In a several-seasons-ago episode of The Simpsons, Lisa asks Homer, who has formed a vigilante group, “Who will police the police?”
Homer’s response: “I dunno. Coast Guard?”
This seems to be our general response to police malfeasance. Most of us, when we see police make illegal search requests, or treat someone odiously on the streets, tend to just walk on by and ignore the situation, assuming someone else will deal with it.
This indifference also characterizes the response of legislators to the growing use of SWAT teams, and the decline in search and seizure protections in the United States.
However, journalist Radley Balko’s book, The Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces, makes a compelling case that the wilful blindness to the erosion of constitutional freedoms, and the accompanying build-up in police power cannot be ignored any longer.
Balko, an investigative reporter with the Huffington Post, focuses exclusively on policing in the United States. However, for Canadians, the book is a powerful example of what we should prevent in our own policing, and it provides a roadmap for avoiding the troubles found in the U.S.
While mainly a history of militarized police units – including SWAT teams – the book is also a parallel history of the erosion of the Fourth Amendment protections that were built up by the Supreme Court in the 1960s to protect suspects of crime, and subsequently dismantled by increasingly conservative courts.
While tactical gear helps cops look intimidating on the streets, it is court decisions and legislation that have allowed SWAT teams to act with impunity.
Balko links the expansion in militarized policing to the birth of the War on Drugs under Richard Nixon, and its subsequent explosion under Ronald Reagan. However, he does go back to initial incidents – such as Charles Whitman’s 1966 massacre from atop a clock tower at the University of Texas at Austin, where police didn’t have guns with enough range to shoot him – to show that there are instances where SWAT teams are necessary.
However, he documents how most teams spend their time serving drug warrants for non-violent crimes. Even sadder, he shows instances where SWAT teams failed to do exactly what they were supposed to.
“If the justification for SWAT teams is to have a team of brave, highly trained, highly professional, well-armed, and well-protected cops to intervene in such tragedies, Columbine is a particularly unfortunate example,” Balko writes. “The SWAT teams held off from going inside [the school] to stop shooters … because they deemed the situation too dangerous.”
“Instead of confronting the killers, then, the SWAT team frisked the victims,” Balko says.
Balko also documents how police attitudes have changed; the thrill of an unannounced, dark-of-night raid with big guns can be a powerful draw for police and their departments. He writes about one police officer that was given the job on raids in Lincoln County, Missouri, to tend to any children present (yes, SWAT teams do raid homes where little kids are present).
After the team had secured the kids, Det. Betty Taylor went into the bedroom to see them.
The eight-year-old girl, Balko says, adopted a defensive stance between Taylor and her brother.
“Here I come in with all my SWAT gear on … and this little girl looks up and me, and her only thought is to defend her little brother. How can we be the good guys when a little girl looks up at me and wants to fight me?” Taylor said. “Good police work has nothing to do with dressing up in black and breaking into houses in the middle of the night.”
In fact, Balko points to numerous historical examples where non-violent, community policing was far more successful than its reactionary, militarized cousin. In particular, San Diego experienced none of the turmoil that rocked Los Angeles following the acquittal of the four LAPD officers charged in the Rodney King beating.
“City officials knew that angry people would want to vent. So rather than suppress demonstrations, they allowed them – and in fact encouraged them,” Balko says.
Throughout the book, Balko draws on dozens of anecdotes of botched raids, sleazy entrapment operations, and the expanding phenomenon of “puppycide.”
That’s when officers gun down your pet bichon because they think it’s a threat to them.
To balance out this use of anecdotes, Balko sifts through a great deal of academic research, his own previous work for Reason magazine and the libertarian Cato Institute, and interviews with several law enforcement officials. However, there are still parts when the history feels inadequate, such as the extremely brief attention given to the Prohibition era; it seems hard to believe that it had so little impact on police powers.
Here in Canada, we need only look to the police presence at the G20 meetings in Toronto, at various Occupy protests, and during the student protests in Montreal to see that police culture is changing in this country.
Balko has shown with this book that only trouble lies that way.
The signs of police militarization are there. But there is no evidence to suggest that this build-up is necessary, as crime has been on a significant decline for years. Radley Balko’s Rise of the Warrior Cop gives us a look at what militarized policing looks like, and the harm it causes.
We’d be well advised to heed his warnings.