The Soldiers on Our Streets
How our protectors have gone from Barney Fife to Robocop
By Steven Robert Allen
Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America's Police Forces
America declares a lot of wars, and not all of them play out on foreign soil. We’ve got the War on Crime, the War on Drugs, the War on Terror. It’s a long list. These domestic wars tend to be extremely amorphous. We never quite know who the enemy is, and there’s no obvious way to measure victory or defeat. Because of this, they often go on forever. We’re never actually going to defeat Crime or Drugs or Terror. These things have always existed in our society, and they always will.
There are other drawbacks to this kind of domestic warfare. One of the biggest is that it’s transformed our police officers from agents of peace and public safety into warriors. That transformation has become especially obvious since 9/11, but its roots go back at least as far as the creation of Special Weapons And Tactics (SWAT) teams during the 1960s. SWAT teams were once used only to deal with the most extreme, violent scenarios—hostage situations and the like. These days, SWAT teams can be used for almost anything, including raiding illegal poker games or even breaking up parties with underage drinking.
Balko is the perfect person to tell the story of this disturbing culture shift, detailing the precise manner in which our country has turned its back on some of its most sacred principles.
In his book Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces (PublicAffairs; paperback; $17.99), Radley Balko traces the concern with using soldiers as police all the way back to Roman times. Of particular interest is his description of how the use of British soldiers to enforce the law in the colonies set “long-smoldering hostilities aflame” and led directly to the American Revolution. When it came to crafting the Constitution, the founders consciously enshrined rights within that document that would restrain soldiers from ever being used to enforce laws on domestic soil.
courtesy of PublicAffairs
But this was decades before modern police forces even existed. The first police department in the United States was created in 1845 in New York City. Over time the political rhetoric around all of the country’s many amorphous enemies dramatically altered the public’s view of what a police officer could and should be. As Balko writes, “instead of allowing our soldiers to serve as cops, we’re turning our cops into soldiers.”
Balko is the perfect person to tell the story of this disturbing culture shift, detailing the precise manner in which our country has turned its back on some of its most sacred principles. As a writer for the Washington Post, he specializes in covering criminal justice, drug policy and civil liberties. In most American cities, he says, police officers don’t look anything like they did a few decades ago. They’re often armed to the hilt with helmets, body armor and assault weapons. They can look more like RoboCop than Barney Fife.
There’s a price to be paid for sexy but idiotic short-term political solutions. We’re paying that price now with police departments who often seem to view the general public as the enemy.
Given the grim subject matter, Rise of the Warrior Cop tells this tale in a surprisingly entertaining and gripping manner. Once he lays out the deeper historical background for his story, Balko spends most of the book digging into the ugliness of the “tough on crime” psychology that has plagued the United States for the last 50 years, and he has a real knack for making this material accessible.
To take just one example, Balko does a fantastic job describing the Machiavellian manipulations of Richard Nixon’s administration in pushing for lock-them-up-and-throw-away-the-key laws for drug-related violations, even though Nixon and his crew had plenty of evidence that treatment programs were a far more effective way to address drug abuse and associated crime. Nixon’s rationale? Pure politics, of course. He understood that putting forward ridiculous, draconian, anti-crime laws would put the fear into white Americans in the suburbs and give him the political clout he craved. Adopting a sensible strategy for reducing crime and addressing drug abuse certainly would have been better policy. But as Balko shows us over and over again throughout this book, sensible crime policy isn’t what wins elections.
There’s a price to be paid for sexy but idiotic short-term political solutions. We’re paying that price now with police departments who often seem to view the general public as the enemy. Balko uses most of the chapters in Rise of the Warrior Cop to walk us through the decades from the 1960s through the present, as American politicians attempt to outdo each other in an absurd competition to appear tougher on crime than their opponents. What the American people got out of this dark political theater is a swamp of terrible public policy with a long list of bad consequences, including cops in almost every city in America who look and act like Marines on the hunt for Osama bin Laden.
Since the Albuquerque Police Department shot James Boyd—the homeless man accused of illegal camping in the Sandia foothills—our city has been central to the national debate around the militarization of law enforcement. For many of us, it will be difficult to erase from our minds the brutal imagery of APD officers in helmets tossing flash grenades, unleashing a German Shepherd and firing their assault weapons at Boyd as he tried to surrender to them.
The result of incidents like these, of course, is increasing distrust between communities and the law enforcement agencies tasked with serving them. We’ve seen that wariness expand here in Albuquerque. Anyone who truly wants to understand the roots of that lack of trust should get a copy of this extraordinary book. Knowledge might just give us the tools we need to change this alarming state of affairs.
Steven Robert Allen is the Director of Public Policy at the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico where he works on criminal justice reform, among other issues.
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