Book Review: Rise of the Warrior Cop
by Mad Rocket Scientist
To many of you, I am easily slotted into the “libertarian” box in your mental pigeon-holes, but the reality is that I am extremely liberal, at least in the classical sense. I believe in freedom, and liberty, and the constitution; but I also believe in welfare (having survived because of it once upon a time), public schools, progressive taxes, etc. I don’t want government to take care of all of us, but I do want government to play referee between citizens and protect us from powerful interests, be they criminal or corporate. More than the Night Watchman, less than the Socialist Utopia, but still quite liberal in a great many ways.
What shattered my liberal ideal, what destroyed my trust in the benign good of government, was hearing about SWAT raids gone wrong.
I was in High School when I first began to suspect that police were not always on the side of justice in the abstract sense. I had grown up in Sheboygan County, and when I was 16, I had gotten into a bad car wreck with a farmer in neighboring Fond du Lac county, in which the farmer was killed. I was eventually cleared of any wrong doing in the incident, but the fact that the responding Deputy had told the judge during my hearing that I did nothing wrong was a huge part of why I was cleared. Afterward, a friend of the family, who was a reserve Deputy in Sheboygan County, told me it was a good thing it had happened in Fond du Lac County, because the Sheboygan deputies would have made sure I faced a trial, not just a hearing (they always wanted ‘justice’ for the farmer, even if he was in the wrong).
That is some pretty cold reality to splash on a kid.
In college, the internet was this new thing everyone had, and suddenly I had access to news from all over the country, not just Madison and other parts of South Eastern Wisconsin. As someone who was already a little tuned into the abuses of the police, I was drawn to stories of SWAT raids gone wrong, especially after a couple of bad raids happened in 1995 in Wisconsin. After seeing enough of those on the web, you start to realize, these aren’t isolated incidents, and innocent people are getting hurt and killed by the very people sworn to protect them.
The image of the benign good was gone.
So it’s no surprise that I bought Rise of The Warrior Cop, byRadley Balko. What did surprise me was how hard it was to read. It wasn’t the writing, which was very even and measured, very academic. It was the emotional waves it incited in me, alternating between fear and anger. I kept having to stop reading it so I could calm down enough to pick it up again without throwing my phone at the wall. And again, Balko isn’t writing in an inflammatory way, there is little in the way of hyperbole, or overblown rhetoric from Balko. Rather, he allows the police and the politicians and the innocent victims to speak for themselves, and you can’t help but have a visceral, emotional reaction.
The book itself is heavily cited and chronicles the history of the build up of military hardware and tactics within law enforcement organizations, including the political and legal decisions, as well as the programs that not only allowed it to happen, but actively encouraged it. Starting with (essentially) Nixon, and carrying forward to today, he names names, provides quotes, and explains decisions and motivations in an almost clinical sense. He takes apart the perverse incentives of the drug war (and now the terror war). He explains how federal money specifically targeted to drug arrests and convictions hamper the investigation of other crimes that can not be tied to drugs, and are then often given a much lower priority for resources. He never needs to be bellicose to get his point across; the quotes do it for him. It’s like watching a biologist speak in scientific terms about the life cycle and biology of an alien xenomorph, while Alien is playing on the screen behind him (“And here we see the larval xenomorph exiting the host…” while John Hurt has a seizure on the table as his torso rips open).
Balko knows what kind of reaction most people will have to his material, so he does layer in bits of hope. Stories of cities that do policing right, like San Diego and San Jose. He includes stories of officers and politicians understanding the error of their ways and working to reverse the trend. One story that really hit me was that of a female officer who would go on raids and take care of kids who might be home during the raid. Her moment of clarity came when after the door busters were done, she was sent into a room where the two kids had been placed. She enters the room, in a full tactical load-out, and the 8-year old girl jumps in front of her younger brother to protect him and demands of the officer, “What are you going to do to us?!”. She realizes that to that child, she is not the good guy. Her and her fellow officers have just succeeded in terrorizing two innocent children, for nothing. Balko also lists some ways that we can begin to improve the situation, with ideas both big & small.
In the end, my big take away, at least of the broader political perspective, is that the Republicans really are the architects of the “militarization” of the police. (I use quotes here because the military generally has tighter rules of engagement and greater accountability for screw-ups.) They worked to construct the legal environment that made accountability all but non-existent. But don’t damn them alone, the Democrats happily skipped along right beside them. Some names I did not expect to see in this book was that of Senator Joe Biden, who was the author and supporter of a large number of laws which made significant changes to the nature of police in our country. Senator Chuck Schumer is another who just couldn’t bear to be seen as soft on crime. It is no wonder Obama hasn’t been backing off of the drug war, if his party is so heavily invested in it.
For me, this was very much a worthy read, emotional reactions aside. I can not recommend it enough. If I could, I would happily loan the Kindle version out to any who asked.