Review of "Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America's Police Forces"

This is a review of Radley Balko’s Rise of the Warrior Cop, available here:

Police in the United States are a constituency politicians rarely feel comfortable taking on. Republicans praise police for being tough on crime, and Democrats are reluctant to criticize police because of their long-standing alliance with unions and public workers (and police represent both.) Nevertheless, if the news stories of the past several months have taught us anything, it’s that our police forces need much greater supervision and accountability. On top of that, we need real policy reform.

But how did we get here, and why? Radley Balko traces the origins of the modern American police force from its humble roots in the English constabulary to the contemporary SWAT team. He weaves a brisk, digestible narrative and introduces what he calls the Symbolic Third Amendment. If you’re unfamiliar with the Third Amendment, that’s because it tends to have little relevance in modern American jurisprudence, though it was quite important at the time of its writing. The Third Amendment is what forbids the government from forcing citizens to house soldiers. At a glance, this would seem to have nothing to do with policing at all, but Balko makes the case that this amendment signifies a clear dividing line between civilians and the military, that there are good historical (and modern) reasons we do not use the military for law enforcement, and so militarizing the police makes little sense, either. This separation between military tactics and civilian law enforcement makes up what Balko calls the Symbolic Third Amendment, a concept he revisits frequently through the first half of his book.

Where police used to be slightly-more-empowered civilians who intervened during crimes, they are now used as paramilitary forces to terrorize “undesirable” community residents and generate revenue for cash-strapped municipal coffers. But this transformation has come at a great cost: hundreds of innocent people being victimized by raids gone wrong, raids on the wrong homes, raids based on bad informant tips. And while SWAT teams were originally developed to handle dangerous, high-profile crimes like bank robberies and hostage situations, they are now used overwhelmingly to serve warrants against people merely suspected of possessing small amounts of drugs. The very notion that police should be empowered to break down your front door, shoot your dogs, and hold guns to your head while they tear your house apart looking for a dime bag is absurd on its face, and yet 90 to 95 percent of all SWAT raids consist of exactly this. The vast majority of the time, no weapons at all are found, and rarely are large quantities of drugs recovered. Even when police break into the wrong house, tear it apart, and injure or kill the people inside, they virtually never face consequences. Instead, the victims sue the municipality which normally settles the matter for a handsome sum of money–in other words, taxpayers foot the bill for police abuses, rather than police departments or officers themselves.

This state of affairs came about through a gradual shift in focus from community policing to highly militarized drug war tactics. Drug addicts used to be regarded as objects of sympathy who needed treatment, but the warlike drug policies of Presidents Nixon, Reagan, and their successors turned people in need of medical treatment into enemies of the state, worthy only of prison–or death. This is the cost of black-and-white, militaristic rhetoric used in the name of law enforcement. Even so, decades after it began, the drug war has been an expensive, freedom-destroying failure. Though crime rates have been falling for a generation, American police continue to acquire military-grade hardware and embark on raids that are often dangerously negligent in their preparations and effects.

Balko doesn’t mention it frequently, but the most common victims of these hostile policies are minorities and the poor–those least able to defend themselves, and those with the fewest options available for recourse. Police rarely bust down the doors of wealthy CEOs or high-ranking politicians, and most middle-class white suburbs escape the daily reality of America’s modern police. But as SWAT teams have spread even into peaceful suburbs, dangerous no-knock raids against low-level drug suspects have come to places almost devoid of crime, and Balko believes this development can help spark reform. Since this book was released well before the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and others made national news, he couldn’t have predicted that a rash of black men and boys being killed by police would raise public awareness of these issues so dramatically. However, the confluence of these events sets a perfect stage for national reform, which is Balko’s goal. After tracing the rise of police militarization, he offers a set of policy reforms that should be familiar to anyone who’s paid attention to police abuses in recent memory: end the drug war, put surveillance mechanisms in place to monitor police behavior, track numerous enforcement-related statistics as well as opening court records, which would reveal judges who never decline to sign warrants–another common problem that discourages police accountability. He also recommends stemming the flow of military-grade equipment to police forces, and especially any federal support for this. Instead, he believes federal support should be used to encourage community policing methods–officers walking beats, getting to know the people they are sworn to protect, and dismantling the “us vs. them” attitude that too often results in unnecessary injury, death, and destruction. He acknowledges that these ideas are not all easy to implement, and would first require an American public willing to push for them–something we will hopefully see in the near future.

Rise of the Warrior Cop is an excellent primer on the history of America’s policing methods, especially when it comes to the origin of the SWAT team and its perverse mission creep. I would ultimately recommend this book, but it is not without its flaws. Notably, in discussions of reform and criminal justice policies more generally, Balko ignores how other countries approach policing. It is hard to imagine that the US has nothing to learn from other democratic countries whose police forces are far less militarized. To that extent, the book is a little too US-centric, as if policing outside this country does not exist (or doesn’t pertain in any way to his thesis.) Still, it is a relatively minor oversight in an otherwise well-conceived volume.

This book is an easy recommendation to anyone who is curious about the history of law enforcement in America, and especially its growing excesses. If you want a firm understanding of how we came to the current status quo, Rise of the Warrior Cop is a great place to start.