Since its inception, the police establishment has conducted itself more as the agent of the power structure than the servant of a pluralistic society.
— Former FBI Special Agent William W. Turner. The Police Establishment. 1968.
I’ve been waiting a long time for Radley Balko to write a book, and now he finally has. Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces tells the story of how our police forces made the transition from guarding our homes in the night to busting down our doors in the early morning hours.
Radley has written about these issues for years, beginning with a white paper for the Cato Institute called Overkill: The Rise of Paramilitary Police Raids in America and continuing with stories of police abuse and misuse online ever since. Despite that, Rise of the Warrior Cop is not a rehash of his articles and blog posts. If you’ve been following Radley on The Agitator (old or new), Reason, or the Huffington Post, let me assure you that you have not already read most of Rise of the Warrior Cop.
Radley has been a fixture in my daily reading for a long time. I like the way he thinks, I like the way he writes, and I like the way he carries his libertarian values. He’s also, in the classic sense, an investigative reporter. As the Los Angeles Press Club said when they named him Best of Show Journalist Of the Year in 2011,
Radley Balko is one of those throw-back journalists that understands the power of groundbreaking reporting and how to make a significant impact through his work. Time and time again, his stories cause readers to stop, think, and most significantly, take action.
What Radley Balko is not, sadly (despite several hints from me), is an author who gives away promotional copies of his book to third-rate libertarian bloggers.
That’s too bad. For him, I mean. Nick Gillespie gave me a free copy of Declaration of Independents, and when I published my review of it, his co-author Matt Welch described it as “the most thorough discussion and expansion of the book’s ideas yet committed to pixel.” I guess Radley must not have wanted something like that for his book.
It’s probably just as well. When I reviewed Gillespie and Welch’s book, I said it was an unusual example of libertarian writing because it seemed so hopeful. Radley Balko’s book, on the other hand, follows a more traditional libertarian motif: Rise of the Warrior Cop is a horror story.
It begins with some foreshadowing set in ancient Rome, which had traditionally prohibited its army from entering the city. However, in the chaos following the assassination of Julius Caesar, Rome’s leaders established the Praetorian Guard to act as bodyguards and peacekeepers. To assuage fears of military occupation in Rome, the Praetorians were organizationally distinct from the Roman army, and they eventually grew to take on a number of policing roles that we would be familiar with today, including collecting taxes, guarding the city at night, investigating crimes, making arrests, providing security for public events, spying on troublemakers, and if need be, quelling riots.
It all sounds reasonable, but it did not end well for the Romans.
Augustus’s Praetorian Guard would eventually become one of the most powerful institutions in Rome. In later years the Guard’s loyalty often determined who would become the next emperor, and its members may have assassinated as many as a dozen Roman emperors and many more potential heirs.
As conquest and empire became central tenets of Roman society, the day-to-day lives of Romans became infused with militarism. Soldiers and generals began to be held in higher esteem than scholars and statesmen. The Praetorian Guard outgrew its consignment under Augustus to civilian policing and was reconnected with the Roman army. Eventually, the Guard directly interfered with the succession of emperors, sowing further instability.
The Praetorian guard were eventually disbanded, and world would not see such powerful police forces for a very long time.
Radley starts the main story with a discussion of the roles of soldiers in early America, starting with the use of British soldiers to enforce unpopular taxes and trade restrictions in the run-up to the American Revolutionary War. What angered colonists the most were the general warrants that allowed soldiers to enter people’s homes to search for whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted, as often as they wanted. However,
In some ways, the writs were less intrusive than today’s drug warrants. Writs could not be exercised at night, for example, and authorities still had to knock, announce, and allow sufficient time for residents to grant them entrance before breaking down a door.
That was due to a long-standing tradition in English law called the Castle Doctrine:
Put simply, the Castle Doctrine holds that “a man’s home is his castle.” But it springs from an older, much broader sentiment that the home should be protected as a place of refuge, peace, and sanctuary. One of the earliest recorded pronouncements of the idea came from the Roman statesman Cicero: “Quid enim sanctius, quid omni religione munitius, quam domus unusquisque civium?” (What more sacred, what more strongly guarded by every holy feeling, than a man’s own home?) Implicit in the sentiment is not only the right to repel criminal intruders but also the idea that the state is permitted to violate the home’s sanctity only under limited circumstances, only as a last resort, and only under conditions that protect the threshold from unnecessary violence. Thus, before entering without permission, government agents must knock, announce and identify themselves, state their purpose, and give the occupants the opportunity to let them in peacefully.
The subject of the warrant had to be given notice that “the officer cometh not as a mere trespasser, but claiming to act under a proper authority.”
(Police often don’t give that kind of notice today, with predictable results. People have shot and killed cops during raids and then gone on to credibly claim that they thought they were shooting criminal home invaders in self defense. More often, though, it’s the defending homeowner who ends up dead.)
British soldiers were also used to quell riots and put down uprisings, at least until they were forced out of the country when the colonies claimed their independence. However, the new government quickly picked up the slack, using its own soldiers to put down a rebellion by veterans who were unhappy with their treatment after the war. Soldiers were also used to put down slave rebellions before the American Civil War, and then again after it to enforce the terms of the southern surrender.
Although federal marshals lost the power to call up troops shortly after the Civil war, federal troops were still deployed dozens of times in the following decades. These incidents always required approval from politicians at the top, so their use was somewhat limited. Still, things did almost get out of hand in the 1930’s, after the Bonus March riots, and Radley quotes some appalling passages from then-Major George S. Patton’s treatise on how to deal with domestic unrest. Patton was apparently quite eager to kill peaceful protesters — because it’s easier, I guess — and advocated the use of air power against targets in U.S. cities.
For the most part, however, we’ve avoided having actual U.S. military personnel occupying our streets and enforcing order on American citizens. That’s the good news. The bad news is the whole rest of Rise of the Warrior Cop.
Since the Praetorians disbanded, the western world, with few exceptions, had not seen anything like a large, centralized police force.
Law enforcement in the eighteenth century was mostly a private affair. Community mores, social stigma, and shaming were the most important ways of maintaining order. Crime victims could bring their complaints to a grand jury, a panel of private citizens who had the power to indict. But the victim or his proxy was the party to initiate the charges. Professional full-time prosecutors didn’t exist.
When police work was needed, volunteers stepped up to guard the town at night, or to form a posse to chase after criminals. It sounds a lot like the way many towns and unincorporated areas still run volunteer fire departments today.
(It’s also a lot like the way George Zimmerman was guarding his own neighborhood when he shot and killed an unarmed black teenager, so don’t make the mistake of assuming this informal system was naturally better than what followed.)
As cities grew and people moved around, communities lost the cohesion that had enabled them to police themselves, and soon the larger cities began hiring people to do the work that had been done by volunteers. In London and New York, great care was taken to distinguish the police from soldiers, and to make sure they were responsive to the public and to elected leaders. In some cases, the police were a little too responsive to politicians, acting as corrupt henchmen for whoever won office, and oppressing outsiders and minorities. Something had to be done.
By the early twentieth century, police reform had become a cause of the progressive movement, whose adherents saw corrupt cops as just another consequence of cities being run by political machines. There were two competing voices for reform. Progressive academics and elites wanted not only to rid police departments of patronage and corruption but to mandate a more paternalistic role for police. They wanted cops to enforce good habits and morals among the urban poor, especially immigrants.
The other voice for reform came from administrators within the law enforcement community. They too wanted to free police departments from the political machines, but they focused less on ideology and more on fighting crime. They wanted to give more freedom and autonomy to police chiefs, who were often held responsible for the actions of their officers but had very little power to actually change their behavior.
In the end, the administrators won the long-term debate by embracing the concept of professionalism. Through the adoption of best practices, they successfully transformed the job of police officer from a perk of patronage to a formal profession with its own standards, specialized knowledge, and higher personnel standards and entry requirements.
This new professional attitude was an improvement over the corruption that preceded it, but it also served to separate the police from the communities they supposedly served.
Things continued more or less in this fashion throughout the 20th century until, seemingly all at once, several things happened that frightened the crap out of law-and-order Americans: The crime rate soared, the Supreme Court issued some very defense-oriented rulings, the civil rights movement swung into high gear, anti-war protests heated up, and the counterculture made its appearance.
The 1960’s had arrived.
This was a turning point in the way American police forces operated and interacted with the society they were supposed to serve and protect, and it also marks our arrival at the point in the book where the main plot really begins to take off. Don’t get me wrong, the first part of the book is fascinating, but if Rise of the Warrior Cop is indeed a horror story, this is where we first begin to glimpse the monster.
The monster was born, in part, by fear of crime, which had been rising for years. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court was handing down ruling after ruling granting new rights to criminal defendants, and taking away police powers, and the Johnson administration was conducting studies and recommending ways to address the root causes of crime, which struck a lot of people as ineffective. More to the point, Johnson’s right-wing opponents got a lot of mileage out of portraying Johnson as soft on crime. They declared that they were going to “fight” crime. (I can remember that for decades afterwards, sneering at the “root causes” approach to stopping crime was a standard conservative talking point.)
In response to this, Johnson helped father the monster by creating two government entities to fight crime: The first was the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs (BNDD), which would eventually become the modern Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), which would eventually become the lead government agency fighting the War on Drugs. The second entity was the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration, which would set the precedent for providing all kinds of federal assistance to local police forces.
The monster was also born of white fear of black people. In addition to black people involved in the emerging crime wave, whites were also frightened when black people erupted into riots like they did in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles in 1965, triggered by a heated confrontation with the LAPD, and fueled by years of prior conflicts. Then there were more riots and protests in cities all over the America in 1968, when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Other riots erupted throughout this period, with varying causes, often involving minorities.
(I have vague childhood memories of a series of riots in Humboldt Park, just just down the block from where I lived. I’m guessing these were one of a series of protests by Puerto Ricans against the police or Chicago’s urban renewal policies. Family legend has it that my 70-something grandmother decided that the middle of a riot would be a good time to go to the corner grocery. A few of the protesters brought her back home and scolded my mother for letting her go out.)
The monster was also born of fear of the counterculture, the hippies, and the anti-war protesters, who had no respect for the values of the people in charge. For some reason, social conservatives became bizarrely frightened and angry at rock music, free love, and long hair on men.
The real mother of the monster, however, (with apologies to Lady Gaga) seems to have been Richard Nixon. Like many politicians at the time (or, really, any time), he was looking for ways to use the public’s fear to his advantage, and his campaign decided to focus on fighting crime as a key issue, and they began to look for crime-fighting ideas they could sell to the public. They soon realized that they could unify public fears of all these scary things — high crime, angry minorities, the counterculture — by pointing to a common denominator: Illegal drugs.
(There wasn’t actually much proof of that — there were even studies repudiating the idea that illegal drugs were fueling the crime rate — but having identified the problem as crime and drugs, they began looking for solutions that would make them sound tough. Whether the solutions actually worked was not an important consideration.)
The Nixon era also brought new strength to the rather strange laws that allowed the government to seize property involved in crimes. Originating in the ancient practice of seizing property that caused deaths (e.g. a horse would be seized if it trampled someone), the law was eventually expanded to includes the tools of the crime, such as ships used for smuggling. In 1970, however, the idea was expanded under the Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act to include all proceeds from the crime and anything that might have been bought with those proceeds.
I know my monster-being-born motif is getting old, so I’ll wrap it up by declaring that the monster was midwifed into the world by a Los Angeles Police Inspector named Daryl Gates. In addition to the high crime rate and the riots, there had been a number of very violent incidents for which the police had been ill-prepared, and Gates proposed assembling a so-called SWAT team consisting of elite police officers who had the training and weapons to respond effectively to such incidents.
So thanks to public fear of crime and unrest — and both cynical and sincere exploitation of that unrest by politicians and police leadership — our civilian police departments began to undergo a metamorphosis. By the start of the 1970’s, nearly all of the major transformations had begun, and the results were exactly what Radley Balko’s regular readers have learned to expect from our modern, militaristic police forces:
On October 3, 1969, seven narcotics agents stormed, apartments B and D at 8031 Comstock Avenue in Whittier, California, in a predawn, no-knock raid. Two officers were from the California State Bureau of Narcotics, four were from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, and the last was Det. Sgt. Frank Sweeney, a police officer from the tiny nearby town of Vernon. In apartment B, fifty-year-old Florence Mehan was asleep with her twelve-year-old daughter Susan.
The officers had raided the wrong apartment. Their search warrant was for apartments B and D at 8033 Comstock Avenue. Those apartments were both on the second floor.
Mehan’s other daughter, Linda, who was twenty-three, lived on the second floor— though not in either of the targeted apartments— along with her husband, twenty-two-year-old Heyward Dyer and their twenty-two-month-old son Francis. Heyward Dyer awoke to the screaming and commotion from the mistaken raid in his mother-in-law’s apartment, went downstairs to investigate, and was confronted by several police officer guns aimed in his direction.
As the police raided apartment B, Det. Sgt. Sweeney somehow mistakenly fired his .223-caliber rifle into the floor. The bullet ripped through the floor, then through the ceiling of the apartment below, where Heyward Dyer was standing, holding his son. The bullet pierced Dyer’s skull, killing him instantly.
Though Nixon wouldn’t officially “declare war” on drugs until 1972, the modern drug war effectively began with his inauguration in 1969. It seems likely, then, that Heyward Dyer was the modern drug war’s first innocent fatality.
That’s the only raid story I’m going to tell, but the second half of Rise of the Warrior Cop contains plenty of stories of stories of police raids, delivered with the usual Radley Balko gut-punch. It may sound sensationalistic, but I think the raid stories are necessary if we really want to grasp the level of violence against citizens that has become a standard part of police work in this country.
I’ll start discussing how all this plays out in Part 2 of my review.