By Radley Balko | | 528 pages
Published in June of 2021

SUMMARY: From Richard Nixon to Donald Trump, every sitting president for the last 50 years, Republican or Democrat, has militarized America’s police force.  In The Rise of the Warrior Cop, author Radley Balko asks, “How did we evolve from a country whose founding statesmen were adamant about the dangers of armed, standing government forces—a country that enshrined the Fourth Amendment in the Bill of Rights and revered and protected the age-old notion that the home is a place of privacy and sanctuary—to a country where it has become acceptable for armed government agents dressed in battle garb to storm private homes in the middle of the night, not to apprehend violent fugitives or thwart terrorist attacks but to enforce laws against nonviolent, consensual activities?”

Balko begins in the 1800s with the Castle Doctrine, a doctrine adopted from England, that establishes “the home as a sanctum in which a citizen can expect to be let alone.” Specifically, it says, “before entering (a home) without permission, government agents must knock, announce and identify themselves, state their purpose, and give the occupants the opportunity to let them in peacefully.” This doctrine was sacrosanct in the United States until the late 1960s.

The seeds of policy change began in response to the Watts riots of 1965 and the Charles Whitman shooting in 1966. The Watts riots started in response to 21-year-old African American Marquette Frye being arrested for a DUI where he got into a scuffle with police. Onlookers gathered, and rumors started that the police kicked a pregnant woman. Six days of rioting followed. In the Whitman shooting, the former Marine, after killing his mother and his wife the night before, climbed to the observation deck on the Main Building at the University of Texas with high-powered rifles where he randomly shot and killed 16 people. It took 96 minutes for the police to get to him.

Fear of an out-of-control (Black) population, with an undercurrent of racism, coupled with the realization that the police were out-armed, Los Angeles policeman Daryl Gates came up with the idea of the S.W.A.T. team. If there is any ambiguity as to what the S.W.A.T. was originally intended for, the initial acronym says it all. S.W.A.T. originally stood for Special Weapons Attack Team but was changed to Special Weapons And Tactics since using attack in a police unit’s name did not go over well with the general public.

The SWAT team concept got a shot in the arm just five years after the Whitman shooting when President Richard Nixon declared a “war on drugs.” This declaration started the militarization of the police that would be encouraged by presidents Ronald Regan, George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barak Obama, and Donald Trump. Balko is clear. The militarization of the police is not a partisan issue, nor was one person solely responsible – it is decades in the making.

“No one made a decision to militarize the police in America,” Balko says. “The change has come slowly, the result of a generation of politicians and public officials fanning and exploiting public fears by declaring war on abstractions like crime, drug use, and terrorism.”

In the late ’70s, there were a couple hundred SWAT team raids, the vast majority being for bank robbers, violent crimes, and active shooters. By the 2000s, there were 40-50,000 SWAT raids per year with 85% of the raids being for non-violent drug offenses to serve a warrant.

Nixon’s policies dehumanized and demonized drug offenders. Drug offenders were no longer human beings struggling with an addiction but a problem to be eliminated no matter the means and whatever the cost (no-knock raids). This mentality was the genesis of the “us versus them” mentality that pervades today’s police force.

These policies could not have swept the nation’s police departments without help from the courts. As SWAT team raids skyrocketed from the hundreds in the 70s to thousands in the 80s, alarming trends started to emerge. Wrong houses were being raided and innocent people were being killed. But in several court cases, judges ignored the Fourth Amendment. A liberal interpretation of qualified immunity coupled with the destruction of the once venerated Castle Doctrine allowed SWAT teams to operate with impunity.

“The inescapable conclusion: raiding and killing innocent people is an acceptable outcome of drug policing,” Balko writes.

Two policies, asset forfeiture in 1984 and the 1033 program in 1997, laid the groundwork for the modern militarized police department. Asset forfeiture allows law enforcement agencies to confiscate proceeds or property from crime or criminals to keep or sell. The 1033 program allows the Department of Defense to give law enforcement agencies military equipment. The programs represent billions of dollars with the 1033 program giving away $7 billion of equipment since its inception.

“This is how the game is played. Drug arrests (bring) in federal money,” Balko says. “Federal money and 1033 let police departments buy cool battle garb to start a SWAT team, which they justify to local residents by playing to fears of terrorism, school shootings, and hostage takings.”

“These policies have given us an increasingly armed, increasingly isolated, increasingly paranoid, increasingly aggressive police force in America, and a public shielded from knowing the consequences of it all.”

Ultimately, this is a story of a broken system. A system with bad policies championed and perpetuated no matter who is in office.

“Bad cops are the product of bad policy. And policy is ultimately made by politicians. A bad system loaded with bad incentives will unfailingly produce bad cops,” Balko writes.

Balko finishes with a smattering of ideas to demilitarize the police. We should stop arming the police like the military. Soldering and policing are two different jobs. The 1033 program should end. The rhetoric we use, the war on terror, the war on drugs, the war on crime, etc., matters and should change. There should be more accountability and police and governments should be liable for misconduct. Training should change. Instead of an “us versus them” mentality, time should be spent on “bias, de-escalation, and conflict resolution” training throughout a policeman’s career. No-knock warrants should be the exception to the rule.

Changing the system is in the hands of American citizens. We must ask, “What do we want our police force to be? What tactics are acceptable?” From a Christian point of view, we must consider, “How do we approach policing from a distinctly Christian perspective?” As Christians, we can start with the Imago Dei doctrine. All people are created in the image of God and are worthy of dignity and respect.

KEY QUOTE: “Police today are armed, dressed, trained, and conditioned like soldiers. They’re given greater protections from civil and criminal liability than normal citizens. They’re permitted to violently break into homes, often at night, to enforce laws against nonviolent, consensual acts—and even then, often on rather flimsy evidence of wrongdoing…Today, laws, policies, and procedures select for personalities attracted to aggressive, antagonistic policing; isolate police from the communities they serve; and condition police officers to see the people they serve—the people with whom they interact every day—not as citizens with rights but as potential threats.”

BONUS: Don’t have time to read the book or want to know more? Listen to Balko talk about his book on the Free Thoughts podcast.

BONUS II: Balko’s critique agrees with two other books we have read The Black and the Blue by Matthew Horace and The End of Policing by Alex Vitale.  

DID YOU KNOW? Sunday to Saturday has a Good Reads page where we post all of the books we have read – even the ones that didn’t make the cut.

DIG DEEPER: We have curated four guided learning paths to help you think distinctly Christian about policing.

More curated books on policing:

BOOK: The Black and the Blue

For those wondering if the issue with policing is a couple of bad officers or if it is the system, 28-year law enforcement veteran Matthew Horace unequivocally paints a picture of a broken system in his memoir The Black and the Blue. Before critiquing the system, Horace unequivocally says he is a cop while also…

Read more

BOOK: The End of Policing

From rising homelessness that the police are tasked to deal with to shootings of both minorities and police officers to endless mental health issues involving both police officers and the population American police are simply expected to do too much.  Author Alex Vitale argues that the structure of American policing, and the U.S. legal system,…

Read more

BOOK: Punished – Policing the Lives of Black and Latino Boys

Former gang member Victor Rios grew up in the ghetto of Oakland, California so he knows the realities of Black and Latino males growing up in a low-income neighborhood, but this is not his story. Punished: Policing the Lives of Black and Latino Boys is based on Rios’ Ph.D. thesis at Berkeley that he penned…

Read more

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