Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces by Radley Balko (Public Affairs 2013), 400 pages.
“A man’s home is his castle,” the old English saying goes.
Since the American Revolution, Americans’ homes have been considered sanctified space. Under the Castle Doctrine, first expressed in English common law, a person’s home — whether it’s a shack or a McMansion — is a protected space that no one can breach without the consent of the owner or, when it comes to the state, a lawful reason backed up by a judicial warrant. The tradition also says the agents must knock and announce their presence to let the homeowner know why there are strangers at his door. The rationale behind this was clear: avoiding unnecessary violence. When those conditions are not met, the homeowner has the right to use force to defend his property. Belief in the Castle Doctrine was so strong that it was enshrined in the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits government agents from conducting unreasonable searches and seizures against anyone’s “persons, houses, papers, and effects.”
Fast forward a little more than 200 years. The Castle Doctrine has been under sustained assault by police and politicians for decades. Consider this: “Today in America SWAT teams violently smash into private homes more than one hundred times per day,” writes Radley Balko in his deeply unsettling Rise of the Warrior Cop. “The vast majority of these raids are to enforce laws against consensual crimes.”
Since the 1960s, argues Balko, police forces inside the United States have increasingly taken on the appearance and mentality of an occupying force in direct violation of their popular oath “to protect and serve.” Arising in a time of domestic instability, and spurred on by rising crime rates and drug use, the militarization of the nation’s police forces by federal, state, and local governments has led to police officers with the mentality of a soldier who increasingly sees breaking down doors as a first, not a last, resort.
Special weapons attack teams
For Balko, the story of America’s plunge into military-style policing begins in the 1960s with Daryl Gates, an inspector with the Los Angeles Police Department. Watching Watts burn in the riots of the summer of 1965; Charles Whitman’s clock-tower rampage the next year in Austin, Texas; and other wide-scale domestic disturbances that marked the turbulent 1960s, Gates conceived of a special team of highly trained police officers to respond to riots, protests, and visits from dignitaries. (However, many credit the Philadelphia Police Department with creating the first SWAT team.)
The idea behind the concept was decidedly military and overtly aggressive from the start. Unimpressed with the name D-Platoon for this specialized group of officers, Gates had a eureka moment. He would call it “Special Weapons Attack Teams.” His superior officer told him “no” — too aggressive — and Gates left his office. A few moments later, he reappeared. “Special Weapons and Tactics,” Gates said. His superior nodded in agreement. SWAT would soon become a phenomenon, with police departments stockpiling military-style gear to carry out their civilian policing duties.
Police militarization can occur two ways, notes Balko: direct or indirect. “Direct militarization is the use of the standing military for domestic policing,” he explains. “Indirect militarization happens when police agencies and officers take on more and more characteristics of an army.” Gates’s legacy is the latter, and an extraordinarily successful one at that. Eighty percent of towns with a population between 25,000 and 50,000 had SWAT teams in 2005, according to Balko.
But Gates’s concept wouldn’t have spread so quickly if it didn’t get a boost by successive White Houses and federal programs. The result has been the “militarization of Mayberry,” as even small-town police departments acquire weapons and learn tactics reserved for the battlefield that are primarily used to serve warrants against low-level drug dealers.
The war on the home front
If anything normalized SWAT teams into an accepted, even celebrated, institution of no-nonsense American law enforcement, it was the war on drugs. Conceived of by the Nixon White House, this crusade against some illicit substances allowed Richard Nixon to target those he considered undesirable: poor blacks, hippies, and the anti-war movement. “Drug use,” the Nixon administration thought, “was the common denominator among the groups,” writes Balko.
Nixon would use the federal Law Enforcement Assistance Administration (LEAA) to wage the war on drug dealers and drug users by tying cash, equipment, and technology for the localities to his law-enforcement priorities. The effect was to treat consensual “crimes” as a higher priority than violent crime and theft, and to perceive nonviolent criminals as existential threats — people who deserved to have their doors kicked in during the middle of the night if police could confiscate even the smallest amount of drugs.
It would be a model other White Houses and Congresses would follow over the next 40 years, creating perverse incentives that valued drug busts over other law-enforcement priorities. In 1984 Congress passed a crime bill that shared the proceeds of any property confiscated during a federal drug investigation with the state and local police agencies that lent a hand. The law created a revenue stream for state and local law- enforcement agencies that they couldn’t ignore. Corruption and malpractice followed.
Because of the new forfeiture law, police agencies now had a strong incentive to “find” a connection between valuable property and drug activity, even if there was none. They now had an incentive to conduct drug busts inside homes when the suspects could just as easily — and more safely — have been apprehended outside the house. They now had a strong financial incentive to make drug policing a higher priority and to devote more personnel to drug investigations than to investigating other crimes. 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.
Four years later Congress created the “Byrne grants,” which have provided billions in federal dollars over the last 25 years to police departments across the country to fight the drug war. Balko calls it “a larger, better-funded, more ingeniously planned [program], and thus [a] more successful attempt at what Nixon tried to do with the LEAA.” Billions more were funneled to police departments under the Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) program, started by the Clinton administration. Many departments used the funds to further militarize. What’s particularly distressing about the COPS program is that it was supposed to fund community policing, which is ostensibly about infusing a democratic sensibility into police departments by making officers invested members of the neighborhoods they serve. Cultivating trust and understanding between police and citizens is the theoretical goal of community policing, not buying military hardware that further entrenches the soldier mentality.
Finally, there’s the dangerous 1033 program, which takes war materiel — M16 rifles, helicopters, tanks, bayonet knives — from America’s many battlefields and gives it away to civilian police departments. The program experienced its most successful year under Barack Obama. In 2011 it “reutilized more than $500M, that is million with an M, worth of property [surplus military gear],” program manager Craig Barrett announced.
With such bipartisan federal largess, it’s unsurprising that SWAT tactics once reserved for riots, hostage situations, and bank robberies became acceptable to break down the doors of suspected nonviolent criminals. In a democratic society, the use of force to catch low-level criminals should be a scandal even when such tactics are used against the “right” people. But as Balko documents, police routinely make mistakes that lead to raiding the wrong places, which results in terrorizing innocent people in their own homes and, sometimes, killing them.
You would think the courts would hold police accountable, especially when they raid the wrong home with deadly consequences. But they don’t, as Balko shows over and over again. One culprit has been the unnecessary exceptions to the Fourth Amendment — known as “exigent circumstances” — approved by the Supreme Court in the 1963 Ker v. California decision, which gave police officers the legal authority to force entry into a private space unannounced if they believe the suspect could destroy evidence. As Justice William Brennan wrote in his dissent in Ker, the exigent circumstances exception does “obvious violence to the presumption of innocence.”
The courts have often been complicit, regularly rubber-stamping search warrants — even for no-knock raids — carried out by SWAT teams when less aggressive ways of conducting a search are available. And even when it’s clear police officers acted irresponsibly or unlawfully, judges have been less likely to hold them accountable by applying the exclusionary rule, which suppresses illegally obtained evidence at a defendant’s trial.
Thus, before there was the counterterrorism exception to the Fourth Amendment, there was the drug-war exception.
One of the most consequential results of the war on drugs was its dehumanization of drug users and drug dealers, regardless of whether either were violent. Nixon loved martial rhetoric. In speeches he would call for waging “a new, all-out offensive” against drug abuse. George H.W. Bush’s drug czar Bill Bennett told CNN’s Larry King that drug dealers should be beheaded.
When a nation’s leaders talk about a certain group of people as subhuman, no one should be surprised when police treat them as the Other — worthy recipients of contempt and violence who do not deserve respect or compassion. Or if that sentiment seeps into the public’s consciousness in disturbing ways.
Take the Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) program, which sent cops into schools to frighten students about drug use. Conceived by Gates in Los Angeles in 1983, the program quickly spread across the nation. Indoctrinating kids in the belief that drug use was evil, it had the creepy effect of having kids “narcing” on their parents for recreational drug use. DARE and police officials would deny that was the program’s intent but would applaud children for “doing the right thing” nonetheless.
What’s a broken home compared to a parent who every once and a while smokes a joint to unwind?
An instructive story about the damage done by militarized drug raids comes from police officer Betty Taylor. In November 2000 she went on a SWAT raid to bust a small-time drug dealer at his home about an hour outside of St. Louis. Inside were his two stepchildren. When Taylor entered the room in full black body armor, the 8-year-old elder sister put herself between her little brother and Taylor. “What are you going to do to us?” the little girl asked afraid and angry.
Taylor, according to Balko, was heartbroken. She told him,
Here I come in with all my SWAT gear on, dressed in armor from head to toe, and this little girl looks up at me, and her only thought is to defend her little brother. I thought, How can we be the good guys when we come into the house looking like this, screaming and pointing at the people they love? How can we be the good guys when a little girl looks up at me and wants to fight me? And for what? What were we accomplishing with all of this? Absolutely nothing. [Emphasis in original.]
The question about what police are accomplishing is the right one. As Balko makes plain, the drug war is a failure. Anyone who wants drugs can get them. But for every police officer who gets that nagging feeling that the SWAT mentality is corrosive to the idea of law enforcement in a democracy — and there are many that Balko highlights throughout his book — there are those police officers and officials who outnumber them and who want to double down, no matter how egregious their mistakes are.
Maybe the best example of that was the 2004 violent drug raid of a home in Berwyn Heights, Maryland, by the Prince George’s County Sheriff’s Office and Police Department. The only thing that made this SWAT raid unique was who the target turned out to be: the town’s mayor, Cheye Calvo. Unbelievably, the SWAT team had no idea they were raiding the mayor’s home. They hadn’t done their homework. The raid was so violent, according to Calvo, that he’d be dead if he had a gun in his home. “The worst thing I could have done was defend my home,” he told Balko. When the officers raided the mayor’s home, they shot both his dogs, merely on the suspicion that the residents were somehow mixed up with drugs. “Puppycide,” as Balko dramatically dubs it, is a regular occurrence when SWAT teams ply their trade.
Despite being totally innocent, Calvo never received an apology from the Prince George’s County Sheriff’s Office and Police Department for terrorizing him and his family and killing his dogs. Six years later, Sheriff Michael Jackson was asked whether he had any regrets about the raid. His response: “Quite frankly, we’d do it again. Tonight.”
Marching toward a police state?
Inevitably, the mission of militarized policing expanded beyond the drug war.
Police departments confronted with mass protests would see their militarized police forces as an easy and effective way to intimidate demonstrators. Whether it was the 1999 World Trade Organization protests in Seattle, 2009’s G-20 Summit in Pittsburgh, or the Occupy protests of 2011, police departments actively tried to crush dissent, rather than do their jobs — which is to protect the constitutional rights of protesters while maintaining the peace. Militarized policing doesn’t only violate the spirit of the Fourth Amendment, it injures the First Amendment as well.
The SWAT teams’ mission creep has been so complete, reports Balko, that they now regularly raid low-stakes poker games, unlicensed barbershops, and bars. Even those grossly irresponsible uses of SWAT teams don’t provoke the broad-based anger necessary to spur reform. It clearly eats at Balko that so much abuse can be so easily ignored.
“[It’s] still rather remarkable that domestic police officers are driving tanks and armored personnel carriers on American streets, breaking into homes and killing dogs over pot,” he writes. “They’re subjecting homes and businesses to commando raids for white-collar and even regulatory offenses, and there’s been barely any opposition or concern from anyone in Congress, any governor, or any mayor of a sizable city. That, more than anything, is what needs to change.”
Balko ends his book with a question: “Are today’s police forces consistent with the principles of a free society?” While he believes they are not, Balko is not ready to say the United States has become a police state. “Far from it,” he writes. But there’s no doubt he believes that that threat exists: “In short, police today embody all of the threats the Founders feared were posed by standing armies, plus a few additional ones they couldn’t have anticipated.”
And here’s something else to think about.
It’s no secret that police departments across this nation recruit heavily among people transitioning out of the military. That’s a scary proposition, considering that troops coming home from Afghanistan and Iraq have been indoctrinated in counterinsurgency tactics, which train them to police occupied territory and identify and neutralize insurgents. And unlike most street cops, those men and women have actually experienced the fear and violence of urban warfare. There is no telling what havoc that mindset could unleash on America’s main streets and boulevards when the counterinsurgents come home and exchange their green uniforms for blue, particularly when police already see themselves at war.
One thing, however, is certain: Balko will be there to document it.
This article was originally published in the February 2014 edition of Future of Freedom.