Originally Reviewed 8/4/2015 – revised 3/19/2016
Rise of the Warrior Cop; The Militarization of America’s Police Forces by Radley Balko
I actually finished it in June, about the time of the Charleston shootings and I just felt that talking about it right then would have seemed like I was saying something that I did not intend. This book is a couple of years old, but has only grown more relevant.
Let me first say that I was raised a “law and order Republican,” which means that I grew up believing that the police exist to protect the peaceful people from those who would steal, kill, and destroy. In my mind, cops are supposed to be like the fictional Andy Taylor. I went to church with policemen as a child and I thought that they were good people. I still give those people the benefit of the doubt.
But there can be no doubt that there is an element within police work which is attracted to the power available to an officer of the law. They like strutting around showing everyone who is boss. They are Barney Fife compared to Andy Taylor. The love to remind you that “ignorance of the law is no excuse” while they write you up for some arcane regulation. And they love to tell you that you better behave while they are talking to you, or they will Protect and Serve the Crap out of you. But as this book makes the case, the Fife’s seem to be winning.
The book begins with a recounting of how western society evolved from no police force (that we would recognize) to the militarized forces that exist today. There were real events and needs that were addressed by each step forward. What is clear is that many of the events that increased police power were creations of the politicians whipping the public into frenzy about some perceived threat. Those threats were never as big as the politicians made them out to be, but when they are buying votes with the taxpayers’ dollars, both parties will do whatever it takes.
The most influential campaign that has powered the militarization over the past 50 years has been the ‘drug war.’ This gave rise to SWAT teams which now gleefully attack 50000 homes per year, mostly to serve warrants that would have been safely served by a single cop prior to SWAT. As a result of the new militarized toys that these SWAT teams have, many innocent people have had their lives disrupted by no-knock raids, with flash-bang grenades causing multiple injuries to toddlers and infants. A significant number of the raids are served on the wrong house and the homeowner is not compensated by the police at all in many cases.
I’d like to trust the police to tell the truth, to exercise caution and restraint. I’d like for them to feel that they are going to come home safely at the end of their shift. I think that bad policies have made their lives more dangerous and turned everyone else into suspects. But I’d like for police to act as if they remember that they are civilians, and are not higher (or lower) on the ladder of importance than anyone else. Just ask yourself why the city of Clanton, Alabama needs an armored vehicle, three Humvees and 2 snipers on staff. We need more Andy Taylors and fewer Barney Fifes.
There are many, many more sources for information about the mishandling of the police power in this country, but this book is a fairly comprehensive summary of the policies, politics, and opportunism that put us in the current position.