I began reading Radley Balko’s “Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces” before the shooting death of unarmed teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and I finished it after tensions in that city peaked. Reading this book while Ferguson’s heavily-armed and clearly incompetent police aimed high-powered weapons at innocent citizens and journalists on a nightly basis added an additional layer of perspective to each heart-sinking news cycle. This was not a local problem. A Ferguson has the potential to happen anywhere.
Balko is a journalist who covers criminal justice, and “Rise of the Warrior Cop” is his treatise on the predominant trends in policing today: militarization, the dissolution of individual rights and the bad policy that makes it all possible.
To his credit, Balko goes out of his way to empathize, when possible, with police. He does not categorize police officers as bad people but rather acknowledges that a militaristic mindset is the inevitable result of poorly-thought-out laws and terrible incentives. When police recruiting videos mirror army recruiting for action and adventure, you’re going to attract a certain type of cop. And when bad laws give that cop incredible powers in a system in which real punishment is seldom meted out to police who are overly aggressive or incompetent, tragedy ensues. It’s not a good cop’s fault that the system produces so many bad cops. Balko acknowledges this.
“Rise of the Warrior Cop” traces the history of policing from Rome to England to America’s founding. Following WWII, all three branches of the federal government embarked on a high-speed, bipartisan expansion of police powers—a trend that continues today. Balko recounts the history of SWAT teams, the erosion of the Fourth Amendment and the Castle Doctrine and explains how the War on Drugs and the War on Terror abetted police militarization.
“Today in America SWAT teams violently smash into private homes more than one hundred times per day,” Balko writes. “The vast majority of these raids are to enforce laws against consensual crimes.”
Such as drug sales and use.
“Rise of the Warrior Cop” concludes with the story of Cheye Calvo. On July 28, 2009, Calvo, who was the mayor of Berwyn Heights, Md., returned from walking his dogs, picked up a delivery package off his porch and went inside his home. Moments later the front door of his house was blown open, he and his mother-in-law had guns aimed at their faces and both of his dogs were shot and killed—by the police. Calvo committed no crime. The package, which contained marijuana, was intended for another party—not Calvo or anyone in his home. Police bungled the investigation and its aftermath. They aimed guns at an upstanding member of the community and an elderly woman and killed two dogs because they thought Calvo was the intended recipient of a substance that is now legal in two states. It’s an episode sure to enrage anyone with a sense of decency.
Calvo used the violent invasion of his home and death of his dogs to become a champion for reform, which is the theme of the final chapter of Balko’s book.
“How do we return to a more robust embrace of the Castle Doctrine, the Fourth Amendment, and an unbreachable divide between the police and the military?” Balko asks.
The author offers a number of sensible solutions. If the book has a flaw, it’s that as common sense as Balko’s proposed reforms may seem, they don’t seem possible to achieve in the current political climate. What is the incentive for lawmakers to reign in police power? Who runs a campaign and wins on that issue? It’s not impossible, but it hardly seems likely. It’s tough to fault Balko for not striking a note of total pessimism, but the magnitude of the challenge is understated.
“Rise of the Warrior Cop” is a must-read for anyone who serves in law enforcement, writes criminal law or cares about maintaining a civil society in which citizens and police live in harmony. Balko raises a question in desperate need of addressing: Are today’s police forces consistent with the principles of a free society?
Let’s ask the citizens of Ferguson, Mo.