Police militarization and rise of the warrior journalist

Radley Balko’s new book on police militarization — and subsequent articles by him and others — signals the radicalization of America’s discourse on civilian law enforcement

The spate of recent anti-police articles appearing in mainstream media, including the BBC, are a result of Radley Balko’s new book, Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces

Balko is clearly a man with a purpose: to change policing in the United States. He pursues his goal single-mindedly and characterizes virtually all use of SWAT teams and police officials executing warrants in drug raids as prima facia attacks on civil liberties. 

Following the publicity surrounding the book’s release, reports of police misconduct, spurious and otherwise, will continue to surface.

Advocacy Journalism
Balko wrote his book — which reads more like an effort to embarrass law enforcement than to stimulate internal reform — in three parts. The first is what one would expect from a libertarian: a history lecture. Here,  Balko makes the usual noise about a deterioration of Fourth Amendment rights, but he also includes a unique and interesting argument about the Third Amendment (see sidebar).  

For many civil libertarians the militarization of the police did not start with the outfitting of police departments with “military-style” equipment. Instead, the trend began with the “war on drugs” and the accompanying no-knock warrants and forced entry into homes to serve search and arrest warrants, which erode the common law principle of the Castle Doctrine. 

If nothing else,  Balko’s work is a spirited defense of the doctrine. 

For  Balko, a cop wearing a military-style uniform and carrying a “military grade” weapon is a byproduct of the larger problem of the erosion of our constitutional rights. Such decay would not be possible without support from politicians, police unions, and courts. All tolerate — and often encourage — constitutionally suspect police behavior. As a result, the character of those drawn to police work merely reflects a system characterized by “overkill.”  

Balko is certainly not alone in this view. From broad accusations that all police lie, and arguments about the constitutionality of the use of police cameras, to the expansive use of asset forfeiture, police conduct is under an increasing amount of public scrutiny. Recent revelations about NSA collection against U.S. citizens raise the specter of the police state and enliven the debate.

War on the Drug War
In the second part of the book  Balko argues that the “war on drugs” is the root cause for police abuse and eventual militarization. Overaggressive police, and over-armed SWAT teams, perennially smash the doors of innocents (or at least minorities and those on the economic margins), shoot beloved pets, aim guns at small children, and generally strike fear into the hearts of those they’re sworn to protect, creating a civil liberties nightmare in the process. 

For Balko, this is especially the case in smaller communities where SWAT teams may not be capable of de-escalating a situation before using force. 

In some cases his analysis is accurate and the instances painful to read. At other times his examples are fact-starved. As an advocacy journalist, however,  Balko eschews responsibility for providing a balanced assessment and forges ahead, paying little heed to these shortcomings. Instead of serving as an investigative journalist, he depends on the results of news reports and police departments’ often clunky efforts to manage mistakes in an era of litigious excess. 

He often fails to fully explore either the background of a botched raid or the results after the victims sue. He maintains instead that courts often promote law enforcement’s overreach with poor legal analysis — that is, analysis that doesn’t agree with his own. He also believes that drug legalization will go a long way toward alleviating drug-related violence. 

His wishful thinking is born of a libertarian and progressive naiveté about human nature. He claims that “drug dealers aren’t all that dangerous” and that the “targets of these raids pose little threat to anyone.” 

Maybe the drug dealers he knows, but such a universal declaration of innocence ignores the often big talk some drug dealers and gang wannabes use in front of cops and informers — information that can result in the understandable use of a SWAT team to serve a warrant.

In the third section, Balko makes a number of recommendations, some of which will prove controversial in police circles. Unsurprisingly he wants to end the “drug war,” along with federal subsidization of equipment for SWAT teams. He believes that “exigency” short of the protection of life is an insufficient reason to force access to a private dwelling without a warrant. 

He questions the use of confidential informants (CI) to bolster the justification for dynamic entry and comes close to suggesting that the use of CIs should end altogether. He recommends that police record all forced entry raids, de-emphasize arrest statistics as a measure of police success, and improve officer training in de-escalation skills. 

Most controversially he wants to end qualified immunity for police, and believes officers should be held to the higher legal standard demanded of private citizens.

Ignore the Argument at Your Own Peril
There’s a lot wrong in  Balko’s book, but there’s just enough right that law enforcement professionals should pay attention. 

Newer officers should read his book if they want a glimpse into why officers are often seen as the problem and not the solution. Dismissing his work — along with the growing amount of reporting on police misconduct — is a mistake. Just because something is legal today doesn’t make it right in all circumstances. Depending daily on practices designed for use in extremis can only lead to bad law and political over-reaction, risking the loss of important law enforcement tactics, techniques, and procedures. 

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