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

December 30, 2016


In the introduction of this book, Radley Balko states that this is not an anti-cop book. Even though a good portion of this book is dedicated to stories in which police make egregious errors or use excessive force, this book is really about the misguided policy that puts officers in those situations. Stupid policy, based on old-school, narrow-minded blunt-force tactics. Stupid policy that has, over the past half century, contributed to a deterioration in the relationship between communities and the police that supposedly protect them. We see evidence of this deterioration regularly in the news. And once police lose the trust of the community they serve, they have also lost their authority. That puts the police at risk. So contrary to the presumed knee-jerk reaction, this book is really a pro-cop book. It’s about smarter policing. And it’s about questioning the policies that continually, stupidly, put our police in harm’s way.

The militarization of police is a broad topic, and Balko covers it broadly. He delves into the history of how and why the police came to adopt more militaristic tactics, tracing it back to the Red Scare days of 1919-1920, when anarchists and leftists were sending bombs to government officials through the mail. This was followed by the Prohibition Era and the need for more militaristic tactics to fight organized crime. When Prohibition ended, the police apparatus, rather than being disbanded, was taken over by Harry Anslinger, the first head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (Johann Hari writes extensively about this in his excellent 2015 book, Chasing the Scream).

But according to Balko, the modern age of police militarization began with a confluence of events in the 1960s. The Watts riots in 1965 had instilled fear of a rising (and angry) black class, but the sense was that this was still just “urban toughs fighting amongst themselves.” The suburbs remained the secure bubble they’d promised to be. But then in 1966, two events—the Richard Speck case, in which Speck raped and tortured eight nurses in a Chicago hospital, and the Charles Whitman shooting at the University of Texas—popped that sense of security. With the Whitman shooting in particular, Austin police were completely unprepared. It set off a ripple of fear through the already agitated public, and police forces across the country sought to ensure they would never be so caught off guard.

Enter SWAT. In 1950, William Parker, a man with a background in military public relations, had become chief of the Los Angeles Police Department, a notoriously corrupt department. He’d taken on that corruption and instilled a rigid, militaristic hierarchy. He also instilled in his force the belief that they were all that stood between order and anarchy. He saw citizens as “at best ‘the other,’ at worst ‘the enemy.’” Parker loathed community policing, the notion that individual officers should have a stake in the communities they served. Stemming from the legacy of corruption in his department, he wanted a wall between his cops and the community (he was also oblivious to the disdain for his department in L.A.’s Black and Latino communities).

Coming up under Parker, and in the right place at the right time, was Daryl Gates (the name will ring a bell with anyone who remembers the Rodney King beating and ensuing riots). Gates shared Parker’s mindset of what police should be, and he had an idea for a military-style, tactical attack force to counter violent criminals (e.g. Charles Whitman), deal with hostage situations (e.g. Richard Speck) and put down riots (e.g. Watts). He proposed the name SWAT, for “Special Weapons Attack Team.” He was told he was crazy—there was no way they were going to introduce a police unit with “attack” in the name. So Gates went away and returned with “Special Weapons and Tactics.” Sold.

Gates eventually served as LAPD Chief (from 1978-1992). He would see the SWAT teams he’d conceived to counter snipers and rioters spread across the country. Their purpose would expand as well. In 2005, SWAT teams were deployed nearly 50,000 times; 80% of those deployments were to serve warrants, mostly drug-related. One study finds that between the 1980s and 2000 (the last year reliable evidence is available), SWAT team call-outs increased 1400%.

A few years after the LAPD introduced SWAT, the second driving force behind the militarization of police kicked in. In 1971, President Richard Nixon declared drug abuse “public enemy number one.” The shiny new hammer now had some nails.

At the time, Don Santarelli was Director of Nixon’s Law Assistance Administration, the department in charge of distributing equipment and funding to local police departments. And thanks to the new federal crime bill, he had a lot more to go around; the budget for his office had jumped from $75 million to $500 million. Santarelli noticed many of the police chiefs had been adopting more gung-ho attitudes, and it showed in their requests. “They didn’t value education or training. They valued hardware.” Birmingham requested an armored personnel carrier. Other chiefs wanted tanks. Los Angeles asked for a submarine.

Despite this new hard-knocks approach to crime fighting, under Nixon, the national violent crime rate increased 40% and property crime increased 24%. Which, one could rightly say, proves little. A lot of factors influence crime statistics. Except that during roughly the same time period (1969-1974), Jerry Wilson was running his own little experiment as Washington, DC Chief of Police. Wilson believed in community policing—the exact opposite of William Parker. He wanted his officers invested in the community they served. And he outright refused to employ many of the new police tactics like stop-and-frisk, preventive detention, and no-knock raids (cornerstones of Nixon’s crime bill). While crime across the U.S. was increasing, DC crime was declining under Wilson. Violent crime in DC dropped 25%. Property crime decreased 28%.

The abject failure of the War on Drugs is well documented. I recommend Johann Hari’s excellent 2015 book, Chasing the Scream. Balko covers how the War on Drugs allowed local police forces, supported by the government, to justify increased spending and more militaristic tactics. But the part of this book that will make your blood boil is the litany of stories about one tactic in particular: “No-knock raids.” No-knocks raids are arguably a violation of the Fourth Amendment, and it’s worth a moment to consider the Fourth Amendment and why it exists.

The American founders were scholars of the first Roman Republic. As such, they drew much from Roman thinking, including the concept that a person’s home should be inviolable. That notion, known as the “castle doctrine,” (from the 17th-century English judge and politician Sir Edward Coke’s statement that “a man’s home is his castle”) usually surfaces in the U.S. during gun debates. But it has a broader purpose and historical significance. In fact, it was partly King George’s violation of colonists’ right to a protected home that incited them to a little insurgency we now call the American Revolution. It was also the inspiration for the Fourth Amendment, the protection against unreasonable search and seizure.

No-knock warrants are issued by a judge to law enforcement officers, typically for SWAT raids, in which there is reason to believe that suspects might destroy evidence. In other words, they allow SWAT teams to knock down the door, detain suspects and search the premises before the suspect can flush any drugs down the toilet. No-knock warrants are a tool of the War on Drugs, but the scope of their application has expanded over the years.

Balko tells story after story of no-knock raids gone wrong. In one, Herbert Giglotto of Collinsville, IL, was sleeping in bed when he heard a crash. It was a little after 9:30.

I got out of bed; I took about three steps, looked down the hall and [saw] armed men running up the hall dressed like hippies with pistols, yelling and screeching.” Giglotto turned to his wife, who was still in bed and said, “God, honey, we’re dead.”

“That’s right, you motherfucker!” one of the men screamed. The men—fifteen of them—then stormed the bedroom. One of them threw Giglotto to the bed, bound his hands behind his back, and put a gun to his head.

“Move and you’re dead,” the man said. “Who is that bitch lying there?”

“That’s my wife.”

A few moments later, after pleading with the intruders, telling them he knew they must have the wrong house, telling them he didn’t know anything about any drugs and offering to show them his ID, Giglotto heard one of the men call from outside, “We’ve made a mistake.”

Indeed they had. Giglotto’s wife was concerned about their pets, which the men had tossed outside. But in the end, the Giglottos got off relatively easy. They were merely terrorized. Other stories end with pets shot in front of children (any dog showing any sign of aggression toward a SWAT team—and what dog wouldn’t?—gets a bullet).

There are other stories of failed no-knock drug raids. Wrong addresses, mistaken identities. Addresses obtained from another druggie that turn out—shocker—to be inaccurate. Sometimes the suspect isn’t home or doesn’t actually live there. Still, knocking down doors persists, though there is ample evidence to suggest that waiting to take the suspect when they leave their home, are checking the mail or running out for milk, is safer and more accurate.

Over the years, the application of no-knock raids has expanded from drug cases to pretty much whatever the police want to use them for. In 2006, Sal Culosi was shot dead in a SWAT raid. His crime was betting on a college football game. SWAT raids of poker games—from small unofficial clubs to $20 buy-in neighborhood games—were frequent in the mid 2000s. In 2007, Cary, North Carolina cops, along with ATF agents and National Guard troops used a helicopter to raid a poker game, guns drawn. When all was said and done, they had served forty-one citations, all misdemeanors. In 2010, a SWAT team began knocking down the door of a man hosting a poker game in Greenville, South Carolina. With no idea who was trying to kick in his door, and having previously been the victim of a robbery, the homeowner grabbed his handgun and fired shots through the door. He was gunned down and killed.

People at poker games, parties, even barbershops have found themselves having fun one moment, and face down, tied up with guns pointed at them the next.

This is idiotic. I was furious after reading these stories. I imagined what my response would be if a bunch of dudes, cops or not, broke in, and one of them shot my dog in front of my kids and pointed guns at my family. If I had a gun myself—I don’t, but if I did—I would shoot them in the face. I would. And I don’t think I’d have any qualms about it. Then they’d shoot me and that would be the end of that. And I’m a peace-loving person. I have friends who are cops. I don’t want to shoot anyone. I definitely don’t want to be shot in my own home.

I was so disturbed by this thought. It all seemed so unbelievable, so Orwellian. I began to question the veracity of this whole book. So I emailed a good friend who has been on both sides of this, has seen it as a legal professional as well as a law enforcement officer. I said I’d been reading this book, that it seemed over-the-top, that I wanted to get his take on it. He made three very clear points in response:

  1. He confirmed that the War on Drugs is a “ridiculous failure” and said it’s all tied to pumping up police budget and politicians trying to prove they’re tough on crime.
  2. He agreed the militarization is out of control and said SWAT teams should be reserved for barricaded violent offenders and protection of large events/riot suppression.
  3. The third point he made, which Balko touches on too, is that police come out of training fearful for their lives. They have the “don’t let this day be your last” mentality drilled into them again and again. This mentality is responsible for the majority of police shootings. Hesitation means you might not make it home. So don’t hesitate.

I have a lot of sympathy for police officers. I really do. Even in the cases where they make a mistake and shoot an innocent person, I try to put myself in their shoes. I would not want to have to decide in a millisecond if someone is reaching for a gun or a wallet, running in fear or to flush the evidence, trying to attack me to push me away from their children. And if I’m all pumped up with adrenaline and fear, I’d probably get it wrong sometimes too. Which is why the burden needs to be on policy, not on the cops. It’s not fair to place cops in that situation.

Add on top of all this our Second Amendment. The assumption is usually that the police wouldn’t be breaking down your door unless you did something wrong. This has been proven an incorrect assumption time and again. But beyond that, with our Second Amendment situation, who knows what’s on the other side of that door? It could be a bad guy with a gun. It could be a good guy with a gun. It doesn’t matter. We’re putting our cops needlessly in danger because of some outdated, macho, bullshit ideas about what policing should be.

Here’s a news story I just saw recently that bears this out. In 2015, police in Corpus Christi, Texas were executing a no-knock raid. In the early morning, they broke into the home. They tossed a flash bang grenade into the bedroom. The man in the bedroom opened fire and hit three of the officers. At his trial, after two years in jail, he was found not guilty. As he should have been. Some might say the police got what they deserved. I think we all got lucky. Nobody was killed.

There are other aspects to this book—the financial incentives for departments, asset forfeiture, etc. But what I will always remember is my reaction when I imagined myself a victim of one of these raids. We regularly hear on the news about the breakdown in trust between communities and their police. If anyone needs a case study of what these kinds of raids do to a populace, they should read up on Fallujah circa 2003. These are military-style raids, and they will turn a population against you.

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