A Reflection on Balko’s “Rise of the Warrior Cop”

By Mallory Richards

The death of Michael Brown in August of 2014 sparked a national debate on police militarization and racial injustices, which has seen little mitigation since. In thirteen months, social media and the news have been flooded by news of police misdemeanors, the murder of black civilians, and the exponential growth in police brutality. The Black Lives Matter campaign has evolved into an All Lives Matter campaign, focusing on how we have been constantly let down by a system plagued by racial prejudice.

But Radley Balko didn’t talk about race. The issue of race is so deeply intertwined with the militarization of America’s police forces, it seemed almost redundant. Rather, he focused on overarching themes and events that catalyzed what he in his book calls the “rise of the warrior cop”. Posse Comitatus, passed after World War II, obliged militaries to stay separate from domestic police. Balko said, “military is trained to kill people and break things; police are trained to protect our constitutional rights”. This all took a drastic turn under the Nixon administration during the War on Drugs. Balko called the War on Drugs a “campaign tactic designed to scare middle class white people about black criminals”, one of the few times he directly addressed race. Several changes were made in regards to the role of police, one of the most important being the rise of SWAT teams. SWAT, standing for Special Weapons and Tactics (though that AT used to be Assault Team), was the first example of police militarization. Now, special forces were armed, and Balko brought up that when police respond to protest expecting violence, violence becomes the outcome, as evidenced in Baltimore, Ferguson, etc. Nixon repealed “knock raids”, which were implemented to bring about peaceful home encounters between police and civilians. Some say this was the equivalent of giving the “OK” to aggressive encounters.

In 1997, the 1033 program made surplus military weapons available to police forces. Balko discussed the combative approaches to police training, comprised of 47% deadly force, 47% self defense, and 6% conflict resolution. Like anyone familiar with the purposes of having state militia, Balko was dumbstruck by the allotment of training resources. However, as violent confrontation escalates, it becomes less surprising that police are trained to be so brutal. Balko says, “violence is being used as a scare tactic, to send a political message, to make examples of people”. Not what we’d like to think about our police forces.

Balko showed a series of tragicomical and harrowing photos of police officers, the most memorable of which appears like a cross between camouflage and Star Wars-themed Halloween costumes. Sarcastic comments ensued; why were 20 police officers in the woods at once all dressed up in camo, and who felt the need to take what seems like an iPhone picture documenting it? It’s laughable, but overwhelmingly depressing, that this is what has become of some of the people who are supposed to be protecting our fundamental rights. Case studies showed how accidental or mistaken raids by police officers ended in misadventure. One particular video Balko shared was of police, without warning, breaking into a house and accidentally shooting the roommate of a man suspected of having a small amount of marijuana. Another showed a similar style raid, only this time the police shot and killed a dog in the house, and noticed midway through that a young girl was in the house. Police broke in on an elderly man who ended up only owning a legal amount of marijuana. And yet these were just a few examples of a growing divide between civilians and law officers, as police forces look more likesimilar to military teams every day.

Balko left us with a few questions that the nation has been confronted with for years: why are police exempt from civilian law? Is this a policy problem or a police problem? And most importantly and hardest to answer, is there a solution?

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