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A writer who worries about out-of-control police

Rise of the Warrior Cop

By Radley Balko

Public Affairs

382 pp, $27.95

By Lee Coppola


The battle over gun control in the United States seems to focus on opponents worrying about a government assault on their constitutional right to bear arms. And their argument seems as much about taking their guns away as to use arms against them.

Enter Radley Balko into the fray, but with a whole different tack; he believes it’s the police forces of the country citizens need to fear most about subverting constitutional rights. And he pins his belief on the military-like buildup of the nation’s police departments.

For example, Balko points out that police SWAT teams invade private homes more than 100 times a day, sometimes, he notes anecdotally, violently smashing into the wrong domicile.

Balko, an investigative reporter for the Huffington Post who writes often about issues of civil liberty, shapes his research in historian-like fashion. He starts with the first documented police force in Rome during the reign of Emperor Augustus, writing that like policing today, Augustus “had to balance public safety and the maintenance of order by at least appearing to respect civic liberties.”

Then it’s on to the Founding Fathers and their fear of armed government forces and their determination to protect privacy and private property from government usurpation. As the colonies grew and the nation spread geographically, police matters were handled informally, with night watch patrols in the North and slave patrols in the South.

Next it’s the first modern police force, formed in London in 1829, its 3,000 members outfitted in blue to distinguish them from the red worn by British soldiers. New York was the first city in the United States with an organized police force, in 1845, its 800-man force patrolling without uniforms ... and without guns to avoid the perception they were military.

Soon, Balko takes the reader the reader through civil rights uprisings, war protests, drug wars and terrorist attacks, all reasons, he notes, for shoring up the firepower of those who serve to protect. Where, initially, keeping soldiers off the streets except in dire emergencies that threatened federal laws, civic uprisings and the threat of heightened crime pushed local police forces in another direction. Opines Balko:

“Instead of allowing our soldiers to serves as cops, we’re turning our cops into soldiers. It’s a threat that our Founders didn’t anticipate, that nearly all politicians support, and much of the public seems to support or just hasn’t given much attention.”

SWAT teams came into being in Los Angeles shortly after the Watts riots in 1965. Federal troops stilled the riots but LAPD higher-ups realized they needed a different kind of police unit to curb such disturbances. Hence, Special Weapons and Tactics was born after department leaders rejected Special Weapons Attack Teams as too militaristic. And although Los Angeles gave birth to the acronym, the seeds were sown in Austin, Texas, where police had inadequate weapons and procedures to deal with a gunman who was killing people from his perch in the University of Texas clock tower.

His data supports the proliferation of SWAT teams across the country:

• From 30,000 SWAT teams raid in 1995 to 60,000 such raids in 2005

• From 25.6 percent of towns of 25,00 to 50,00 with SWAT teams in 1984 to 80 percent in 2005.

Balko attributes the rise of SWAT teams and their growing arsenal to the war on drugs and the federal dispensing to local police agencies of obsolete or unneeded military equipment and property and seized during drug raids. Some teams have helicopters, tanks and Humvees and carry military-grade weapons, Balko writes. Again, the data:

• The value of the Justice Department’s asset forfeiture fund in 1985 was $27 million; in 1991 it was $644 million

• Johnston, R.I., population 28,769; acquired $4.1 million worth of military gear from the Pentagon in 2010, including 30 M-16 rifles, 18,000 rounds of ammunition, 44 bayonets, 12 Humvees and 23 snow blowers.

• Federal agencies dealing with fish and wildlife, consumers, space, education, national parks, food and drugs, education, and health and human services all have SWAT teams.

“Warrior Cop” weds the Supreme Court decisions upholding no-knock warrants with the increase in SWAT teams to paint a gloomy portrait of exuberant and sometimes unnecessary police force. Still more numbers:

• There were 36 SWAT raids in Minneapolis in 1987; more than 700 in 1996

• There were approximately 3,000 paramilitary police raids in the United States in 1980; approximately 45,000 in 2001

Unlike historians, Balko offers methods to, as he labels it, “reform” the ills he’s documented. De-emphazing the war on drugs might cut down the number of SWAT raids that go astray was one solution. Another was eliminating SWAT teams from federal regulatory agencies like the Food and Drug Administration.

Changing the culture of police and even employing community policing, i.e., cops walking the beat instead of riding the patrol car, might bring police closer to the people they protect, Balko suggests.

“This is not an anti-cop book,” the author insists. “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 ... No, America today isn’t a police state. Far from it. But it would be foolish to wait until it becomes one to be concerned.”

Lee Coppola is a former print and TV journalist, a former prosecutor and the retired Dean of Journalism of St. Bonaventure University.

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