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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?


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!


Anonymous said...

This sounds like the US is becoming more and more like an authoritarian state. As an European this really shocks me.

Anonymous said...

Good review, Peter. I'm glad you got to do that.

I have been a fan of Balko for quite some time, though I have some policy differences with him (particularly on economics). As a (right-) libertarian, Balko isn't so much anti-cop as he is anti-government. There is much to be said for having a healthy skepticism about state power, a characteristic that many progressives (think of the MSNBC crowd rallying around Obama) either lack or view as retrograde.

You may be justified in calling out Balko for not having data to back up his assertions about police lying. Still, I think you know as well as I do that police embraced "no snitching" even before the ghetto. And "testilying" is more common than either of us would like to think.

You don't have to go back and re-read Serpico to be reminded of this. Check out this link to see police lying in progress: http://www.sun-sentinel.com/videogallery/66322273/News/Camera-inside-police-cruiser-catches-Hollywood-police-lying-about-crash. Listen for this gem: "I don't lie and make things up ever because it's wrong, but if I need to bend it a little bit to protect a cop, I'll do it...".

What, so only little people can be found at fault after an MVC? Damn!

Whether the police are accomplished liars or not, I think we can agree that policing (and police attitudes) need a major overhaul in the US. I decided a couple years back that I couldn't, in good conscience, serve as a police officer. Today I am in the middle of a career transition to EMS. The first responder part of me is still there, but not the cop personality. When tradition is shady, fuck tradition.

In spite of my falling out policing, I hope for everyone's sake--private citizens and police alike--that we can solve these problems before more people--with or without badges--have to die.

Dave- IL

PCM said...

Balko makes a very good point saying the real differences are left-right but statist-individual.

I agree many cops have bad attitudes. I do not agree that many cops perjure themselves. Of course police testify in the way that best suits their side. Everybody in the criminal justice system does this. In an advisarial system, by and large you're supposed to do this.

I didn't click through the link yet, but I find nothing wrong with what the cop *said*. The system draws a line at perjury. If you respect that line, you're on the right side of the law. To some extent, it's a game. And police and everybody play that game to win.

The criminal justice system is dirty from the top down. Cops are part of that system. So to ask cops to rise to a higher standard then prosecutors, lawyers, and judges is both unfair an unrealistic.

Also keep in mind that Serpico was a cop in the 1960s!

And no shame in EMS!

Anonymous said...

Maybe I missed something in the Florida story, but I believe he invented a story in order to pin the blame for a crash on a woman because "she's hammered anyway." You've spent more time in court than me, but I'm not sure how that wouldn't have been perjury.

Other than that, I agree with your sentiments. All of the above need to remember who they work for. Real transparency (not Obama transparency) and an end to the drug war/vice enforcement would put us on the right path. After that, I might be less down on policing.

Regarding EMS, I think I've found a better fit for me. Medicine changes constantly, so EMS--a very young profession--is going to be forced to adapt to the times more than police and fire have.

There are a lot of EMS writers and bloggers out there. Their agencies even seem to tolerate them if they use their real names! I've done some political writing and may consider putting some of this experience to use on a blog at some point. If I do, you'll be my first criminal justice link.

Dave- IL

campbell said...

Balko and other libertarians have been the pushing the second amendment absolutist position for decades and now that AR's are one of the most commonly sold firearms in the country we're supposed to listen to them whine about the cops owning the same rifles? Similarly, he's all up in arms about the courts, the ME, etc. in places like Mississippi, when that's exactly the kind of state you end up with when it's populated by a bunch of antigovernment types. God, what a hack.

Ebenezer Scrooge said...

1. The state is not supposed to play to win. The state is supposed to play fair. It is the defense that is allowed to play to win.
2. I don't think that many people believe that police lie all the time. In most contexts, I think that they're a pretty honest tribe. But there are two contexts in which my guard is up whenever a cop's lips move: admissibility of testimony, and blue wall (or "police honor") matters. And I'll bring that to the jury box with me.

PCM said...

You're right about the role of the state vis-a-vis defence. But you can play fair and play win. And the defence is bound by rules of fair play, too. For instance you can't put your man on the stand to perjure himself.
But ideals aside, it would be naive to think either side is doing anything but playing to win. But yes, the prosecution should think longer and harder about truth and justice.

Brian S. said...

Great post, I completely agree about the militarization of police. I've been wanting to read Rise of the Warrior Cop. Great review!

Pierre Dickson said...

Anybody notice how most police departments now are wearing army fatigues and flak jackets...bloused boots, etc. I think in a few years there will be a "National Police" outside of the FBI. Just my thoughts....