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Whatcha Gonna Do If They Come for You

Radley Balko chronicles our trigger-happy police.

By 11.5.13


Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces
By Radley Balko
(Public Affairs, 400 pages, $27.99)

As a first year law student and aspiring prosecutor, I was in potential-employment heaven at the government jobs fair. Nearly every federal agency was there, along with many state and local agencies, all promising opportunities to throngs of would-be deputies. Several federal agencies, including the Inspector General’s Office in the Social Security Administration, advertised that they let their employees carry a gun. That this gave me no pause at the time demonstrates that Radley Balko, a prominent critic of police militarization and author of Rise of the Warrior Cop, has his work cut out for him.

Balko, a Huffington Post investigative journalist formerly of Reason magazine, opens his new book by questioning the constitutionality of police forces as we know them today. For instance, he argues that as police look more and more like a standing army, they might run afoul of the Third Amendment (“No Soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the Owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law”). The body of case law on the Third Amendment is slim, since no case primarily resting on it has ever reached the Supreme Court. But history suggests the Founders were less concerned about the mere physical presence of soldiers in homes than in the use of the military to enforce the law. British troops stationed in colonial cities blatantly disregarded the Castle Doctrine, despite its recognition by the crown. That presence later allowed the soldiers to enforce the Stamp Act.

Under the community policing model prevalent in the early United States, citizens kept each other in check, and reprobation was often sufficient deterrent or punishment. But as cities grew and hired professional police forces, there arose an increasing disconnect between cops and citizens. Social Security lawyers with guns are the least of our worries.

For Balko, the crackdown on illicit drugs is the driving force behind police militarization. Battlefield rhetoric—we speak of the drug “war,” for instance—encouraged an “us vs. them” attitude that superseded the old “protect and serve.” Hundreds of police forces began to insist that they needed SWAT teams to combat dangerous drug traders. In dress and in tactics, SWAT forces are far closer to military than police. The book’s cover features a phalanx of state troopers wearing Kevlar vests and face shields, gear more reminiscent of the battle suits from the Halo video game series than of a local sheriff.

As military-style police became the norm, the need to treat suspects like enemy combatants changed the legal landscape. No-knock raids, in which police simply storm a residence before showing a warrant or even identifying themselves to the occupants, rose with public demand for something be done about drugs. Balko finds several villains here, expressing particular distaste for Richard Nixon and a heavy criticism of Ronald Reagan’s administration.

After the attack on the World Trade Center, new budgets for "homeland security" expanded strike force units in many police forces, and added SWAT teams to smaller forces that would never have dreamed of them prior to 9/11. Governments in towns that seem unlikely terror targets suddenly began purchasing heavily armored vehicles.

The political lines on police militarization have ebbed and flowed. In the 1990s, those on the right condemned the debacles at Ruby Ridge and Waco as abuses of power. The raid to seize a terrified Elian Gonzalez, immortalized by a photographer's lens, galvanized many on both sides of the aisle. But as the focus turned to counterterrorism many conservatives' opinions became more nuanced and complicated.

Balko’s argument suffers from over-emphasis on the drug war. Groups ranging from the American Bar Association, to the Heritage Foundation, to the American Civil Liberties Union, agree broadly on the problem of overcriminalization, roughly defined as the heavy-handed use of criminal law to punish not only malum in se crimes—those that are inherently evil, such as rape and murder—but also malum prohibitum offenses—those that are “wrong” only because they have been prohibited. This amalgamation of groups also opposes the current disregard for lack of criminal intent in prosecution of malum prohibitum violations. But drug use is perhaps the one area where the organizations part ways.

Balko would have a stronger case had he used more examples accessible to the average reader--“crimes” that most everyone can agree do not justify a militaristic response. Instead, he hopes his readers will accept that personal drug use isn’t worthy of any police action. The book is neither an anti-cop screed nor a stereotypical libertarian drug decriminalization rant, but this is asking too much from a skeptical reader.

Nonetheless, Balko does a good job of making the pro-prohibition reader consider that his home may no longer be his castle, but the next battlefield in the drug war. Police forces have perverse incentives, since, like any other government agency, they receive more money if they do more work, meaning more raids and more arrests. In turn, this can lead to overzealous, or just plain sloppy, detective work. The stories of mistaken drug raids—forced entrances, guns drawn, into what turns out to be the wrong house—are just plain frightening. Dog owners will recoil while reading through the horrific stories of man’s best friend becoming an almost obligatory casualty in a drug raid.

Such stories from the drug war effectively punctuate the consequences of the militarization of police. But they hurt the overall flow of the narrative, which is already disjointed, in part because some segments are selections from Balko’s earlier writing. There’s no excuse, too, for a rather uninteresting political play-by-play on how the federal omnibus crime bills came to be, and came to be reversed.

These quibbles can be forgiven considering that Balko is one of the few journalists covering police misconduct in earnest (and doing so without the Alex Jones-esque conspiracy theories). And his chronological organization is helpful in showing an evolution from the Founding Fathers’ insistence on including the restriction for quartering soldiers in the Bill of Rights to today’s judges who approve no-knock raids with no questions asked.

It is said that the color blue is psychologically calming to the observer, evoking feelings of trust. In the model of community policing it made perfect sense as the color of law enforcement. But today, as Balko deftly explains, is the age of the warrior cop, and camo is the new blue.

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