How We Got Warrior Cops

An Interview with Radley Balko

by , July 13, 2013

High-profile police response to terrorism threats – as in the case of the Boston bombing – grab headlines, but it wasn’t the paranoias of our post-9/11 world that made cops often indistinguishable from an army. It started earlier. It started with the war on drugs.

The rule about war is there are always casualties – even if the conflict was initially a rhetorical one. The phenomenon of the the rapid increase in the use of SWAT raids – and the very real casualties that have resulted – was relatively unexplored until Radley Balko. In 2006 Balko, then a policy analyst at Cato, wrote the white paper "Overkill: The Rise of Paramilitary Police Raids in America". The overuse of SWAT raids – mainly fueled by the war on drugs, now used for even more absurd reasons – has been Balko’s reporting and policy focus, spanning his tenures at Cato, Reason, and now the Huffington Post.

This week Balko released his culmination of years of covering just what the hell happened to law enforcement with Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces (PublicAffairs). On July 4, I called him at his home in Nashville to discuss what he calls his "how-we-got-here sort of book" and what, if anything, can be done to change the face of policing in America.

Q: You begin the book talking about what you refer to as "the symbolic Third Amendment." Can you explain that, and what it has to do with militarized police?

A: The Third Amendment is the overlooked amendment. There’s never been a Supreme Court case about it. It’s been a long since we’ve had a war that was fought within U.S. borders, so the idea of the government needing to quarter troops in people’s homes has rarely come up.

What I argue in the book – and there’s academics who have found some historical research to back this up – is that the quartering was something that Founders were concerned about. But the Third Amendment was more a kind of a placeholder for this broader idea of being on guard against an overly militaristic society. People like Washington, and Adams, and Jefferson were all students of history. You particularly find them writing a lot about Rome, and how the Roman Republic turned into an Empire. You had the Praetorian Guards – sort of the first police force in recorded history – who started to take on a more military role. Militarism overtook Roman society more generally. So I think that the Founders had this aversion to standing armies. Even the more moderate of the founders like Adams and Hamilton were very, very wary of standing armies. And hardcore anti-federalists wanted nothing. They didn’t want an army, even for defense. The Third Amendment, along with the Second and the Fourth – you take them all together and I think it presents a reaction to what the Founders knew about history; what they witnessed in Boston when the British troops were stationed. It was just generally a symbolic stand against militarism in a free society.

Q: How much has policing changed? Was there ever really an "Officer Friendly"? Aren’t there just good cops and bad cops now, same as always?

A: There was never a halcyon days of community policing. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to get to that point. Certainly you had bad cops going back to the first police departments. And you’ve always had corrupt cops – cops that take advantage of their position and their power. But I think what’s really changed in the last 35 years or so is the amount of force that is officially permitted and encouraged. So while in the ‘40s, and ‘50s, and ‘60s, you can have rogue cops who would beat people and probably get away with it, it was still sort of against policy. What we’ve seen today is this kind of aggressive, military-like force is sanctioned. In a lot of jurisdictions, the SWAT team is the first choice to serve search warrants. There was a time – a good ten, 15 years after the invention of the SWAT team – when they were the last choice.

Q: There are something like 100-150 SWAT raids a day on homes, mostly over narcotics. In some cases, homeowners have been injured or killed. But these raids have been known to turn out badly for cops. Why are cops continuing these policies, if it’s dangerous for them as well?

A: Cops argue that these tactics are necessary because of dangerous, heavily-armed people who want to kill them. That misnomer has been perpetuated in the media and I think a lot of people have bought into it. It’s not really backed by any empirical data. Studies show that criminals aren’t more heavily armed than they’ve been in the past. In fact, drug dealers – who are the main targets of these raids – tend to prefer very small, easily concealable weapons….

If you’re breaking into somebody’s home at night, you’re waking them up. You’re eliciting a very primal response in them; a fight or flight sort of response – and flight isn’t an option. People are disoriented and confused when they wake up. These raids are designed to disorientate and confuse people. When you’re raiding completely innocent people – or nonviolent offenders and small-time pot dealers – you’re creating confrontation.

Q: Even if someone actually intended to take out a couple of cops, they could fairly reasonably claim "oh, I didn’t know."

A: That’s the thing – drugs dealers are in the drug-dealing game because they have self interest. They want to accumulate wealth. And they know if you kill a cop, first you’ll be lucky to survive the next five or six seconds, and second, you’re either going to be executed or you’re going to be in prison for the rest of your life. I think – and again, most of the cops I interviewed for the book will back this up – that even when drug dealers shoot and kill cops during these raids, most of the time they thought that they were being ripped off by another drug dealer.

You could be forgiven for thinking that cops are more likely to use these tactics against people they know aren’t going to shoot back. If you look at how cops serve warrants against people who are suspected of violent crimes, they don’t go in in the middle of the night and take people by surprise most of the time. When they took Whitey Bulger down – this guy that was wanted for 19 murders, armed to the teeth, old age – if anybody was going to go down in a blaze of glory and take out a bunch of cops, it would have been him. Yet they didn’t send a SWAT team. They did their research and found out Bulger rented a storage unit, and they called him and said someone had broken into the storage unit. He showed up, and they arrested him without incident. I think it’s telling that when you have really dangerous people, that cops find creative ways to arrest them that don’t put police officers and the public at risk. And you can’t do that with drug warrants, because there are so damn many of them. Cops just don’t have the time, or the resources to get creative.

Q: So, we have the military-style tech and the cops’ new mentality of being a "soldier" and America declaring a "war on drugs" – which of these came first, and which was the biggest catalyst for the current state of policing?

A: The rhetoric came first. Nixon declared a war on drugs in ‘71, and pushed through the no-knock raid bill at about the same time. That’s when we first started seeing these narcotics cops kicking in doors, screaming at people and throwing guns in people’s faces.

In most of those cases they were wearing street clothes – they were undercover cops – they weren’t breaking in with SWAT gear. In the ‘70s you did start to see some of the military-type equipment start filtering down to police departments, but it really wasn’t until the ‘80s that it kicked into high gear. The Reagan administration and a pretty compliant Congress started to erase some of these traditions of separating the military from domestic police and encouraging the sharing of equipment. But once both of those things had been established – the rhetoric, and the policies, and then the equipment – I think they all just feed off of each other. When you go out dressed like a soldier and politicians are telling you that you’re at war, and you’ve got a soldier’s gun in your hands, all those things are going to contribute to a kind of battlefield mentality.

Q: You mention San Diego and a few places that "bucked the trend of militarized police," as you put it, and they seem to have a correlation with lower than national average crime rates. Is there any way to convince people that the cop in camo and the Bearcat Armored vehicle isn’t necessarily keeping anyone safe? I know that people always think crime rates are getting worse, no matter what.

A: There’s always an incentive for police agencies and government officials to make people think that the crime rate is worse than it is. There’s always a reason that we have to get tough on some new aspect of crime by passing new laws and giving new powers to police. And every year when the police fatality statistics come out, whether the number of cops killed on the job went up or down in the previous year, police groups always argue that that’s a reason why the police need to be given more power. When the numbers go down it’s see, all these powers you gave us are working, and you should give us more. When it goes up, they sound the alarm and say this is why we need more power.

Q: How very convenient.

A: It is a convenient way of framing the debate. You see that with the war on terror….

Q: Is there a point where cops just become soldiers? How thin is that line now?

A: The one barrier that has mostly remained intact – although Reagan tried to erase this one, too – I was going to say that the one thing we’ve prevented the military from doing is searches and making arrests. But that wasn’t your question.

Q: That’s relevant to the query.

A: Sort of, but it doesn’t say at what point do cops become just out and out soldiers….

I spoke at Pepperdine a few months ago, and there was a professor in the audience who was in the military, and his son was in the military, and he was really offended after my talk. Not because he disagreed with anything I said, but because he said he hated the word "militarization." He said he found it offensive as a military person and a military family. He said these stories that you’re talking about is way beyond – even when they raid villages in Iraq and Afghanistan, the people that live there get more consideration than these people are getting during these drug raids.

Q: Is that really true?

A: When the Jose Guerena SWAT raid video came out, I showed it to a guy who trained raid teams in Iraq and Afghanistan. He watched the video and said half of those guys would be court-martialed if that had happened overseas – if a military team did what that SWAT team did. I’m sure it varies from unit to unit within the military. I’m sure there are rogue soldiers who do bad things in these raids, just like there are rogue cops. But the argument I hear from these military guys is that the sort of official policy – what’s acceptable – is much more strict and kind of deferential to the rights of the people being raided than in a lot of police departments. I don’t know how you verify that, but I think it’s darkly amusing. This wasn’t the only time someone has made that point to me, it’s happened before.

Q: I distrust cops more than people in the military, and I always thought that was sort of unreasonable of me.

A: Oh I do, too. I know lots of soldiers – or former soldiers and vets – who are hardcore libertarians. I know few cops who are.

Q: Me too. That’s true.

When weed becomes legalized – eventually all drugs – is that going to come with a de-militarization of cops? Or are they just going to use terrorism, or something, as an excuse to keep all this tech and power?

A: It would certainly help if marijuana were legalized. It would give SWAT teams less to do. I think it’s going to take a grand, revolutionary moment to ever significantly de-militarize. But if cops aren’t breaking into people’s home over pot anymore, that’s a huge chunk of what these raids are for. So that would put a pretty good dent in things. But government agencies are notoriously adept at finding new ways to stay relevant….

Q: It seems like you need to change the minds of voters, and cops, and officials at the local, state, and federal level, and at the Supreme Court. Would any one of those be the domino that knocks it all over and changes policy?

A: Ending the drug war – completely ending the drug war – would be a huge step in the right direction. That’s never going to happen, but –

Q: Never?

A: I don’t think it’s ever going to get to the point where people are okay with legalized heroin. I’m just not optimistic about it. I do think pot will be mostly legal within next ten years or so. But there are a lot of efforts towards community policing and an effort to make cops part of the communities that they serve. The problem is that progressives love to get federal community policing grants, and they don’t realize that a lot of police departments consider roving SWAT teams patrolling the neighborhood an important part of community policing.

So there’s a disconnect there. There’s a disconnect between how Congress thinks money is going to be spent, and how it’s actually spent. But I do think there is a movement – a small movement – within the law enforcement community to take the more community-oriented approach. Cops walking more beats instead of driving around in patrol cars, that sort of thing.

As people are getting more outraged by this stuff, you do start to see pressure on police departments to change policies. As a result of the drug raid video in Columbia, Missouri that went viral, the department issued a number of policies about no more SWAT raids at night, no raids where there are children in the house. I would have prefered that they went a lot farther, but take your victories where you can get them. And in a lot of cities where there’s been a high-profile dog-shooting, the department has instituted training for dealing with dogs. So, if there’s a reason to be optimistic I think it’s that we have the tools – the technological tools, the social media tools – to hold cops more accountable. And to actually show more – both to hold bad cops more accountable and to actually show how these policies are playing out in the real world.

In that Missouri raid video, when people actually saw how the drug war was being fought on the ground, they were horrified. And that was a standard raid, nothing unusual about it….

Read more by Lucy Steigerwald