I’ve been suffering a slight case of cognitive dissonance lately, a disorientation that stems from residing in two worlds at once. One world is the TV show “The Wire.” I’ve been streaming and watching all the episodes from beginning to end and just completed the second season. I love the show, which is more about the foibles of institutions than people—definitely one of the four or five best TV series of the past 50 years.
But I only watch the TV screen about two hours a day and during some of my other waking hours, I’m reading Rise of the Warrior Cop by Radley Balko. Both “The Wire” and Balko’s book spend a lot of time detailing anecdotes of police raids on homes, but the differences are so stark that it’s sending my head into a deep and befuddling spin.
In “The Wire” and most other urban cop dramas, the drug dealers always have guns and are often ready to shoot. The cops never raid the wrong place, always respect the rights of the drug dealers, shoot to wound when possible and often take a bullet from the bad guys. The weapons the police bring seem appropriate to the dangerous situation, especially when you consider that the drug dealers are always packing major heat. The cops are heroes.
In Rise of the Warrior Cop, which traces the gradual militarization of American police departments since the Nixon Administration, the cops seem always to hit the wrong location, often kill or injure innocent people, trample on basic constitutional rights and behave offensively even after they know someone is innocent.
When I think of 20 years worth of “Law and Order” episodes in which prosecutors have gone after bad cops, my cognitive dissonance grows even larger. In Rise of the Warrior Cop, prosecutors always defend the actions of the police, no matter how violently inappropriate they were, and both prosecutors and judges rubber-stamp “no-knock” entries with SWAT teams whenever the police ask for them, no matter how tenuous or incomplete the evidence.
The difference between the TV shows and Balko’s book is that Balko backs up his litany of horrifying anecdotes with statistics that suggest that police departments are out of control—they have too many weapons not appropriate for use in civilian situations, they call in SWAT teams way too often and they injure and kill too many innocent people.
Balko traces the growing militarization of the police since the Nixon Administration used the war on drugs to justify “no-knock” warrants and the arming of local police with military-grade weapons. Balko cites statistics that show the inexorable turning of the police from a community resource that keeps us safe to a military operation that often treats the homes and neighborhoods like an army of occupation treats the region it has conquered:
- Every decade more cities have SWAT teams, which are military-style units that assault urban locations, to the point that 77% of all cities with more than 25,000 has one.
- Every decade has seen a dramatic increase in the number of SWAT raids conducted in the United States. For example the number of SWAT deployments grew by more than 937% from 1980 to 1995!
- Every decade the Supreme Court has eroded the “castle doctrine” (which prevents the police from storming a domicile without due cause) by redefining exigent circumstances, expanding the proper use of “no-knock” warrants and diminishing the time police have to wait between giving notice and breaking down the doors and barging in guns roaring.
- Every decade, the number of incidents of police raids of innocent people has increased, a natural function of the increase in SWAT raids and the shoddy handling of police raid requests by judges.
- Every decade, the U.S. Department of Defense has dumped more tanks, weaponry and other military equipment on police departments.
- Balko also follows the development of the shoot-to-kill mentality among police officers, the “us-and-them” thinking that may be appropriate to a war situation but doesn’t belong on the streets of a free society.
Before 9/11, the war on drugs was used to justify arming the police with military-grade equipment and playing fast-and-fancy with the Third and Fourth Amendments. But even after 9/11 and the rise of the specter of terrorism, virtually all uses of this equipment across the country have been to raid homes suspected of harboring drugs and drug dealers.
Democrats and Republicans have tripped over each other to see who can scare the public worse and call for more funding of the unwinnable drug war. For example, Clinton put a retired military officer in charge of the war on drugs and started the active recruitment of former military personnel for police departments. Raids on medical marijuana facilities and on illegal immigrants increased significantly under Obama.
The following set of numbers from 1972 that Balko gives us exemplifies the way that politicians representing all parts of the American political spectrum have jumped on the bandwagon to make local police military units: In 1972, President Richard Nixon declared that heroin addicts stole $2 billion each year to support their habit. Democratic ultra-liberal presidential candidate George McGovern said heroin addicts really stole $4.4 billion a year. A Nixon administration drug treatment expert said it was $6.3 billion. Illinois Senator Charles Percy upped the ante to $10-$15 billion. Still 1972, a White House briefing book distributed to the press put the amount stolen by heroin addicts at $18 billion.
By the way, the total value of all property reported stolen in the United States in 1972 was $1.2 billion, a lot less than the lowest of these ridiculous estimates.
In the typical raid described in Balko’s book, the police obtain a “no-knock” warrant based on information from an informant who has proven to be unreliable in the past and then barge into the wrong home with less than 15 seconds’ notice, pistol whip people, shoot to kill if anyone makes a false move, rip the place apart looking for drugs, arrest people even if nothing is found, never apologize when they finally discover they hit the wrong house and are never reprimanded or face any consequences for their mistake. Prosecutors and judges take the attitude that the police can do no wrong, which partially explains why police departments and unions absurdly believe that even the mildest of criticism threatens not just the ability of the police to maintain order but the safety of individual police officers. (FYI, the murder rate among cops is far lower than the general murder rate in every state.)
Even when the police hit the right house, the SWAT approach of overwhelming a house or a neighborhood with no prior warning is almost always overkill, since the average drug dealer is not dangerous and typically carries no weapons. Smaller dealers get it far worse, since the courts have ruled that while a large drug distributor could not possibly destroy the evidence in a few minutes, small dealers could—therefore let’s not give them any warning.
The most frightening trend that Balko details is the push of police departments towards focusing on these military-style operations in their recruitment efforts. Instead of trying to attract people interested in “serving and protecting,” current police marketing materials all too often appeal to those whose like to fight and shoot off guns. They make great soldiers but trigger-happy police officers.
The biggest absurdity of course is that the goal of this over-arming of the police and stripping of constitutional rights is to stop a victimless crime.
Balko is a libertarian, a hired gun of the Cato Institute, which probably explains why he doesn’t explain what I believe is the main reason for the militarization of American police departments: racism. Remember that the original Nixon push to erode constitutional rights and turn the police into an occupying force came at the height of the civil rights movement after a number of riots broke out in our inner cities. Drug laws have always been stiffer for those drugs used primarily by Afro-Americans than those used in white suburbs, and the criminal justice system has applied much worse punishments to blacks than to whites convicted of the same drug possession and dealing offenses. Balko’s horde of anecdotes of wrong raids and raids gone wrong is color-blind, but we know that the percentage of raids on minorities has always been far, far greater than their representation in the general population. We also know that blacks are over-represented in the numbers of people killed by police.
The other factor in police militarization is the lobbying effort of military contractors. Our federal, state and local governments have collectively spent billions of dollars on equipment and weaponry that is pretty much inappropriate for most domestic policing. But the suppliers of these armaments have been minting money and using quite a bit of it to influence politicians in both parties to support this dangerous and un-American domestic arms race.