Rise of the Warrior Cop: the Militarization of America’s Police Forces
© 2013 Radney Balko
A man’s home is his castle…but now the cops have bettering rams.. Among the sins of George the III, according to the Declaration of Independence, was his practice of keeping a standing army. Militias might be raised to defend against outside invasion, but they dispersed upon peacetime; standing peacetime armies were regarded always the weapons of tyrants. In Warrior Cop, Radney Balko argues that the nation’s civil police forces have been turned into a standing army, beginning in the 1970s after the Watts Riots but even more quickly in the 9/11 era. Police violence has been especially notorious in the last year, but the recent spate of deaths is not an anomaly. As Warrior Cops indicates, not only have police forces assumed a more militaristic attitude in recent decades, but they now come armed with the army’s weapons.
In setting up his argument, Balko gives a brief history of law enforcement in the United States which expands in the mid-20th century, during a rising crime wave that put stress on the government to “do something”. Law and order rose to become a mainstay, with liberals arguing for social programs that would combat poverty and reform criminals, and conservatives advocating stern enforcement and prison expansion. The latter approach met with more popular support, but few could predict what Nixon’s approach would result in. Balko details several problems that would arise in the decades to follow: first, the excessive formation and use of SWAT teams, initially devise to deal with extraordinary situations beyond the means of beat cops. This initially meant high-powered rifles, but it wasn’t long before SWAT officers were lobbing grenades into private homes. At the same time as they were using more brutal weapons, they were deployed for mundane ends, like serving arrest warrants. This stemmed from a use-it-or-lose-it mentality: if cities couldn’t point to any recent uses of the team’s training and equipment, how could it justify further expenses to the public?
Fortunately for them, that problem soon fell away when D.C. initiated programs that would funnel money to purchase arms, and equipment itself, to the cities. This made it easier for local law enforcement agencies to purchase military surplus, from the practical to the insane: one California city attempted to requisition a submarine. Even as the wall keeping civil and military uses of force crumbled, the legal walls protecting citizens from illicit police force vanished together: warrantless raids and arrests skyrocketed after 9/11, leading to tragedy after tragedy. Although advocates for “no-knock raids” maintained that they prevented intended arrests from destroying evidence and scampering away, the sudden and violent invasion of homes by masked men screaming obscenities was time and again met with alarm, confusion, and legitimate attempts at defense that led to slaughter, especially tragic given how many times SWAT teams invaded the wrong house. Still worse, in the modern age new Federal programs helping military officers transition into the police force, or programs training police for anti-terrorist programs, mold the law enforcement mind in the pattern of search-and-destroy soldiers.
Despite all of this, Balko sees some meager grounds for hope. Legal objections to no-knock raids and police employed military equipment have for the most part fallen away, but in the light of widespread videography by citizens, abuses are much more publicized — and some parts of the war on drugs are finally losing support. By way of offering grounds of hope, Balko looks at efforts at reintroducing community policing, in which police officers build relationships with the communities they patrol (preferably on foot) and create solutions that don’t involve ramming down doors and rushing in with MP-5s at the ready. This is a profoundly disturbing book, but worth any American’s attention, especially in light of the recent deaths at the hands of policemen in Balitmore and New York.