I don’t like to make broad criticisms of the police because their job is a hard one and the contributions they make to society are overall pretty positive. But boy are they having a hard time deciding what threats look like! Let’s take a look at some recent examples:

January 2007: Police shut down large parts of the city to dismantle 38 magnetic signs with blinking lights in the shape of a cartoon character, arresting two people and claiming, in the ensuing media circus, that the signs were “hoax devices” which had a “sinister appearance,” batteries, and wires. Oh my!

February 2007: Police, out of an abundance of caution, blow up a traffic counter that had been installed by the traffic department.

September 2007: Police arrest an MIT student at machine-gun point after she appears at the airport wearing a sweatshirt with blinking lights on it. They later claim that they were close to killing her. Rather than apologizing, they sue her, but don’t drop the charges until after more than a year of postponements and legal wrangling that forces her to drop out of school.

March 2009: Police mistake a mannequin tied to the front door of a Bank of America branch for a bomb, but realize their error after about 90 minutes.

April 2009: Police mistake a painted concrete lump for a real bomb, even after someone explains that it’s just an advertisement for a MIT Burton 3rd Bombers party. They spend four hours “disabling” it.

In all of the above situations, a little common sense should have prevailed over the mindless execution of anti-terrorist training. The question this begs is hard: are the police suffering from a badly broken institutional culture, or are they just really, really clueless?