Book Review Number 49

Rise of the Warrior Cop – Radley Balko

Radley Balko is an American journalist, author, blogger, and lecturer who writes about criminal justice, the drug war, and civil liberties. Balko has written other books on these same subjects. The central theme of this volume is a close look at the rapid militarization of domestic law enforcement agencies and its associated dangers to civil rights and freedom.

The author points out that American revolutionaries toward the end of the colonial period in America saw soldiers in the streets as bringing conflict and tyranny. As a result, from its founding our country has worked to keep the military out of domestic law enforcement. However, he traces the history of domestic law enforcement over the past several decades and how police forces have begun to resemble and behave like military ground assault troops.

Mr. Balko says the consequences of this transition has been dire: a citizen’s home is no longer a sanctuary; the Castle Doctrine is substantially dead for all intents and purposes. Today the Fourth Amendment is being ignored by law enforcement and has been gutted by conservative court decisions upholding abusive behavior by police. With this increased militarization police have been conditioned to see the citizens they are sworn to serve as the enemy.

The author demonstrates that today’s armed police forces are a far cry from peace officers of earlier decades walking the beat in local neighborhoods where they knew the people and were a part of the community. The unrest of the 1960s gave rise to the Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) team concept where a unit of officers were specially trained to handle violent criminal situations – bank robbers, hostage takers, snipers, and rioters. Then with Nixon’s War on Drugs followed by Reagan’s War on Poverty, and the post 9/11 security state, police powers were gradually expanded and empowered, always at the expense of civil liberties.

Federal grants to acquire military grade weapons as well as military training for local police forces have helped the number of SWAT teams to explode nationwide. Suddenly every city of 25,000 or more had to have a SWAT team. But there wasn’t enough violent crime to fight. Also as part of the War on Drugs the federal government initiated a policy of confiscating property in drug raids and then sharing the proceeds with participating local law enforcement agencies. That prompted local SWAT teams to shift their aggressive fear inducing tactics to serving arrest or search warrants on non-violent drug users, local poker games, and other non-violent but technically illegal activities. They typically use their aggressive tactics during the night dressed as assault troops with little regard for individual citizens’ rights. In most cases their tactics are unwarranted and the warrants could be better executed in the daytime with other safer non-confrontational approaches. Further because of inadequate investigation up front the error rate of raiding the wrong house is very high. While the author says we are not yet a police state, or close to it, the trend in policing is clearly going in the wrong direction.

The author sites multiple cases of abuse of power, mistakes, unnecessary deaths and destruction to prove his point. This is a sobering look at where we are in domestic policing. I think this book is worthwhile reading for every American. We should be alert for and recognize the signs of police abuse of power. When we see or suspect it we must challenge our elected leader to exercise more control and accountability in aggressive police tactics.

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