Glancing through the racks of Halloween costumes already for sale at CostCo last week, I thought I had stumbled upon some kind of hideous new Star Wars villain. In between the rows of firefighters and cowboys was a character who wore a sinister black helmet and a dark uniform emblazoned with a silver crest; across his chest was strapped some kind of space-age communications device. It was only when I read the tag that I realized what I was looking at was supposed to be a police officer. Whatever happened to blue hats and whistles?
Like opposition to so-called “assault” weapons that are lacking in fully automatic capability, arguments against the militarization of the police are mostly grounded in aesthetics. But aesthetics matter. The way that police officers dress and the gear they choose to carry contribute far more to their image than their interactions with the vast majority of the American people who they actually interact with (less than 17 percent of Americans have had face-to-face encounters with police officers). What we observe casually tells us what we are supposed to think.