Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Force
By Radley Balko
PublicAffairs — 2014
ISBN: 9781541774537 — Paperback — 528 pp.
This is a title that went onto my to-read list when it first came out, but it took years and a happenstance coming across the book at Burning Books to get a copy, and then awhile of it sitting in a pile before deciding I really needed to get into it. Despite those 8-or-so years, the relevance of the title has hardly diminished, becoming perhaps more important, focusing on issues that are germane to front page headlines in today’s New York Times.
The title of Balko’s books is somewhat incomplete. Thought he militarization of civilian police serves as a major focus of the book, it’s more broadly a history of, and commentary on the third and fourth Amendments of the Constitution of the United States of America. For those who don’t remember the particulars of this part of the Bill of Rights, these are:
Amendment III: 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.
Amendment IV: The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
Balko begins by discussing the colonial and revolutionary context of these amendments, with emphasis on the third that seems so irrelevant to us today at the surface level. He discusses how the amendments both relate to the common law Castle doctrine, and explains why these were considered so fundamentally important both then at the time of the writing of the Constitution, and now.
He then traces the concept of civilian policing through history, quickly getting to its use in the United States and focusing in a series of chapters on the decades from the 1960s to the 2000s. The starting point of the 1960s corresponds to the political introduction of the “War on Drugs” to the nation, as well as violent events that led to the development of Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) teams.
The tie-in of targeted amplification of drug prosecution (particularly minor offenses that have no victims) and SWAT (increased militarization of policing) corresponds to the gradual, systematic erosion of civil liberties related to the Castle doctrine and the pair of Constitutional amendments. With mind-boggling and frightening implication, Balko relates how systems of policing have violated, or circumvented, protections against individuals in their homes, degraded the supposed protections supplied by warrants. Worse, politics have instituted a system whereby police departments are perversely rewarded for feeing this self-perpetuating machine of terror, and have even been penalized for actual fighting of crime with results.
The most obvious injustice that Balko brings up with anecdote again, and again (showing it is an acute symptom of societal, or institutional, disease) is the no-knock warrant that became created and justified to allow police to enter private residences with no warning, with impunity, violence, and little oversight or consequences for their actions. All that was needed became a the mere suspicion that drugs may be present, and that warning of entry to the home could, maybe, result in drugs being disposed of.
Balko shows how often this has been abused with horrendous consequences due to ignorance and errors. Misidentified homes, wrong addresses, poor or dishonest informants and intelligence, etc. I lost count of how many innocent people’s lives ended because their home was suddenly invaded by dark-clad paramilitary forces. And nothing would change, it would only increase.
Alongside this, Balko also addresses how police SWAT teams became increasingly used for situations where they were not required – for example, peaceful protests. Or police departments in areas of the country with no record of violent crime for over a hundred years got themselves a SWAT team and battle tanks. Simply because the money was made available, and this is America.
What may astound many readers of this is how pervasively the political will for this extended through the decades and broadly across party lines. Conservatives who introduced ideas for being tougher on crime were later stunned that their misguided legislation had grown beyond intent, misused to now not target criminals, but attack civil liberties. They recanted, and regretted their initial ideas. But it is too late. Liberals who fought for the rights of poor people don’t want to be painted as being soft on crime. So they support/introduce bills to increase funding or giving authority to police. And it comes back to bite them.
Sadly, the failure of the Supreme Court through the decades in protecting the Constitution equally becomes clear. And, it makes one realize that the recent erosions of Constitutional protection (and future that this current court is likely to take) is not that atypical.
The NYT article I mentioned earlier is actually about how President Biden is issuing an executive order in response to what occurred to George Floyd (and the many, many other similar travesties of justice. This order demands reductions in police use of the ‘choke-hold’ and reductions in the use of ‘no-knock’ warrants. Ironically, Balko reveals that one of the biggest political names in the past decades who has personally driven legislation leading to increased police abuses like the above was Senator Joe Biden.
The birth of SWAT and police excesses were ultimately born from fear of maintaining control of a population that could arm itself with weapons and armor that an ordinary citizen could not take on. Recent events remind us that continued access to such weapons and bodily armor by the general population will only further fuel the fear and the arguments in some eyes that police should do more to protect, and that civil rights should be sacrificed. Balko’s text reminds us just how vigilant we need to be, and perhaps even work more directed and effectively towards reversing the general trends of our democracy.