How America’s police armed itself to the teeth
Jul 13th 2013 |From the print edition
Bobbies on the beat
Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarisation of America’s Police Forces. By Radley Balko. PublicAffairs; 382 pages; $27.99. Buy from Amazon.com
RADLEY BALKO’S writing has long been read by people who care about civil liberties. First for the Cato Institute, a libertarian think-tank, then for his own blog, “The Agitator”, now part of the Huffington Post, he has written about criminal-justice policy, with a focus on police abuses: not corruption so much as the excesses that have become inherent in ordinary policing.
Mr Balko manages to avoid the clichés of both right and left, and provokes genuine outrage at the misuse of state power in its most brutal and unaccountable form: heavily armed police raiding the homes of unarmed, non-violent suspects on the flimsiest of pretexts, and behaving more like an occupying army in hostile territory than guardians of public safety.
“Rise of the Warrior Cop”, Mr Balko’s interesting first book, explains what policies led to the militarisation of America’s police. To his credit, he focuses his outrage not on the police themselves, but on politicians and the phoney, wasteful drug war they created.
After the obligatory backward glances to the colonial era—in which the sort of social shaming possible only in small, homogeneous communities obviated the need for standing police forces—and the American civil war, Mr Balko’s story really begins with the Supreme Court’s 1963 ruling in Ker v California, which allowed the police to enter someone’s home without a warrant and without knocking or announcing themselves. That was the first in a long series of rulings that gutted the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable searches and seizures.
The social upheaval of the 1960s caught the attention of ambitious politicians and led them to focus on crime. Daryl Gates, then a rising star in the Los Angeles Police Department, created America’s first SWAT team in 1965 (he would eventually become the LAPD’s chief in 1978, call drug use “treason” and state that casual drug users “ought to be taken out and shot”). Richard Nixon ran successfully for president on a law-and-order ticket in 1968, bolstered by a “Silent Majority” which, in Mr Balko’s view, “began to see a link between drugs, crime, the counter-culture and race”.
Ronald Reagan made Nixon’s drug policies tougher. He dramatically increased both federal involvement in combating drugs and asset forfeiture, which allows law enforcement to seize goods and property believed to be used in crime or, more controversially, purchased with the proceeds of crime. This gave the police an incentive to find connections between property and drug activity, often at the expense of more serious crimes. As Mr Balko notes, “Closing a rape or murder case didn’t come with a potential kickback to the police department. Knocking off a mid- or low-level drug dealer did.”
Financial incentives also came through drug-war grants and, after the attacks of September 11th 2001, homeland-security grants that allowed police departments to buy surplus military hardware of dubious utility. Fargo, North Dakota, has received $8m in grants to buy goodies such as an armoured truck with a rotating turret—used “mostly for show, including at the annual city picnic, where police parked it near the children’s bouncy castle”.
Mr Balko is adept, in “Rise of the Warrior Cop”, at finding outrageous examples of SWAT-team misuse, such as deploying heavily armed police to break up small-stakes poker games, raid fraternity parties suspected of serving alcohol to underage patrons and arrest barbers for operating without licences. But he is too dismissive of arguments that stricter policing may have helped produce the remarkable drop in America’s crime rate. Thanks to his book, Americans will be more aware of the costs of those methods. But they—and he—should also consider possible benefits.
From the print edition: Books and arts