Scary Flashes of Iraq and Afghanistan Wars in the LAPD's Manhunt for Chris Dorner

On Thursday, police hunting for Chris Dorner, a veteran and former LAPD officer who allegedly launched a killing spree on Sunday, opened fire on a blue pickup truck driving without its headlights in the early morning hours. Two short Latina women delivering newspapers – 71-year-old Emma Hernandez and her 47-year-old daughter, Margie Carranza – were hit in the hail of gunfire. Hernandez was shot twice in the back and is in intensive care as of this writing.

Chris Dorner, who is a large black man bearing no resemblance to the victims, was reportedly driving a blue pickup.

Nearby, officers also opened fire on a black pickup truck. Fortunately, the innocent driver wasn't hit in that shooting.

The first thought that came to my mind when I read about these incidents was that they reminded me of the accounts veterans returning from Iraq shared with me about what it was like manning check-points in Baghdad.

Our wars always come home to us. That's been notably apparent in recent weeks. First, Eddie Ray Routh, an Iraq vet who was suffering from PTSD allegedly gunned down famed American Sniper Chris Kyle. (Kyle was lauded as a hero despite writing that, “our ROEs [rules of engagement]... were pretty simple: If you see anyone from about sixteen to sixty-five and they’re male, shoot ’em. Kill every male you see.") Then, this week, Dorner allegedly went bonkers.

It's important not to demonize military vets as crazy and dangerous – that kind of stigma results in veterans who end up in the criminal justice system getting two more years in jail, on average, than non-veterans convicted of the same offense. But the reality is that we've seen a number of similar incidents in recent years: an Iraq war vet was accused of killing six people in Orange County last March; that same month, another killed his 11-year-old sister before turning his gun on himself; and another killed a park ranger in Washington last January.

Most people are at least somewhat aware of the struggles some veterans have readapting to normal society. But a question that's rarely asked is how the wars we've fought for over a decade may be affecting our domestic policing. Police departments provide a lot of jobs to former vets. According to GI, a Web site for veterans seeking civilian employment, 80 percent of the Dallas Police Department's hires over a two-year period were military vets; approximately 20 percent of LAPD officers have military backgrounds.

The image of the truck Hernandez and Carranza were driving brought to mind the terrifying accounts relayed to me in 2008, when I interviewed more than a dozen returning Iraq war vets, many of whom had served multiple tours. Several told me how the Rules of Engagement had shifted between their first and last tours; early on, they were told to fire only on people who posed an immediate threat – Iraqis carrying weapons. Later in the conflict, “force protection” became the overarching principle, and several soldiers told me they were ordered to open fire on Iraqis caught walking in the wrong area or carrying tools that might be used to bury a roadside bomb.

None of the vets I interviewed told me that they'd killed innocent civilians at checkpoints, but several said it was a relatively common occurance, and that it was a product not of monstrous soldiers run amok, but rather the nature of the beast in a war fought in densely populated urban environs: a car approaches, the occupants don't understand a soldier's hand-signals or don't respond quickly enough, and a horrible tragedy ensues.

In 2005, the Washington Post reported that there had been “many incidents in which civilians have been killed by mistake at checkpoints in Iraq, including local police officers, women and children, according to military records.”

U.S. soldiers have fired on the occupants of many cars approaching their positions over the past year and a half, only to discover that the people they killed were not suicide bombers or attackers but Iraqi civilians. They did so while operating under rules of engagement that the military has classified and under a legal doctrine that grants U.S. troops immunity from civil liability for misjudgment.

Human rights groups have complained that the military's rules of engagement for handling local citizens at checkpoints are too permissive. The groups have accused U.S. forces of making inadequate efforts to safeguard civilians and to comply with laws of war that prohibit the use of excessive or indiscriminate force and permit deadly action only when soldiers' lives are clearly threatened...

The military has responded that in a time of widespread suicide bombings, precautions that troops take to protect themselves are fully justified.

The vets I spoke with seemed very young when they weren't clad in their bulky body armor. They were in a very difficult situation, and constantly feared for their lives -- I won't judge them. But there's no doubt that the primary job of civilian law enforcement is to protect innocent lives, and to whatever degree the notion that you shoot first and make sure you survive to fight another day is coming home to America's cities, it's dangerous and inappropriate.

One can't say for sure whether accidental shootings by police have increased in recent years, or whether combat veterans are more likely than cops who never served to have a quick trigger-finger -- there are no reliable nationwide statistics to consult. But as Radley Balko wrote at the Huffington Post, "police militarization is now an ingrained part of American culture."

SWAT teams are featured in countless cop reality shows, and wrong-door raids are the subject of "The Simpsons" bits and search engine commercials. Tough-on-crime sheriffs now sport tanks and hardware more equipped for battle in a war zone than policing city streets. Seemingly benign agencies such as state alcohol control boards and the federal Department of Education can now enforce laws and regulations not with fines and clipboards, but with volatile raids by paramilitary police teams.

The militarization of domestic policing is usually attributed to scads of Homeland Security dollars going to local police departments so they can buy macho new toys. That's almost certainly the primary reason for the dramatic increase in Baghdad-style raids, but it's probably not the only reason. 

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