Rise of the Warrior Cop

Radley Balko wrote an amazing, important, and in-depth analysis of the militarization of America’s police departments, and is a must-read for anyone interested in learning about Fourth Amendment rights and privacy. He traces the origins of the rights regarding property and privacy to old English common law, the Castle Doctrine, and what it meant during the framing of the Constitution and Bill of Rights. He opens with an outrageous question (are police officers constitutional?) and explains where they came from, and the incredible powers they have been handed in recent decades.

One of the most striking data points he references is that there are roughly 100 SWAT team incidents in America per day. Yes, 100 SWAT deployments per day. The original idea for SWAT was conceived after a couple of deranged individuals took assault rifles into social areas and shot dozens of people, as a way for police forces to have sufficient weapons to combat those sad but highly uncommon scenarios. From there, Nixon expanded federal use of SWAT for drug raids, and police departments across the country began instituting them. Through a few federal actions, including asset forfeiture laws and policies, police now had a financial motive for using SWAT teams to enforce actions against citizens. The migration was swift; over a handful of years, most large departments stood up SWAT teams, and now most cities of 25,000 people or more have a SWAT team — something like 85% or higher as of 2012. These teams are not trained and left unused until despicable activity takes place; they are now routinely used to search homes where marijuana is suspected to be present. Tactics include using flash-boom grenades to disorient people, breaking down doors, shooting animals, and taking all citizens down with a threat of death — even if there is minimal evidence for wrongdoing. Balko summarized it well, in that we are now allowing the destruction of personal property to arrest those engaged in willful activities; a libertarian or even conservative used to argue that people had the right to live their lives without police treating them as criminals without warrant. That vision is false or imagined, as it is certainly not how offenses to society are currently combated.

There is an interesting section towards the end of the book, where Balko revisits recent incidents in America where a SWAT team would be useful — which is to say, these are incidents where proponents of SWAT teams say they are required. At both Columbine and Sandy Hook, along with a handful of other specific events, police officers arrived and established a perimeter, attempted communications with the offender, and were deliberate in their execution. They most certainly did not storm the school or office building, as they were aware that the person was armed, and chose not to send their officers into harm’s way. It’s hard to argue with that point, and I get it, though it does undercut the entire argument for having a team with military techniques and tools ready to fight off people with the intent to inflict widespread damage. It may be more fun to send a team of commandos to raid an old woman’s home when an anonymous informant says she has a couple ounces of weed, but it sure does not make America safer.

The courts and elected officials are supposed to be in place to establish limits on no-knock warrants and other invasive activity, but the evidence points to an unwillingness to stop any further militarization, as they might look “soft on crime” even if it’s a gross perversion of civil liberties. It really seems shameful that our leaders have become so willing to defer all propriety decisions to police officers, as the police have a sensible reason for desiring the use of overwhelming force — they want to do fun things and keep their people safe. No harm in that! But someone is supposed to be balancing that with the rights of common citizens, and unfortunately, that balance is heavily skewed. In addition, a law passed in the 1990s allows for military surplus equipment to be sold to police departments, which has drastically increased the militarization of local enforcement agencies. Why does any police department need a tank? Or an armored vehicle? Or other weapons of war? The visions of Ferguson, where tanks rolled down American streets to quell the frustrations of a population frequently under unfair attacks, has stuck with me over the years. President Obama did limit some of the military equipment resale, however President Trump overturned that Executive Order. There is no reason for grenade launchers to be used in American cities by American police forces, and yet they are owned by police departments. And, as the SWAT example shows, and as human nature shows, nobody wants to have a toy and never get to use it. I fear the militarization will only get worse as more military gear is passed along much closer to home.

It was truly an eye-opening book, and I am thankful to have read it. I’m lucky enough to live in a part of a town that doesn’t get raided like this, but that doesn’t mean I’m not offended that my fellow citizens are. My hope is to someday have a position where I can influence activities such as these, to ascribe more individual liberty while retaining appropriate resources for police departments to keep the peace, serving and protecting the same citizens they view with suspicion.