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Only half the problem
on March 20, 2014
Radley Balko's Rise of the Warrior Cop pulls a bit of a bait and switch. The book begins with a good summary of the origins of "Castle Doctrine" and the Constitution's Fourth Amendment; the former argues that, legally, a man's home is his castle, and entering it without permission amounts to an act of aggression, and the latter, which built on castle doctrine, protects American citizens from unreasonable search and seizure and established the legal requirement for warrants and probable cause.
These are live and important issues given recent events, and at first Balko seems to be laying out a history of the erosion of castle doctrine and fourth amendment protection. Balko uses case studies beginning in the 1950s to discuss breaches of fourth amendment rights by both federal and local police, breaches that not only violated civil rights but in a number of cases resulted in the deaths of civilians ostensibly protected by those rights. Balko also describes a number of incidents during the 1960s--including Charles Whitman's massacre at UT Austin but especially the Watts Riots--that raised concerns about the under-preparation of police for mass violence. The modern SWAT team, Balko shows, developed within the LAPD as a result of the lessons learned during those six days in Watts. The stage was set for the future "militarization" of American cops.
At this point Balko's focus shifts to the "War on Drugs" and barely looks back. Fourth Amendment rights are mere background to the rest of the book, in which Balko details a litany of botched drug raids, most of which involved civilian casualties. While Balko points out that the Nixon administration--and virtually every presidential administration thereafter--used drugs as an excuse to extend federal power, his obsessive focus on drugs implies that government overreach would not be a problem if marijuana were legalized.
What Balko does best in this book is invite outrage. "Wrong-door raids," in which police mistakenly pile into the homes of innocent people--sometimes the neighbors of their actual targets--are an especially infuriating idea, and Balko selects his numerous anecdotes for maximum outrage. He very clearly points out the way that, since the inception of SWAT teams, they have gone from specialized task forces to a first-response cure-all. He also shows quite well the difference between the US of a hundred years ago and the US now, in which Americans are so accustomed to the idea of SWAT teams that it takes a litany of outrageous stories to provoke questioning. Furthermore, when Balko talks about legislation--especially at the federal level, where much of the problem originates--his narrative is clear and concise and capably lays out the legal cause and the real world effect.
But the book has a lot of problems. First, and most minor, there are many small errors of basic fact. A handful of examples: the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, bombed by Timothy McVeigh in 1995, is referred to as the "Arthur Murrah" Federal Building (203). Navy SEALs are referred to as "Seals" (208). Police are described "blasting locks open with specialized explosives called shape chargers" (155); the correct term is "shaped charges." These in themselves are not damning, but they do not build confidence, especially when it comes to describing the technical equipment used by "militarized" police.
Balko, for someone very concerned about the rhetoric used to "dehumanize" drug users (passim), uses a lot of emotive language himself. Drug users are always "peaceful" or "peacefully smoking marijuana" in contrast to the police, who always burst in, rip doors from hinges, shout, swear, and point or even hold guns to the heads of those being raided. Wrong-door raids in particular are outrageous enough without painting them with such melodramatic language.
Like many libertarians, Balko attacks both sides of the aisle, which can be refreshing. But it is readily apparent whom Balko does and does not like when reading his book. He is always ready to play the hypocrisy card. For instance, here he describes George HW Bush's drug czar, William Bennett: "He had run both agencies [where he had previously served] as a proud moral scold. Which isn't to say he was a prude. Bennett was an obese man, a chain-smoker, and, the country would learn years later, he had a pretty serious jones for video poker" (164). Later, after quoting a G. Gordon Liddy rant in which Liddy advised people to shoot to kill if their homes were raided by the ATF, Balko muses, "It was some remarkable language to be coming from the guy who helped create ODALE, the Nixon-era office that sent narcotics task forces barreling into homes to make headline-grabbing busts" (199). But--without defending Liddy, about whom I know next to nothing--surely it does not amount to mere "cognitive dissonance" to care more about a federal raid to confiscate second amendment-protected firearms than a police raid to confiscate illegal drugs. In instances like these, it seems that Balko is simply incapable of considering the other side of an argument.
But the two biggest problems in the book have to do with Balko's focus. First is the issue of "militarization" itself. This is Balko's devil term throughout the book, and he never takes the time to define it. Anything "military" or "military-style" is anathema. Balko points out the rise of SWAT teams, which receive literal military training, as well as the adoption of assault rifles, grenade launchers, and even armored personnel carriers (which Balko refers to a few times as "tanks"). Balko confusingly describes a South Carolina police unit that had just received an APC "with a belt-fed rotating machine gun turret capable of firing .50-caliber rounds of ammunition" (239). But he also repeatedly points out police units that have used "military" computers and clothing. Balko even condemns a police force that switched from the .38 Special revolver to the .45 automatic, the standard US Army sidearm for 80 years (230). This particular instance betrays a lack of understanding of firearms, as the .45 is actually a downgrade in penetrative power--a good thing considering the triggerhappy cops Balko describes throughout.
Second, the narrative Balko is selling is that, since the late 1960s, police forces have been egged on to greater "militarization" because of an unwinnable war against drug users, a war furthered by corrupt legislation that allows polices forces to seize and use assets (a very good point) and resulting in an often literal assault on fourth amendment rights. There's a lot to this; the problem is that there's more to it. The erosion of constitutional rights and the war on drugs are a chicken-and-egg argument. If Balko wanted to provide a comprehensive history of the "militarization" of police forces and the breach of constitutional rights, he'd have to go back further, much further than he does. He briefly mentions the Palmer Raids of the early 1920s but moves quickly on to his main subject--the rise of SWAT and the war on drugs. The Palmer Raids occurred during the Red Scare, and 50,000 suspected Bolshevik or anarchist revolutionaries were monitored with warrantless wiretaps, raided, arrested without warrant and held in violation of habeus corpus, and of them several hundred were eventually deported. The basis for all of that was a series of bombings analogous to the violent events of the 1960s, with the exception that legislation already existed to support these unconstitutional arrests--Wilson's Sedition Act of 1918. If he wanted to talk specifically about "militarization" he could talk about the widespread adoption by police forces of Browning Automatic Rifles and Thompson submachine guns, considered antiques today but cutting-edge military hardware during the 1920s. The fight against mobs and bootleggers at this time is pretty clearly analogous to the modern war on drugs, but the latter is all Balko cares to talk about.
The point is that militarization and the breach of constitutional rights is a much bigger problem than the war on drugs; it's ultimately a problem of how much authority rests in the federal government, not with which problems it tries to fix. A government that would launch a war on drugs would militarize and violate the fourth amendment for any number of other reasons--and has.
Recommended on the basis of its extensive anecdotal evidence and with those problems in mind.