There exists no broad coalition critiquing domestic police. Left radicals in the 1960s
decried their militarism. Conservatives favored stronger police powers through the
1980s; in the next decade, disasters such as Ruby Ridge and Waco convinced many on
the right that federal law enforcement was becoming militaristic and excessively violent.
Their criticisms subsided during George W. Bushs war on terror, but recent news has
begun to awaken Americans across the spectrum to the danger posed by cops.
Journalist Radley Balko provides some of this valuable history in Rise of the
Warrior Cop: The Militarization of Americas Police Forces. His reporting on police
abuses helped save a man from death row and never ceases to raise blood pressures.
His newest book carries immense potency, page after page delivering incisive and
enraging indictments of modern law enforcement trends. Balko concludes that
America today isnt a police state. Far from it (p. 336). We might forgive someone
for concluding differently based on the frightening erosion of due process rights and
amplification of state power Balko documents, although he is correct that it would
be foolish to wait until it becomes [a police state] to get concerned (p. 336).
Balko prefaces his accessible history of early American policing with a provocative
rhetorical question: Are cops constitutional? Although he says that [t]here has
never been a serious constitutional challenge to the general authority of police, he
also cites legal scholar Roger Roots, who has written that for more than a century
modern policing techniques have fundamentally altered the balance of power
between the citizen and the state in a way that would have been seen as constitutionally
invalid by the Founders (pp. ixx).
Indeed, Balko hails the supposedly anachronistic Third Amendment as not just
a prohibition on peacetime quartering [of soldiers in domestic homes], but a more
robust expression of the threat that standing armies pose to free societies. It represented
a long-standing, deeply ingrained resistance to armies patrolling American
streets and policing American communities (p. 13). He returns occasionally to this
Symbolic Third Amendment in describing the tension between basic traditional
liberties and anything resembling the modern police force.
Even older than the Constitution, the Castle Doctrine, firmly established in
English law by 1572, held that, before entering without permission, government
agents must knock, announce and identify themselves, state their purpose, and give
the occupants the opportunity to let them in peacefully (p. 6). British violations of
this doctrine inspired the American Revolution. This principle stands in stark contrast
to approximately fifty thousand SWAT (special weapons and tactics unit) raids
conducted annually in the United States, the vast majority to arrest suspects for
Conservatives think they embrace tradition, but history gives little reason to take
domestic city police for granted. The first antecedent was Romes Praetorian Guard,
to which Emperor Augustus designated many of the roles we now associate with a
conventional police force (p. 2). Medieval France had a national police force for a
while, but the first modern police force as we know it today was created in 1829 in
London by Sir Robert Peel (p. 29)much to the chagrin of the public.
Voluntary watch patrols were the first crime fighters in the colonial Northeast.
Southern law enforcement had uglier origins. By the middle of the eighteenth
century, every Southern colony had passed laws formalizing slave patrols. . . . In many
jurisdictionsmost notably Charleston, South Carolinaslave patrols would eventually
morph into the official police force (p. 28). Private individuals and communities
enforced the lawimperfectly, to be sure, but Balko nevertheless performs a critical
service in demystifying an institution most people take as a given. New York City
adopted a police force in 1845, other cities thereafter following suit, and during the
Progressive Era such reformers as August Vollmer in Berkeley, California, created
many of the modern features of police forces, even the office of police chief, which
he was the first person to hold.
Rise of the Warrior Cop focuses mostly on the past fifty years. Police brutality
provoked race riots, which encouraged Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) chief
Daryl Gates to create the first SWAT team. Gates thought to ask the military for
guidance in using Vietnam counterinsurgency tactics at home (p. 53). Reacting to
racial tensions, political assassinations, labor strikes, and 1960s radicalism, the Nixonera
conservative law-and-order approach propelled police militarization over the next
federal permission to use military tactics and weapons. But today these tactics and
decades. Balko cites early examples of restraint in which domestic police asked for federal permission to use military tactics and weapons. But today these tactics and weapons are simply unleashed.
The drug war became the most important excuse for militarization in the late
twentieth century. Richard Nixons attorney general John Mitchell had made
clear. . . that the crimes that seemed to most worry the publicarmed robbery
and burglarywerent the purview of the federal government. Moreover, there was
no political benefit to prioritizing violence against person or property, so the federal
government targeted drugs, the common denominator among the groupslowincome
blacks, the counterculture, and the antiwar movementopposing Nixons
coalition (p. 71). The administration claimed in 1972 that $2 billion in property was
stolen every year by heroin addicts; a White House press briefing put the figure at
$18 billion. Yet the total value of all reported stolen property that year was only
$1.2 billion (p. 136).
After unsteady development in the 1970s, drug war militarization accelerated
under Ronald Reagan, whose administration focused especially on relatively harmless
marijuana for various perverse reasons. Reagan argued that drug use was responsible
for big governmentand in the same breath [he] demanded that the government
be given significantly more power to fight drugs (p. 14445). His administration
involved both the Justice Department, which the Nixon administration had considered
unwise, and even the FBI in the drug war, which J. Edgar Hoover had resisted
(p. 141). Indeed, the very first change in public policy that Reagan pushed through
the Congress was the 1981 Military Cooperation with Law Enforcement Act,
allowing for much more military engagement in drug enforcement (p. 145). In
1986, Reagan signed National Security Decision Directive 221, which designated
illicit drugs a threat to U.S. national security (p. 157).
President George H. W. Bush mostly followed Reagans lead. Bill Clinton was
superficially more liberal but continued the trend: Community Oriented Policing
Services threw billions at police departments under the pretense of hiring whistling,
baton-twirling Officer Friendlies to walk neighborhood beats, rescue kittens, and
maybe guest-umpire the occasional Little League game, [but] many police agencies
were actually using the money to militarize (p. 219). Barack Obama has increased
funding for such programs (p. 223).
From the 1960s to today, Congress and the courts, cheered on by conservatives,
have gutted due process protections, destroying the Castle Doctrine and
virtually erasing the distinction between cops and soldiers. The Fourth Amendment
ban on unreasonable searches and seizures is basically meaningless. In many jurisdictions,
search warrants can be approved by magistrates who neednt even have any
legal training. A 1984 study of the warrant process in seven U.S. cities by the
National Center for State Courts found that magistrates spend an average of two
minutes and forty-eight seconds reviewing affidavits before (almost always) approving
the warrant (p. 185). Almost every civil liberty has suffered under the drug war.
Meanwhile, deception has become part of the police job description. Balko cites a damning survey of Chicago judges, prosecutors, and defense attorneys: Ninety
two percent of judges said that police lie at least some of the time in open court
(p. 184, emphasis in original).
Rise of the Warrior Cop contains too much good material to justly summarize it.
Balko describes how civil asset forfeiture and federal spending grossly distort local law
enforcement incentives, such that successfully fighting crime could hurt a departments
ability to rake in federal money (p. 243). The book gives gut-wrenching
accounts of innocent people killed by police in raids over marijuana, sometimes at
the wrong house. These raids, which very often turn up nothing, traumatize people
for life. Police now frequently shoot harmless dogs belonging to suspects or victims.
The system is Kafkaesque: for example, between 2002 and 2008, elderly Brooklyn
couple Walter and Rose Martin were wrongly raided by the NYPD more than fifty
times (p. 268, emphasis in original).
SWAT raids now target entrapped gamblers betting small sums, charity poker
nights, doctors who allegedly overprescribe pain meds, and regulatory violations.
Cops in Orange County, Florida, raided nine barbershops in 2010: thirty-four of
the thirty-seven arrests were for barbering without a license (p. 284). Federal
agencies from the Food and Drug Administration to the Consumer Product Safety
Commission have their own SWAT teams.
Calmly knocking on doors or arresting suspects while they are walking would
work almost every time, and no evidence shows that the SWAT approach is safer. But
the policy has inertia, and police enjoy the thrill. Neill Franklin, former Maryland
narcotics cop, calls it a huge rush. . . . Those times when you do have to kick down a
door, its just a big shot of adrenaline. Stephen Downing, who worked in the LAPD
when Gates was developing SWAT, agrees: Its a rush. And you have to be careful,
because the raids themselves can be habit-forming (both qtd. on p. 214).
When a SWAT approach might seem justifiedto stop an urgent threat to life
and libertyofficer safety mandates caution. During the 1999 Columbine school
shootings, as students held a sign in the window announcing that their teacher was
bleeding to death, the police stood back. Though there were eventually eight hundred
police officers and eight SWAT teams on the Columbine campus, the SWAT
teams held off from going inside to stop shooters Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris
because they deemed the situation too dangerous (p. 231).
Balkos journalistic treatment has immense value for scholars and anyone concerned
with American liberty. The discussion of political cultures relationship to
modern policing nicely complements Michelle Alexanders treatment of prisons in
The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: New
Press, 2010). Balkos writing on early American policing can be reinforced by the
work of academic historian Alfred W. McCoy, whose Policing Americas Empire: The
United States, the Philippines, and the Rise of the Surveillance State (Madison: University
of Wisconsin Press, 2009) covers far more ground than the title might suggest, including an account of relatively modern policing tactics we today take for granted.
Balko suggests sensible reformsending the drug war, discontinuing SWAT
raids in obviously inappropriate situations, emphasizing more transparency, and
improving police culture. What is most needed, however, is a shift in public attitudes.
Police issues need to become a high priority. Liberty will not survive the modern
trends in policing. The very character of American society is at stake. Balko thinks
[c]omplete legalization of drugs is, of course, never going to happen (p. 321).
But if Americans cannot adopt the drug polices they had a hundred years ago, then a
fundamental reason for our SWAT and police problems will persist.
Balko doesnt call for the total abolition of SWAT teams, but its hard to appreciate
their necessity given their relatively recent history, their almost uninterrupted
legacy of failure and horror, and the possibility of creating ad hoc commando teams if
they are ever needed. The potential for abuse is too great, and virtually no raid I have
read of appears necessary or justified in the least. I vastly prefer the problems attending
to the nonexistence of SWAT teams to the dangers of having them. Regardless
of these disagreements, I recommend this book without any reservations. It is a
must-read volume for anyone who cares about the future of America.