This isn’t a scene from the deserts of Iraq. These were our streets—right here in Albuquerque—during some of the gatherings earlier this year in protest of police violence. We’ve seen similar scenes in our city in recent years. How did we arrive at a place where police in the United States look and act more like Marines than peace officers?
Radley Balko literally wrote the book on the phenomenon of police militarization. An investigative reporter at the Washington Post and former analyst at the Cato Institute, Balko specializes in dissecting some of the stickier civil liberties and criminal justice issues of our time. His book, Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces, was recently released in paperback. It is the definitive account of how American law enforcement has traveled down the wrong road over the last 35 years, transforming into the equivalent of an occupying military force in many communities across the country, including right here in Albuquerque.
We are just beginning the long, difficult process of reforming our beleaguered Albuquerque Police Department and restoring the lost trust between the police and our communities. On Thursday, Nov. 6, in an event sponsored by APD Forward (apdforward.org) and Bookworks, Balko will share his insights into how we can take this historic opportunity and transform it into something meaningful and lasting for our city. The Alibi recently chatted with Balko by phone about his work shining a light into the darkest corners of police militarization in the United States.
What initially sparked your interest in the militarization trend in law enforcement?
It goes back to when I was working as a policy analyst at the Cato Institute in Washington. My beat was basically civil liberties, especially the drug war. I kept reading these stories about police raids where the police would raid the wrong house or an innocent person would get caught in the crossfire or something else would go horribly wrong. At the end of the story, someone from the police department would always say, “This is an isolated incident.” But when you read enough of these stories, you start wondering how isolated these incidents really are. It was reading these stories and getting angry on behalf of the people who were victimized that got me interested in this topic.
This issue has gotten a lot of attention lately, largely due to the meltdown in Ferguson, Mo. Share your thoughts on what happened there. Does it present new opportunities for transforming policing in the United States?
Ferguson certainly put a spotlight on the issue and spurred a national discussion. Congress had hearings on militarization. I think that’s the first time this has ever happened, despite the fact that police militarization has been going on for about 35 years. You’re starting to see inklings of concern on the part of lawmakers. Of course there have always been complaints about aggressive police, SWAT raids and militarization from the social justice and racial justice movements, but Ferguson ignited a larger debate. Whether anything good comes out of it, I don’t know. The police are a very sympathetic group. It’s difficult for politicians to stand up to them.
Certainly officers face threats, but I think those threats are overstated. Last year was actually the safest for police officers in 50 years in terms of officers dying on the job. The soldier mindset makes it difficult for even a good, conscientious officer to do the right thing when he sees misconduct.
One part of your book that I thought was particularly powerful is when you discuss the political dynamics of this issue.
Well, the reason why militarization has been able to get to the point it has is because on the left-right continuum, the left has been dismissive when these tactics have been used against people they consider to be part of the right, and the right has been indifferent when these tactics are used against people they consider to be part of the left. Of course the ACLU has always been very consistent on these issues, going to court on behalf of people who I’m sure the ACLU membership and staff don’t find particularly sympathetic. I think they deserve a lot of praise for that consistency. It’s very easy to defend the rights of people you agree with. It takes some consistency and principles to defend the rights of people you don’t agree with.
As you point out in your book, the federal government has played a big role in creating this problem. Can a federal entity like the Department of Justice be part of the solution for a city like Albuquerque that has been trying to fix its police department for decades?
I’m very critical of President Obama in many ways, but I think his use of the Justice Department to probe, investigate and correct police misconduct is commendable. He’s done more with that department than any prior president. That said, I also don’t think it’s a panacea. Real change has to come at the local level.
What are the obstacles to getting beyond the so-called Blue Code of Silence so that good officers finally have the freedom to point out misconduct among their fellow officers?
Part of it goes back to militarization again. Police officers are told every day that they’re fighting wars against crime or terror or drugs. They’re told that they’re soldiers in battle. There is a bunker mentality among police where they exaggerate the threats that they face. Certainly officers face threats, but I think those threats are overstated. Last year was actually the safest for police officers in 50 years in terms of officers dying on the job. The soldier mindset makes it difficult for even a good, conscientious officer to do the right thing when he sees misconduct. Whistleblower protection laws can also help undermine the Blue Code of Silence along with a firm message from police leadership that whistleblowing is encouraged and that retaliation won’t be tolerated.
One of your recommendations for reform is having police use body-worn cameras. We already have a requirement in Albuquerque that all officers use cameras, but they often seem to malfunction or not be turned on in situations where police have used force against people. What are your thoughts on how this technology can be effectively implemented?
Having an independent narrative of police interactions with citizens is critical. Cameras are just as likely to exonerate an officer from false allegations. Good officers should welcome this transparency. In terms of the odd pattern of these cameras malfunctioning at critical times, from a legal standpoint I’m not sure how you implement this, but I’ve advocated what you might call the missing video presumption. If there’s an incident where the body-worn camera video goes missing for some reason, whether the camera malfunctions or it’s accidentally deleted or lost, the courts will view the case as if the video [exists] and supports the complaining party’s version of events. You could still overcome that presumption if you had 10 or 20 witnesses or some other compelling evidence, but if there should have been video and there isn’t because the police either didn’t turn the camera on or take care of the evidence, I think you have to look at the evidence in a light that would favor the complaining party. This also provides a good incentive for police to take good care of the video.
It’s very easy to defend the rights of people you agree with. It takes some consistency and principles to defend the rights of people you don’t agree with.
In the book you contend that troubled police departments will never be reformed until politicians pay a political price for failing to identify and fix problems within these departments. The dynamic right now, as you know, is that there are political points to be made by supporting police in almost every circumstance. How can that dynamic change so there is a political price for politicians to pay when they fail to jump on this problem and be serious about it?
I think one way to do it is to organize. I don’t see any reason why there couldn’t be a super PAC that specifically targets abusive sheriffs or district attorneys who show poor discretion in how they prosecute cases, or even mayors who don’t properly oversee their city’s police departments. We should be paying attention to races for district attorney, and I think policing should be a much more prominent part of mayoral races than it is. So I don’t see why a social justice, racial justice or criminal justice group couldn’t start some sort of super PAC. All you need to do is have a few high profile cases where you run some ads pointing out a mayor’s support for a corrupt police department or a district attorney’s bad decisions. You’ll get a bunch of free media and maybe some trophies in those particular races, but now everybody’s on notice. They know there are these groups out there that might target them if they make bad decisions and don’t pay attention to these issues, letting police departments spiral out of control. That could even extend to state legislators or members of Congress who sponsor particularly dumb crime bills or who continue to support programs that produce predictably bad results. In the end there needs to be an organized movement to extract that political price.
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.