I’m kicking off a new feature in my blogging: reviews of books or movies I think are relevant to current issues and events. I’ve made occasional oblique references to books like Three Felonies a Day or Declaration of Independents. But this will be a little more in depth. Not anticipating this will happen often.
On this blog, I regularly link to the work done by Radley Balko so it won’t surprise anyone that I just read his new book Rise of the Warrior Cop and have a high opinion of it. But I thought it was worth a post to spell out just why I think this is an important book. It’s not for the reasons that you think.
Balko’s blog has become one-stop-shopping on law enforcement abuses. From the misguided and tragic raid on Corey Maye to the killing of Kathryn Johnston, he’s documented hundreds of wrong-door raids, overamped raids and militaristic excesses that have trashed civil liberties and all too often left the bodies of innocent people and police on the ground.
But the book is very different from his blog. While the blog tends to focus on specific incidents of abuse, the book takes a step back to break down how we’ve gotten here: how all of our civil liberties have slowly been chipped away by the legislatures and the courts through hysteria over crime, drugs and terrorism. It chronicles how our approach to law enforcement has changed from colonial times (when we didn’t have professional law forces) to today, with a heavy focus on the last forty years.
The thing about wrong door raids or the shooting of innocent people by police is that focusing on particular horrifying incidents gives one the impression that are isolated or very rare events. Balko shows that they are not that rare. Ray Kelly admitted that at least 10% of the hundreds of raids launched in NYC every month hit innocent people. Others estimate the problem is much larger. Hard numbers are difficult to get because there is very little documentation of what goes on in police raids and legislators and law enforcement have resisted efforts to document it.
But wrong door raids are only the tip of a much larger and much scarier iceberg. The militarization of law enforcement is deeply problematic even when it doesn’t result in harm to innocent people. Over 50,000 armed raids are launched every year in this country and something like 90+% of armed raids are for consensual non-violent crimes (drugs, principally). The problem isn’t just innocent people getting hurt: it’s about the guilty people too. How did it become reasonable to routinely send armed tactical squads for drug busts? If someone has some pot, why should cops bang on the door at 4 am, wait 15 seconds, crash it down, throw everyone to the floor and point guns at their head while screaming profanities? Before you answer, remember that guns of any kind are only recovered in a tiny fraction of these raids. Before you answer, remember that armed resistance to cops has been rare even when crime reached its awful peak in the early 90’s (assaults on police are at an all-time low). Before you answer, remember that these tactics, with court approval, have been used to bust up small-time gambling “rings”, people selling raw milk, guitar manufacturers using illegal wood and even barbers practicing without a license. Raids have been launched against legal pot shops in California. These are licensed pot dealers — business people — who are treated like murderous meth kingpins. Raids have been launched against practicing physicians that the Feds decide are prescribing too much pain medicine. In many cases, they admit that the tactics are used not because of any danger but to “send a message”.
A man’s home is his castle, even if he is breaking the law. The Constitution applies to all of use, lawmakers and lawbreakers. Our Founding Fathers rebelled for far less than this. They thought daytime searches were out of line.
These tactics have only ramped up and expanded as the crime rate has fallen. Supporters like to say that the militarization of police is the reason crime has fallen. But they have a problem: cities that have eschewed such tactics, like San Diego, have seen sharper drops in crime and crime started dropping there before crime began to drop everywhere else. No matter what you might think of these tactics, there’s little evidence that they are actually working to reduce crime.
Rise of the Warrior Cop is definitively not anti-cop. I would say that at least 60% and probably more of the interviewees are in law enforcement. Some of the most telling passages in the book are from the 1970’s when police officers resisted the militarization of policing precisely because they feared what eventually happened: the creation of groups of armed officers with little connection to the community busting down doors in the process of ordinary law enforcement; communities that see cops as dangerous rather than helpful; the majority of good decent community-oriented cops being eclipsed by gung-ho warriors.
The problem is not that cops are bad; the problem is that cops are human. And because of panic-mongering over the War on Drugs and the War on Terror, we have given these humans military weapons, enormous discretionary power and little accountability. Cops in the book talk about the adrenaline rush that comes with a no-knock raid, the sense of power that guns, body armor and tanks give them. It’s a testament to the basic goodness of most of our cops that there aren’t more abuses.
Balko is clear in his closing argument: we do not live in a police state. Only a small minority of Americans are being impacted by this. But I would say that the mechanism of a police state has been slowly worked into our society thanks to the War on Drugs and the War on Terror. Think about 2016. In 2016 we will get a new President. Here are just some of the powers that this new President will have:
Maybe you think some of those policies above are reasonable. The problem is that this is not multiple choice. The President and the state now have all of those powers and privileges. And that list will only grow if left unchecked. One of the things we’ve seen is that the powers bequeathed by one President to the next only get extended further. As Alex has said many times, Obama has engaged in War on Terror policies far in excess of what Bush did. What might the next President do? Are you willing to trust anyone with that kind of power?
This isn’t about party. Republicans have played their role in chipping away at our civil liberties (Nixon especially). But one of the biggest enablers of law enforcement militarization has been Joe Biden, a liberal Democrat. When Obama took office, he massively increased the amount of money going into grants and giveaways to provide military-grade equipment to cops in even the tiniest safest cities. Under Obama, raids on legal pot growers have increased. Surveillance has increased. Civil liberties have decreased. And the only problems the Democrats have had with even the most invasive anti-crime legislation is it not going far enough. This is a bipartisan problem.
A lot of people talk about the Second Amendment and its critical role in protecting us from tyranny. I agree on the importance of the Second Amendment. But where are these people when the actual pieces are put in place that could, under the right man, enable tyranny? Where are they as the Third, Fourth and Fifth Amendments are effectively gutted? Even the First Amendment is in danger. It is now routine for teams of cops to show up to protests in full riot gear and arrest peaceful protesters who won’t disperse. Medical marijuana activists have been specifically targeted for raids.
If you really care about liberty, you should not respond to violent raids on non-violent drug dealers with “that’s what they get for dealing drugs.” If you really care about liberty, you shouldn’t dismiss concerns over Waco and Ruby Ridge because those people were crazy. If you really care about liberty, you shouldn’t think that it’s reasonable for cops to respond to peaceful protests with tear gas guns (response to violent protests is different). If you really care about liberty, you shouldn’t dismiss IRS profiling because it only hurt a bunch of Tea Partiers. If you really care about liberty, you shouldn’t cheer the DHS when they call for extra scrutiny of Right Wing groups even as all political terrorism is in decline.
We see blazing hypocrisy on this issue all the time. Conservatives who rightfully screamed bloody murder over the Elian Gonzalez raid were almost gleeful when cops beat and pepper-sprayed Occupy protesters. Liberals who howled when Occupy protesters were beaten broke out the pompoms when it was the ATF (Rachel Maddow specifically said the nature of the opposition justified the tactics). Liberals who objected to profiling of Muslims thought it was just fine when the DHS did it with Right Wing groups.
It is precisely that kind of partisanship and division which has enabled this. People looking the other way as the War on Drugs raged out of control because it was only hurting dirty hippies and poor black people. People looking the other way at ATF raids because it was only hurting gun nuts. People biting their tongues on War on Terror excesses because they’re not Muslim. People dismissing IRS abuses because the Tea Party deserved it.
We have to get this through our heads: civil liberties belong to all of us. If anyone’s civil liberties are under attack, then all of our civil liberties are under attack.
Balko seems a bit optimistic that we will reach a tipping point on this. I’m not so sure. I thought the Columbia raid, in which video captured the killing of two dogs and the terrorizing of a child over a minor drug bust, would have changed things, but it didn’t. I fear that, if things don’t change soon, it will take something truly horrible to wake the American people up.
50,000 raids a year may not sounds like a lot in a country of 300 million. The vast majority of Americans will never have to worry about this. But the potential danger lurks out there. Anyone in this country — anyone who isn’t a Congressman at least — is a vague pile of evidence away from having their door knocked down, their house searched and any complaint being dismissed depending on which group our government decides is dangerous. This week, it’s legal pot dealers in California. Next week, its gun owners. After that, it’s IMF protesters. After that, it’s Right Wing “hate” groups.
Is that they kind of country we want to live in? That’s the question the book asks.
I’ve only talked about a tiny fraction of what’s in Rise of the Warrior Cop. It’s a quick read but packed with facts that are alternatively enraging, alarming and, on occasion, darkly hilarious. But if you care about this issue — either because you agree with me that this is alarming or because you think I’m a hysterical nut — you should take a look.