Sunday, September 29, 2013

Book Review: Rise of the Warrior Cop by Radley Balko

Radley Balko's new book Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America's Police Forces is a sobering look at how modern police, especially via SWAT teams, are terrorizing America.  A good chunk of the book is anecdote after depressing anecdote detailing the special-ops style police raids that have drastically increased in frequency in recent years.  Balko details how these raids:
  • often operate without a warrant, or functionally without one (no-knock warrants)
  • leave a trail of property destruction, sometimes via tanks bursting through a door
  • are often used where no force is required, as in serving a warrant
  • frequently result in the injury or death of people or animals
  • utilize dangerous equipment, such as flash-bang grenades and submachine guns
  • overwhelmingly used to handle nonviolent offenders, especially drug suspects
  • essentially are exempted from oversight, reporting and scrutiny
  • have often been conducted on the wrong house or location
  • are carried out by police who are all but immune to criminal prosecution
  • are subsidized and encouraged by national "anti-terrorism" efforts and the "war on drugs"
Balko devotes many pages to detailing how the legal and extralegal protections against these kinds of raids have been eroded over time.  He identifies the Castle Doctrine (the idea that one's home should be a place of privacy and sanctuary), the Third Amendment (prohibiting quartering of soldiers in homes) and the Fourth Amendment as the cornerstones of anti-SWAT protection that have been chipped away over the past several decades and, now, obliterated.  He spills ink on the people (Richard Nixon, Daryl Gates, Ronald Reagan), the institutions, the court cases and the laws that have brought about oppressive policing.

The most interesting part of the book, however, is Balko's beginning where he details the history of policing.  Before a brief description of the first police force in Rome and early English law enforcement, he traces the birth of modern policing as a consequence of urbanization.  Prior to that, he says, disputes were handled within pre-capitalist agricultural communities as "community mores, social stigma and shaming were the most important ways of maintaining order." (x)  Balko notes that the original American colonists despised several things that our modern police forces have come to use and resemble: a standing army, the general warrant and the writ of assistance.  He opens book with the provocative question "Are cops constitutional?" which underscores how alien the Founding Fathers would have found modern policing methods.

The alternatives to the unnecessary, violent, costly, and often deadly SWAT model are pretty obvious (namely, not conducting military-style raids!) and Balko gives several examples in his book of cities, such as San Diego and Washington DC, that have at various points tried more reasonable community policing methods and obtained a lower crime rate, arguably as a result.  Instead of heavily armed, military fatigued, stone-faced officers zipping around in police cruisers, police officers would live in the community, actually assist with people's problems (imagine that!), walk the streets and interface with citizens, employing force as an absolute last resort.

Balko's last chapter provides a number of sensible policy proposals to reverse the militarization of the police: scale back the drug war, halt mission creep, increase transparency, initiate community policing, change police culture, and make police accountable.  Still, his celebration of the meager victory of having Maryland police keep records of SWAT team use at the end of the book gives a sense of what reform is up against -- the entire police-military-industrial complex and the inertia that it has acquired over the past fifty years.  Balko concludes that it is difficult to say that today's police forces are consistent with the principles of a free society.  He remarks that "the police today may be more militarized than the military" and says that we have entered "a police state writ small." (335)

Balko bills his book as not an "anti-cop" book but instead claims "if anything, this is an anti-politician book." (xv) Sure, politicians deserve their share of the blame for getting America to this point, but I would have liked to have seen a deeper analysis rather than using politicians as a convenient punching bag.  For a book that tries to answer the question "How did we get here?" (xiv) it would have been nice to see more reporting into the business forces that are tipping these politicians' hands.  It also would have benefitted the book to look at other factors (labor markets, urban planning, the prison system, etc.) rather than focusing on the surface phenomena of political bickering.

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