Radley Balko’s Rise of the Warrior Cop

Radley Balko’s Rise of the Warrior Cop describes the increasing militarization of America’s police forces over the last several decades, and the immense harm it inflicts. It is the best new book on a law-related topic I have read so far this year.

I. The Growth of Militarized Policing.

Balko describes the growing use of military-style units, tactics, and equipment by law enforcement agencies around the country, including highly aggressive raids, the use of armored vehicles, and the deployment of overwhelming force of a kind traditionally reserved for military operations. The sheer scale of this militarization is staggering. For example, he notes that the number of SWAT team deployments has risen from a few hundred per year in the 1970s to over 50,000 in 2005. A wide range of state and federal law enforcement agencies now have military-style units, ranging from small-town rural police departments to such unlikely federal agencies as the National Park Service, the Postal Inspection Service, the Department of Agriculture, and the Fish and Wildlife Service

Most of the raids launched by these units target suspected low-level drug dealers, not terrorists, kidnappers, or violent criminals of any kind. The everyday use of such massive force predictably results in the death and injury of numerous innocent people. Balko documents numerous heartrending cases such as this one:

Sal Culosi is dead because he bet on a football game — but it wasn’t a bookie or a loan shark who killed him. His local government killed him, ostensibly to protect him from his gambling habit.

Several months earlier at a local bar, Fairfax County, Virginia, detective David Baucum overheard the thirty-eight-year-old optometrist and some friends wagering on a college football game…. After overhearing the men wagering, Baucum befriended Culosi as a cover to begin investigating him. During the next several months, he talked Culosi into raising the stakes of what Culosi thought were just more fun wagers between friends to make watching sports more interesting. Eventually Culosi and Baucum bet more than $2,000 in a single day. Under Virginia law, that was enough for police to charge Culosi with running a gambling operation. And that’s when they brought in the SWAT team.

On the night of January 24, 2006, Baucum called Culosi and arranged a time to drop by to collect his winnings. When Culosi, barefoot and clad in a T-shirt and jeans, stepped out of his house to meet the man he thought was a friend, the SWAT team began to move in. Seconds later, Det. Deval Bullock, who had been on duty since 4:00 AM and hadn’t slept in seventeen hours, fired a bullet that pierced Culosi’s heart.

Balko also documents how militarized police routinely inflict unnecessary injuries and property damage, including killing numerous pet dogs without provocation. As he points out, this is a symptom of a broader problem of indiscriminate violence:

It is another indicator of this battlefield approach that so many police officers have. If you think it’s appropriate to discharge your weapon in a public place – like what we saw in this more recent viral video in a residential area – if you think it’s appropriate to do this to prevent a dog from breaking your skin, that’s a mentality that says “police officers’ safety is to be preserved at all costs.”

I can name cases where police officers have shot dogs and missed and shot one another, shot bystanders. Even if you don’t particularly care about the dogs, it is dangerous. I’ve interviewed national spokesmen for the Humane Society who says they offer this kind of training to any department that wants it — it’s training that every U.S. postal worker gets and, you know, it’s training on how to read a dog’s body language, how to recognize a defensive dog from a vicious one and how to deal with these dogs in ways other than dealing with culpable force, and hardly any police agencies do this.

Balko documents how police who engage in unneccessary violence against civilians and their property are almost never punished, even in the most egregious incidents. He also explains how police militarization has created a law enforcement culture where many officers see the massive use of force as a normal part of doing business rather than a practice that should be reserved for extreme emergency situations.

II. Why it Happened.

Balko documents the causes of growing police militarization, which dates back to the late 1960s. A big one is the rise of the War on Drugs. As Balko explains, most militarized police operations target suspected drug dealers. A second culprit is the subsidization of police militarization by the federal government, which has often provided low-cost military equipment and heavy weaponry to local police forces. Balko argues that state and local governments probably would not have militarized their police to anything like the same degree if they had had to pay for it all themselves. The federal government also promotes police militarization by enabling local police to keep large amounts of property seized in drug raids through asset forfeitures, often even if the owners of the property were never convicted of any crime. In this way, militarized police units subsidized by federal funding can become a cash cow for their departments.

A third key factor emphasized by Balko is one that is a major theme of my own work: widespread political ignorance. Most people are unaware of either the vast extent of police militarization or of the harm it causes. When people think of SWAT team raids, they usually imagine them targeting dangerous violent criminals or big-time crimelords, not sports bettors and medical marijuana distributors.

This ignorance came about in part because police militarization developed only gradually over the course of many years. There was never any one highly publicized decision to promote it; instead, there was a series of incremental steps by police leaders and politicians of both parties, who found it expedient to appear “tough on crime.” Lobbying by a variety of special interest groups also played a role. As Balko explains, both Democrats and Republicans have generally supported the trend, with rare exceptions.

Balko shows how creeping police militarization arose in part because of the longstanding American tradition of barring the actual armed forces from domestic law enforcement. When urban riots and the War on Drugs began to heat up in the late 1960s, this incentivized officials to find some other way of deploying overwhelming force. Most Americans would never accept the routine use of troops for police raids; such tactics would likely be noticed by the voters and denounced across the political spectrum. But law enforcement militarization often passes unnoticed when the officials involved wear police uniforms rather than army ones.

Ironically, police militarization has now reached such a level that some actual military officers objected to Balko’s use of the term on the grounds that the kind of indiscriminate violence he describes would not be permitted by military commanders leading counterinsurgency operations. Modern counterinsurgency doctrine, as developed by Gen. David Petraeus and others, emphasizes restraint in the use of force in order to avoid unnecessarily antagonizing civilian populations.

As Balko recognizes, it would be a mistake to conclude that all or even most police officers are trigger-happy militarists. The vast majority still try to use force responsibly. He documents how some police officials decry the practices he describes, and a few departments have tried to curb their use. Balko argues that civilian politicians and public indifference deserve at least as much blame for police militarization as do the police themselves. It is also true, as he notes, that most Americans – particularly upper and middle-class Americans – have only a small chance of ever personally being victimized by over-aggressive police tactics.

Nonetheless, Rise of the Warrior Cop demonstrates in frightening detail how police militarization has increasingly led to indiscriminate violence. While only a relatively small minority of officers are guilty of serious abuses, institutionalized militarization enables that minority to continue those abuses and escape accountability.

If there is a comparatively weak part of the book, it is the section towards the end where Balko outlines potential reforms. He advocates imposing accountability on abusive officers, cutting back on the use of military equipment and tactics, and greater public awareness, among other steps. Most of his ideas seem sensible. But it is not clear that they can be achieved in the face of public ignorance, the lobbying of entrenched interest groups, and politicians’ fears of appearing to be “anti-cop.” One possible ray of hope is growing public skepticism about the War on Drugs, the policy that is one of the major causes of police militarization. But the beginning of any reform effort is recognition that we have a serious problem. Hopefully, Balko’s book will at least lead more people understand that we do.