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by Peter Moskos

June 22, 2013

Lockdown Nation: How military-style policing became America's new normal

If you care about the militarization of police, and Radley Balko makes a strong case you should, read his "fascinating and sometimes terrifying" Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America's Police Forces. That quote is mine. And you can find them in the July/August issue of Pacific Standard, a great new (to me) magazine coming from California.

Here's an excerpt of my review:

Journalist Radley Balko traces the changes in American policing from colonial times to the present. His focus, though, is law enforcement's increased reliance on military hardware and strategy in the last 45 years.

Paramilitary policing quickly spread across the country. Today there are more than 1,000 U.S. police forces with SWAT or SWAT-type units. In 1980, nationwide, they carried out an average of eight paramilitary raids a day; now there are well over 100. Balko attempts to explain why this happened, and why it matters.

Paramilitary police tactics were designed, Balko writes, “to stop snipers and rioters-people already committing violent crimes.” Today, however, SWAT teams are used mostly “to serve warrants on people suspected of nonviolent crimes.” Paramilitary raids on American homes, which just four decades ago seemed extraordinary, have become common, as has legal forgiveness for any “collateral damage.” The Supreme Court has by and large acquiesced, creating a string of drug-related exceptions to the Fourth Amendment.

Balko carefully prefaces his argument by noting that it isn't, at its core, "anti-cop." I suspect this is because he hopes to convince as many people as possible. As a former police officer, I have my doubts. Balko asserts that most police officers regularly commit felonious perjury. Lying, he writes, is "routine," "expected," and "part of the job." He supplies little evidence for this claim – an absence that is particularly notable because the rest of his book is so meticulously researched and thoroughly footnoted. "Bad cops are the product of bad policy," he warns us. But this is too glib. Bad policy creates bad policing. Bad police, however many there may be, are a separate problem.

Even if SWAT raids don’t pose an existential threat to American liberty – and Balko makes a strong case that they do – Rise of the Warrior Cop persuasively demonstrates that they're simply unnecessary. The problem has little to do with the Constitution, and solving it doesn't require some radical innovation in police practice. Most warrants are served just fine the old-fashioned way: by knocking on someone's front door. In tactically tricky situations, police can wait for their suspect to walk to the corner store. The relevant question is political: Having given our police broad access to military weapons and tactics, will we ever choose to take them away?

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PS: I feel compelled to mention the great experience I had writing this book review for Pacific Standard. I worked with editor Peter Baker once before when he was with Washington Monthly. I've actually had good luck with editors over the years, but other writers crook their eyebrows and then get jealous when I mention such positive experiences. Perhaps I have been very lucky, but it's a shame it's even noteworthy to work with a collaborative and helpful hands-on editor. Speaking of all too rare in publishing today, kudos also go to Pacific Standard  for paying good money for a writer's labor. And paying promptly. Thanks!

June 14, 2013

How much do blue crabs cost this week?

The question everybody is asking, for sure. I don't even know, when is the cheapest time to buy crabs? Clearly not this week. (if you click on the link, you can see the crabs are still alive, which is pretty amazing for a cooked crab!)