"No, America today isn’t a police state. Far from it. But it would be foolish to wait until it becomes one to get concerned."
(Rise of the Warrior Cop by Radley Balko, pg. 336)
I don't usually review nonfiction books, particularly ones about topics on which I consider myself such a novice, but the pure dismay and frustration this book has inspired in me has forced me to change my policy, to advocate for this book as required reading for anyone who cares about the country we live in, and the ways which that country has chosen to enforce law, order, and justice.
If you've been watching the coverage of events like Ferguson and wondering why so many in positions of authority seem downright accustomed to seeing cops in full riot gear, armed to the teeth and more than willing to utilize force and other excessive measures, Balko provides the simple yet alarming answer: no one who makes or enforces law is outraged because they are the ones who have allowed police militarization, who have been allowing it for decades.
Balko manages to walk the line between keeping things interesting and anecdote-based, and peppering the stories he tells with cold, hard, well-cited facts. His book doesn't fall victim to what I'll call "documentary syndrome", where about 1/3 of the way in the point gets lost amid some dry analysis; rather, incident after incident is detailed with care, and every step of the legislative process which has made the militarization of America's police forces such a rampant problem weaves in between, painting a picture of gradual corruption for which responsibility is splashed across departments and divisions from the smallest peon town precincts to the men and women of the federal government.
Historical context is provided, from the origins of policing forces in the Roman empire to the founding fathers of the United States and their fear of a standing army within their new nation. This gives way to a discussion of legislation which began largely following the second world war, laws which allowed for never-before-seen powers for police officers including no-knock raids, laws regulating search warrants which have been weak at the best of times, and eventually the birth of the SWAT team in America. Looking at the evolution of police forces from this progressive perspective, it becomes clear that we've been building to events like Ferguson for years. And a surprising amount of otherwise reasonable people have done almost nothing to stop it.
More than anything, though, the theme of aggression in the incidents Balko details is striking, even as the names, dates, and purported offenses begin to stack up. Police officers have come to think of themselves as soldiers, as enforcers of the law against agitators who are "other" to them, men and women with whom they do not feel even a remote sense of camaraderie. They use their suspicions of citizens as part of circular reasoning which allows them to justify violent raids which come without any warning and which often result in property damage and even injury or death to individuals who have not even been charged with a crime. Profiling, heavy reliance on questionably reliable informants, and policies which encourage an "intimidate first, ask questions later" strategy, have created an atmosphere in which people fear the police, and in which they are in legitimate danger of getting on the wrong side of an officer who has literally been trained by military personnel, equipped with gear and weaponry that belong in Fallujah, and who thinks of himself as a warrior first and foremost.
Balko tackles the defenses of the continued support of police militarization with similar efficiency and logic. The war on drugs, of which the majority of these policies have been in service, has not only not been "won," but the small victories that have been claimed have really not been victories at all. Drug usage and peddling are still very much alive in this country, and he cites some sobering statistics illustrating just how far the government and the media have gone to oversell the successes in terms of actual drugs, money, and stolen property recovered, even when the facts themselves just don't line up. The other major defense he cites is the oft-repeated notion that cops are in incredible danger on the job, that our increasingly well-armed public poses a volatile threat to them virtually any time they are out in the community. It's due to this perceived risk that many are in support of their local police donning battle gear and driving armored vehicles, reacting with sometimes lethal force during confrontations with suspects. But the statistics don't support this justification. Shootings of police officers by civilians or suspects, while of course tragic when they occur, just don't take place that often. They've been decreasing nationwide for years, and on the whole police officers are not in much greater danger than the majority of citizens they are tasked with protecting: "In fact, of the seventy-four US cities with populations of 250,000 or more, thirty-six have murder rates higher than that of police in America. You’re more likely to be murdered just by living in these cities than the average American police officer is to be murdered on the job” (271).
Police militarization has become such an ingrained part of our society, and it is a systemic issue that will not be solved overnight. Before any real action can be taken, attitudes must change, and before that, people have to pay attention. We can and should be questioning our law enforcement authorities and the way they comport themselves on the job. We should be calling for greater accountability, including but not limited to cameras on the officers or their vehicles, and a detailed federal database of any and all incidents involving a police officer discharging a weapon against a civilian. That's the least that can be done. The way we look at violence needs to change, too. We have become too accustomed to it; we expect it, especially from the police. And if we allow our expectations to continue to align with the policies currently in place, we will only see more of the same treatment, more of the same mistakes, more of the same violence against potentially innocent people.
It's important to note that this is not a problem to be solved by responding with the same kind of violence and ignorance to which many of these officers have been trained to default. Calling all cops pigs, or antagonizing the local beat cops you see on your walk to work, will not fix what is a corrosive problem that trickles from the top down, and not the other way around. Balko is particularly adamant on this point, including this in the book's conclusion:
"In the Introduction, I noted that this is not an anti-cop book. And it isn’t. Despite all of this, there are still good cops. A lot of them. But we have passed laws and policies that have elevated police officers above the people they serve. As Tim Lynch has written, you could make a good argument that police should be held to a higher standard than regular citizens. And you could make a good argument they should be held to the same standard. But it’s hard to conceive of a convincing argument that they should be held to a lower one. But that’s exactly what we’ve done” (336).
Maybe you think people like Balko and myself are overstating the problem. Maybe you trust the police to do what's in your best interest, despite all the empirical evidence to the contrary, or maybe the possibility of police abuses and brutality is just something you don't like to think much about. But even if that's true, this is a matter of our constitutional rights being bent, manipulated, and at times outright ignored. A quote from a Philadelphia PD spokesperson appears in the book's concluding chapter that sums it up pretty well: "Officers’ safety comes first, and not infringing on people’s rights comes second." Sentiments like that from high-ranking members of law enforcement may not worry you, but if you're paying even a little bit of attention, they really should.