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Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces

If your image of American policing is Mayberry’s Sheriff Andy Taylor, who used homespun wisdom and a deep knowledge of his community to solve their problems and keep big city crime at bay, you won’t recognize the picture Radley Balko paints of modern law enforcement in his excellent new book, Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces. Most here at FDL are likely familiar with Balko’s work (as a policy analyst with the Cato Institute, on his blog, “The Agitator,” and as a journalist with Reason Magazine and now Huffington Post) because his superlative coverage of the drug war and police violence hits that sweet spot where libertarians, fiscal conservatives, progressives and civil libertarians all meet in shared indignation.

Rise of the Warrior Cop represents a culmination of Balko’s reporting on these subjects, with an added history lesson regarding policing in the United States from the colonial era to the present. He presents a novel theory that the Third Amendment prohibition against quartering troops in Americans’ homes symbolizes a broader national antipathy toward military involvement in domestic policing. Since Reconstruction the military hasn’t had much occasion to infringe on our Third Amendment rights, fortunately, but the “Symbolic Third Amendment” has taken a beating from what Balko calls indirect militarization of our police forces. In his telling, the role of the police in American society has gradually been transformed due to urbanization, industrialization, the war on crime and the war on drugs. This metamorphosis has also been fueled by asset forfeiture laws that provide financial incentives to prioritize low-level drug cases over more serious crimes; ill-conceived or poorly managed federal grants programs to state and local law enforcement that hyper-aggressive police administrators use to buy military hardware rather than rape kits or other tools that actually address real crime problems; and TV shows that glorify and regularize police violence.

Balko focuses on the development of highly militarized SWAT teams, combined with the weakening of Fourth Amendment protections by courts, Congress, and presidents from either parties to illustrate this shift over time. And this is where his storytelling skills shine, recounting one heartbreaking story after another. Examples include Heyward Dyer, a 22-year-old husband and father living with his family in Whittier, California. A police officer’s .223 caliber assault rifle accidentally discharged during a drug raid, sending a high velocity round through the floor and into the apartment below, where it hit Dyer in the head as he held his infant child, who was awoken by the commotion above. Or a more notorious case involving an NYPD raid in Harlem based on an informant’s tip that a felon was dealing weapons and drugs out of the building. The NYPD threw a flash-bang grenade to initiate the raid, stunning the building’s only resident, 57-year-old city employee and “devout churchgoer” Alberta Spruill. Spruill went into cardiac arrest and died, one of several fatalities from stun grenades, confounding their description as non-lethal weapons.

Balko cites dozens of these events in excruciating detail, bringing home the pain and destruction caused by this often unnecessary initiation and escalation of police violence. Yet despite these tragedies the number of SWAT raids has rapidly increased, with between 50,000 and 60,000 such raids in 2005 alone. This statistic highlights another strength of the book: a “numbers” section at the end of each chapter in which supporting data is provided in simple bulleted format.

Balko has many villains in this tale, particularly Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl Gates, who he credits with originating and popularizing the SWAT concept, as well as an “us-versus-them” mentality within the LAPD. But Balko goes to pains to state that he is not anti-cop, but rather anti-politician. Though the many badge-heavy cops described in these stories seem to lust for the opportunity to impose their will on the citizens they serve, Balko suggests it is the policies that encourage this official violence that are to blame. The Nixon administration is credited with pushing for the most damaging policy development, the no-knock raid, which ironically was not a power requested by law enforcement but rather pushed by a political operative looking for a wedge issue.

But while Balko calls out the aggressive policies pushed by successive Republican administrations, he points out that Democrats were often little better. It was during President Clinton’s administration that the Justice Department entered into a formal agreement with the Defense Department to share military equipment and training, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development instituted the “one strike you’re out” public housing drug policy that encouraged more police raids on the poorest communities. Clinton’s appointment of a former Army general as drug czar also sent the wrong message to law enforcement: that military experience and tactics were appropriate for drug enforcement.

But Balko lauds Clinton’s shift toward community policing, in which police officers walk beats and engage with and become part of the communities they serve, as the more effective and legally appropriate methodology for American policing. In other words: policing more like Sheriff Taylor, and less like Dirty Harry. Unfortunately, Balko also found that police administrators often misunderstood community policing methods and used federal grants provided to support these programs to fund SWAT teams and other military equipment instead.

We at the ACLU share Balko’s concern about the increasing militarization of the police, and we’ve filed nationwide Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to obtain better data and increase transparency regarding the programs that encourage and enable this disturbing trend. As Balko suggests, reform will require a culture change within law enforcement, as well as stronger accountability mechanisms. We’re not a police state yet, he argues. But to avoid that fate, policymakers must be educated about the threat posed by militarized police in order to drive reform, and Rise of the Warrior Cop is a great place for them to start.


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