pinned down by automatic gunfire. Rahr says the military gear should be kept out of sight until there's a real need for it. But she also thinks Americans should ask themselves why they ever became so tolerant of the site of police acting like soldiers. Martin Kaste, NPR News, Seattle. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.