Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America's Police Force

Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America's Police Forces, by Radley Balko (2013, Public Affairs Press, 382 pp., $27.99 HB)

Rise-of-the-Warrior-Cop

Whatever happened to Officer Friendly? You may recall that program, designed to improve police-community relations by acquainting children and young adults with law enforcement officers and explaining to them that police were their friends and were there to help. It was popular in the 1960s, but largely died out by the 1980s, although vestiges remain at a few police departments scattered around the country.

There may still be a smiling Officer Friendly on the force somewhere these days, but you wouldn’t know it, because he’s all dressed up in paramilitary gear, looking like an Imperial Storm Trooper, and that smiling face (if it exists at all) is hidden behind the darkened visor of his riot helmet.

To be sure, Officer Friendly was always a public relations effort. Even back in the halcyon 1960s, his friendliness toward you was largely determined by your net wealth, your neighborhood, and your race. But back then, we still had a working Fourth Amendment and we didn’t have the war on drugs at least the drug war that we have today. We didn’t have SWAT teams marauding across the landscape. And if not all police officers were really friendly, at least they looked like normal human beings, not winners of a Darth Vader look-alike contest. [Ed: Most police officers aren’t on SWAT teams and don’t dress like Darth Vader — but you know what we’re saying.]

Written by veteran investigative journalist Radley Balko, who’s been covering the drug war, policing, and criminal justice beat for years at places like Reason magazine, the Cato Institute and Huffington Post, Rise of the Warrior Cop explains what happened. It’s a long story whose origins go back to colonial days, but in Balko’s hands, an entertaining and illuminating story — as well as depressing and frightening — told with verve and gusto, meticulously researched, and filled with telling historical detail.

Balko traces the origins of policing back to the colonies and exposes the tension between fears of a standing army and the need for an effective force to maintain public order. He shows how the values (and fears) of the Founding Fathers were expressed both in the Castle Doctrine (“a man’s home is his castle”) and the Bill of Rights, whose 3rd Amendment forbade the stationing of troops in private homes in peacetime and whose Fourth Amendment protected persons and their homes from government intrusion without a warrant.

Balko’s telescoping work brings us rapidly to the dawn of the contemporary period a half-century ago, when rising crime rates and social disorder sparked heightened public concern and increased willingness by the public and the men in blue to resort to ever more repressive and aggressive policing measures to stem the tide of anarchy unleashed by pot-smoking hippies, anti-war activists, and uppity blacks.

And if you want to put a face on the militarization of American policing, Balko has just the man for you: former LAPD Chief Darryl Gates, advocate of professionalized law enforcement, creator of the first SWAT team and proponent of harsh measures against drug users — he told Congress they should be executed. Gates was first out of the blocks with SWAT, but in the years since then, SWAT teams popped up first in other big cities, then in medium-sized cities, and then in smaller towns and cities across the country.

Originally designed to be used in rare situations involving the need for special weapons and tactics (Special Weapons And Tactics, SWAT), such as riots like the one that swept Los Angeles in 1965 and hostage situations, such as the shootout involving the Symbionese Liberation Army, the group who kidnapped Patty Hearst, in 1974, Balko details how SWAT has undergone “mission creep.” From being used rarely and only in the most extreme circumstances in the beginning, SWAT teams now are deployed dozens of times a day, tens of thousands of times a year, and are routinely used against low-level, nonviolent drug offenders.

The application of such aggressive policing gets people killed, including both cops and innocent citizens, as well as criminals. As he guides the reader through recent history, we revisit ugly scenes that regular Chronicle readers may recall, and some that many have doubtless never heard of. The litany of needless deaths because of law enforcement overkill is infuriating — and terrifying.

Of course, police alone did not militarize themselves. Politicians, especially those trying to win votes playing the “law and order” card, encouraged, enabled, and emboldened police. And, as Balko brilliantly shows, the imperatives of the drug war were a key motivator for political leaders like Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and George Bush the Elder, all of whom expanded and deepened the war on drug users and sellers largely for political gain.

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  • Jeff Loughman

    As I was reading your article I was listening to the sound of my local PD having their weekly Firing Range day. I live in a relatively small Northern New England seacoast town. Sound from the firing range,which the PD has set up down at the town transfer station(dump) carries nicely across the salt marsh. Having done a tour with the USMC in the 80’s I am very familiar with the sound of assault and heavy weaponry. Funny thing is the last time someone actually shot someone in my town it was an off duty cop who shot a local man over a private dispute. Officer Friendly and his “to protect and serve” motto on his cruiser has been replaced by Officer “Terminator” in his wrap around dark shades, scowling at all that dare to look in his direction as he prepares to climb aboard the armored personnel carrier the PD just got from the Dept of Fatherland Security.( a modern day and effective battering ram capable of knocking down the gate of the stoutest of “Castles”) The once cheerful and subservient motto has been replaced with a bumper sticker that reads Warning: This vehicle speeds up to run over your civil liberties.