Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces

Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces
by Radley Balko

I’d had this book on my to-Rise of Warrior Copread list for a while, but with the events of Ferguson and New York, it became a priority. And one I’m very glad I made time for. This is a powerful book about a very troubling abuse of power by those we expect to protect us.

Balko begins with revolutionary America, showing the importance of ideas such as ‘a man’s home is his castle’ then skips forward to the 1960s, with chapters on each decade since as a way to illuminate how we got to here. Along the way he does a clever job of mixing social and legal discussions and enough practical examples to sustain his claims and reader attention without becoming bogged down with gossipy random anacdotes.

This is a journalist’s book, which sometimes left me wishing for something slightly more. And Balko does skip some significant debates (most notably dismissing the significant decline in crime rates since the 1990s with the line ‘Criminologists are still fighting over what those reasons are’ – p.272). Yet there is a wise balance to the text. Perhaps most importantly, while his book will leave you angry at the abuse of police power, Balko time and again pauses to note we should not be angry at police.

The rise of warrior cops is a story that cannot be told outside of the context of the war on drugs. According to Balko, the proliferation of SWAT teams might have begun in response to violent robbers and murders, but the vast bulk of the 60’000 + raids per year in the continental United States are to serve warrants on non-violent offenders who are accused of the largely victim-less crime of selling or consuming drugs. Not to mention occasionally raids on those who don’t have barber licences, or play small money games of poker at a friend’s house, or might have mislabeled alcohol (p.282). All too often it seems the police consider full riot gear enabled fast assaults the only way to engage with the public.

Yes these boys may like their toys, but we have been their enablers. Politicians, especially of the right – though shamefully ignored or indulged by the left – have given vast new powers and resources to these armed public servants and then shown precious little oversight. Indeed some like Nixon and Reagan saw great political virtue in flexing the muscles of the state in the sight lines of minorities and the poor. And to the great shame of the Courts, many judges have been negligent in their oversight of the police as well as their protection of individual rights and liberties.

But the real blame lies not with an institution but the citizens themselves. Every school child knows Lincoln’s ‘government of the people, by the people, for the people‘ refrain. But we too easily forget who Lincoln held responsible for this great cause: ‘that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain’. WE the people are responsible. There is a clear rationality to why Cops, Courts and Politicians have acted the way they have. The irrationality to see this, to monitor those we bless with state power and to hold them to account is our own.

Of course, the situation in Australia is quite different from the US, but this is an important book for many in this country to read, because the same impulses are at work here. Yet there are also some notable and important differences. Many of those killed by police were people whose natural and inevitable response to a violent break-in to their house at 3am was to reach for their gun. This in turn leads to the state’s agents being more expensively armed and more violently assertive – a useful point for those like Senator David Leyonhjelm whose libertarian concern about state power leads them to want citizens to have access to more guns. We also have better oversight and our police don’t have access to the same weapons nor face the same threats, but the risk of treading a similar path is real and inherent.

If America created this problem for itself, it also seems to be leading the way in solving it. Some US states are seeking to end the war on drugs through legalisation. In turn much of the money and opportunity for this kind of police action will dry up. This adds just another moral justification for abandoning the prohibition of drugs. We might not like all of what drugs bring to our society, but only the wilfully ignorant would pretend that this heavily armed ‘cure’ is working or better than the disease. As Balko notes at the end, we have hit a point where it is now legitimate to ask ‘Are today’s police forces consistent with the principles of a free society?‘.

This book is another citizenship book. If you’re interested in politics or social issues there’s much you will get out of this book. But it should be read first and foremost because we are citizens of a very similar democracy and wish to ensure our society does not suffer the same fate. Highly Recommended.