Bundy as Brown

Bundy as Brown (LA Times/David horsey / August 19, 2014)

The killing of a young black man by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo., and the subsequent military-style police response to protests has illuminated two very disturbing phenomena. One is older than our republic -- racial prejudice -- and the other is relatively new -- the militarization of America's cops.

Generally, I have great sympathy for police. They get stuck dealing with all the bad consequences of our shameful failure to deal with numerous social ills, from mental health to poverty. That being said, here's what I think about the situation in Ferguson: The police were out of control and did things they would be unlikely to do in a white suburb.

If the accounts given by numerous eyewitnesses are to be believed -- and the people I've seen interviewed seem quite believable -- the fatal shooting of the unarmed 18-year-old black man, Michael Brown, was murder. There was a confrontation of some kind between Brown and the cop who shot him, but the policeman appears to have started shooting as Brown was running away from the situation and failed to stop shooting when Brown turned around and raised his arms in surrender.

The black community which makes up two-thirds of the town's population reacted with fury and some of the protests devolved into looting. Local police responded as if this was a terrorist attack and, Wednesday night, broke up a peaceful protest with tear gas and rubber bullets. The cops were dressed in military-style riot gear and brandished weapons of war from the back of armored assault vehicles, taking aim at citizens exercising their constitutional rights.

Luckily, wiser men and women, including President Obama, Attorney General Eric Holder and Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, spoke up and stepped in to get the police to stop treating Ferguson as if it were a war zone. Nixon put the state patrol in charge of the situation, and by Thursday night the people of Ferguson had their streets back.

Over the last few years, the best police departments have adopted community policing methods that have helped strengthen ties to troubled neighborhoods and taught cops smarter ways to handle tough situations. Unfortunately, at the same time, many departments have gotten equipped with heavy-duty armaments that are far better suited to the battlefields of Iraq than to America's small towns, such as Ferguson. And once such big toys of battle are in hand, the compulsion to use them is nearly irresistible.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) -- giving a libertarian twist to the usual Republican rant against big government -- rightly blames the feds for helping turn cops into soldiers. In an essay for Time magazine, Sen. Paul wrote, "Washington has incentivized the militarization of local police precincts by using federal dollars to help municipal governments build what are essentially small armies -- where police departments compete to acquire military gear that goes far beyond what most of Americans think of as law enforcement."

Sen. Paul also boldly -- boldly for a Republican, that is -- said there is no question that race is a big factor in what has happened inFerguson. "Anyone who thinks that race does not still, even if inadvertently, skew the application of criminal justice in this country is just not paying close enough attention," Paul wrote. "Our prisons are full of black and brown men and women who are serving inappropriately long and harsh sentences for nonviolent mistakes in their youth."

Whatever stupid thing Michael Brown may have done to provoke the cop who shot him, it is hard to argue that the deadly result had nothing to do with the color of his skin. Cliven Bundy, the crackpot Nevada rancher who denies the legitimacy of grazing fees on federal land, flouted the law for two decades and then, with the backing of a gang of gun-toting yahoos, confronted police and challenged them to make him obey the law. The authorities backed down, no one got shot and Mr. Bundy remains alive and free.

Does anyone think a young black man could do the same thing and get away with it? If you do, you do not understand how far America still has to go to provide equal justice for every citizen. And we are not going to get any closer to that goal by turning our police departments into occupying armies.

Two-time Pulitzer Prize winner David Horsey is a political commentator for the Los Angeles Times. Go tolatimes.com/news/politics/topoftheticket/ to see more of his work.