Bad cops are the product of bad policy. And policy is ultimately made by politicians. A bad system loaded with bad incentives will unfailingly produce bad cops. The good ones will never enter the field in the first place, or they will become frustrated and leave police work, or they’ll simply turn bad. At best, they’ll have unrewarding, unfulfilling jobs.
I’ve been doing a close reading of Radley Balko’s Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces, and I’m trying to unweave the major narrative threads. In Part 1, I summarized Radley’s history of policing, in Part 2 I followed the threads that showed how the War On Drugs provided justification for raids, and the erosion of the Castle Doctrine provided permission, in Part 3, I discussed perverse federal funding incentives, and in Part 4 I discussed the resulting police violence. In this fifth and final post, I’m going to discuss what we can do about it.
Radley’s ninth chapter is titled “Reform,” and it is…inevitably disappointing. As I said at the beginning, Rise of the Warrior Cop is a horror story, so after reading five solid chapters about increasing police militarization, I really wanted the story to have a happy ending. Unfortunately, Radley can’t deliver a happy ending, because this is a true story, and it’s not over. But there are some signs of hope.
The chapter begins with the the story of a raid on Cheye Calvo’s home by the reliably awful police of Prince George’s County, Maryland, including the seemingly inevitable shooting of the family dog. As it happenes, Calvo was quite politically active — he was the elected mayor of Berwyn Heights, the town where the raid took place — and he responded by researching the issue of police raids and then leading a reform effort in Maryland that led to the passage of a modest transparency law requiring law enforcement agencies to report data on SWAT deployments. So now, at least in Maryland, we’ll know how often these raids happen.
Radley then lays out some of his own ideas for reform, beginning with the least likely to actually happen:
- Scale back the War on Drugs, including cutting back on federal support for local anti-drug efforts.
- Halt the mission creep in the way SWAT teams are used.
- Transparency, such as Cheye Calvo’s reporting law in Maryland, and better tracking of how warrants are handled, and how effective they are at turning up evidence. Radley also suggests getting police to use body cameras to record these raids.
- Increased community policing.
- Changing police culture to discourage violent behavior, by discouraging cops from thinking of police work as combat, and encouraging police to seek peaceful solutions to routine problems.
- Make police accountable. The folks who hold us to the law should not themselves be above it.
Occasionally throughout the book, Radley talks about police departments that have taken a different path. I think these are important, because we need to have good answers when people ask, “How can we run a police department without a SWAT team?”
Fortunately, there are good answers. Police departments did alright before it became common to use SWAT teams to serve warrants, and police departments continue to rediscover the possibility of a less violent way. When Nixon first pushed his tough-on-crime approach in federally-controlled Washington, D.C., Police Chief Jerry Wilson pushed back. Instead of following Nixon’s plan, he built up connections between police and the community, on the theory that it would make the police far more effective at fighting crime. He avoided activities that would antagonize citizens — roadblocks, stop-and-frisks, and especially the new no-knock raids. And his approach seemed to work:
Wilson’s tenure as MPD chief ran nearly concurrently with Nixon’s tenure as president… Under Jerry Wilson, violent crime in DC dropped 25 percent and property crime dropped 28 percent. Under Nixon, violent crime in the country as a whole went up 40 percent and property crime rose 24 percent.
In Colorado, in 1995, Pitkin County sheriff Robert Braudis spoke out against no-knock raids after a series of deaths:
“They are the closest thing I can think of to a military action in a democratic society.” Braudis explained that it was far safer to conduct surveillance, to learn a suspect’s routine, and to then do “a quick, quiet arrest when a suspect is in the open.” As for possible destruction of evidence, he said that his department would have the water shut off before serving a warrant (by knocking at the door and waiting for an answer). In some cases, they had arranged for a plumber to set up a “catch net” to capture anything flushed after police arrived to serve the warrant. But Braudis said that his concern went beyond the SWAT tactics. “The ‘war on drugs’ is an abysmal failure,” he said. “Even the term creates a dangerous war mentality.”
In 1998, Albuquerque, New Mexico had a wake-up call of its own after a SWAT team killed a mentally disturbed man.
The city brought in Sam Walker, a well-regarded criminologist at the University of Nebraska, to evaluate the police department’s use of lethal force. Walker was astonished by what he found. “The rate of police killings was just off the charts,” Walker told the Times. The city’s SWAT team, he said, “had an organizational structure that led them to escalate situations upward rather than de-escalating.” The city then brought in Toledo, Ohio, police chief Jerry Galvin to take over its police department. Galvin immediately disbanded the SWAT team, toned down the militarism, and implemented community policing policies. He told the Times, “If cops have a mindset that the goal is to take out a citizen, it will happen.”
One of the most prominent reformers is former Seattle Police Chief Norm Stamper, who is also one of the saddest figures in Warrior Cop. I’ve read his biography, and he seems to have gone through life repeatedly coming to the realization that he’s been doing it all wrong. Stamper was responsible for the crackdown on the protests against the World Trade Organization’s meetings in Seattle, for which he was widely criticized:
Norm Stamper took responsibility for the disaster and resigned as Seattle police chief. Though he defended the decision to tear-gas peaceful protesters in his 2005 book, he now says he was wrong. In fact, he says, it was the worst mistake of his career.
In spite of the fact that there were few injuries and no fatalities, the images that emerged from Seattle depicted a city that had lost control. Going forward, “control” would be the prevailing objectives for police handling protests. In the years to come, the Darth Vader look would become the standard police presence at large protests. Cities and police officials would commit mass violations of civil and constitutional rights and deal with the consequences later. There would be violent, preemptive SWAT raids, mass arrests, and sweeping use of police powers that ensnared violent protesters, peaceful protesters, and people who had nothing to do with the protest at all.
That’s why Stamper calls his decisions in Seattle “the worst mistake” of his career. He’s seen how the police response to protest has changed since 1999. “We gassed fellow Americans engaging in civil disobedience,” Stamper says. “We set a number of precedents, most of them bad. And police departments across the country learned all the wrong lessons from us. That’s disheartening. So disheartening. I mean, you look at what happened to those Occupy protesters at UC Davis, where the cop just pepper sprays them down like he’s watering a bed of flowers, and I think that we played a part in making that sort of thing so common— so easy to do now. It’s beyond cringe-worthy. I wish to hell my career had ended on a happier note.”
Since I started writing this series of posts, Radley has gone on to interview Salt Lake City Police Chief Chris Burbank, who managed the 2011 Occupy protests in his city in a remarkably peaceful way:
Burbank showed up at the camp and talked to the protesters, in some cases one on one. He explained that they’d need to start leaving the park at night, although they could come back during the day. He said that when the time came for them leave, they could do so peacefully, or they could choose to be arrested. He even asked them how they’d like their arrests to take place, in case they wanted the TV and newspaper cameras to photograph them giving themselves up for their cause.
When it came time to evict the Occupy protesters in Pioneer Park, then, Burbank and his officers wore their standard, everyday uniforms, not riot gear, as police units in other cities had. Burbank also made sure he was first on the scene — that the first person the protesters saw was the one with whom they had already had a conversation.
Most of the 200 protesters left voluntarily. Some took advantage of Burbank’s offer to have his officers help with their belongings. Nineteen chose to be arrested. There was no violence, no rioting and little anger.[...]
Burbank also looks for non-violent solutions to other police problems:
“I spent eight years on the SWAT team. I’ve served hundreds of no-knock warrants. I know firsthand how it all operates,” he says. “I also know firsthand that there are better alternatives. Too often we start with the highest level of force. We should always start at the lowest level. If the police show up and the situation deteriorates, then that’s our fault. We haven’t done our job right. I think we get too caught up in the whole officer safety thing. The danger you expose everyone to in these raids is significant.”
[...]As for the service of drug warrants, Burbank rejects the conventional wisdom held by so many police departments around the country that aggressive raids make the process safer for everyone. He says the goal in drug investigations should be about improving quality of life and making neighborhoods safe, not necessarily making arrests and racking up convictions.
When I caught Radley’s book tour here in Chicago, the other panelists were a somewhat liberal collection of activists, and presumably the audience was similarly composed, and Radley emphasized that police militarization is not just a concern for the liberal civil rights organizations that look out for minority communities. There are people on the right — or at least the libertarian right — who share their concerns. Likewise, it’s important for us libertarian types to remember that the liberal left has been fighting police abuse for decades on behalf of various minorities. We’ll get more done if we team up and hit them from both sides.
Conversely, one barrier to reform is the presence of partisan hacks who can be remarkably blind to police violence against their political opponents:
In the 1990s, it had been the right wing— particularly the far right —that was up in arms over police militarization. Recall the outrage on the right over Waco, Ruby Ridge, and the raid to seize Elián González. The left had largely either remained silent or even defended the government’s tactics in those cases. But the right-wing diatribes against jackbooted thugs and federal storm-troopers all died down once the Clinton administration left office, and they were virtually nonexistent after September 11, 2001. By the time cops started cracking heads at the Occupy protests, some conservatives were downright gleeful. The militarization of federal law enforcement certainly didn’t stop, but the 9/ 11 attacks and a friendly administration seemed to quell the conservatives’ concerns. So long as law enforcement was targeting hippie protesters, undocumented immigrants, suspected drug offenders, and alleged terrorist sympathizers, they were back to being heroes.
The left has been no better:
In one lengthy segment, MSNBC host Rachel Maddow aired old footage from Waco and Ruby Ridge while making some tenuous connections between gun rights politicians and activists and Weaver, McVeigh, and Koresh. She referred to a “conspiracy-driven corner of the gun world’s paranoia about federal agents,” without paying much heed to the fact that the ATF was inflicting the same sort of abuse on suspected gun offenders that Maddow herself has decried when used against suspected undocumented immigrants or Occupy protesters. More tellingly, Maddow added that there’s nothing wrong with wanting to give more power to the ATF based only on the politics of the people opposed to doing so. “Sometimes the character of the opposition defines why something ought to be the most politically viable thing in the world,” she said.
Radley’s article about Chief Burbank was just one of a six-part-series on police reform in Utah, which gives some good examples of people with a variety of political backgrounds following a variety of strategies to change police behavior.
Another point Radley has made repeatedly is the importance of so many people being able to capture video of police misbehavior. It was the official video of the Columbia SWAT raid that helped attract enough attention to this issue that Radley could publish his book, and it was citizen video of police responses to the Occupy protests that brought so much attention to how police abuse peaceful protesters.
The ubiquity of smart phones and the viral capacity of Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, and blogs were already bringing unprecedented accountability to police misconduct and government oppression, be it a Baltimore cop screaming obscenities at a kid on a skateboard, a transit cop in Oakland shooting a man who lay handcuffed on his stomach, or government paramilitaries in Iran gunning down a young woman in cold blood during Arab Spring democracy protests. But the Occupiers, who tended to be young, white, and middle- to upper-middle-class, knew social media like few other demographics. They knew how to live-stream video directly to the Internet. They all had smart phones, so police couldn’t suppress incriminating video by confiscating one or two or ten phones— someone was bound to have video of not only the original incident but also of police trying to confiscate phones to cover it up.
(One hint I’d add is that if you catch cops breaking the law, don’t go public with the video right away. Give them a day or two to nail down their story in their reports — or better yet, in sworn documents submitted to a court under penalty of perjury — before you reveal your video of what really happened. They may be able to explain away what they did, but they’ll have a harder time explaining a coverup.)
I have to admit that when I first read Warrior Cop, the second half of it was almost unbearable. Chapter after chapter, decade after decade, things just kept getting worse, with no hope in sight (or crushed hope, if we made the mistake of believing in any Presidential candidates). Radley’s detailed accounts of police raids were particularly brutal. It was a long, depressing triumph of violence against American citizens.
After I calmed down, however, I realized that the time scale is a reason for hope. This is a huge problem, involving billions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of people. But this isn’t some catastrophe that overtook us in a moment. It took time for things to get this bad. And maybe that means that with enough time and effort we can turn things around.
The thing is, those of us who care about this issue can’t do it by ourselves.
The most difficult change is the one that’s probably necessary to make any of these others happen. The public needs to start caring about these issues. The proliferation of “cop watch” sites, citizen-shot video of police misconduct, and coverage of police abuse incidents by a bevy of online media is encouraging. Another good sign is the fact that this growing skepticism of police has been accompanied by a decline in violence against police officers themselves. Activists are fighting police abuse with technology and information, not with threats and violence. But while exposing individual incidents of misconduct is important, particularly to the victim of the misconduct, it’s more important to expose the policies that allow misconduct to flourish. Bad systems will continue to turn out bad results. And bad systems will never be reformed until and unless policymakers and politicians (a) are convinced there is a problem, and (b) pay a political price for not addressing it. Yes, trends that develop over years or decades can gradually normalize things that we might not have tolerated had they been imposed on us all at once. But it’s still rather remarkable that domestic police officers are driving tanks and armored personnel carriers on American streets, breaking into homes and killing dogs over pot. They’re subjecting homes and businesses to commando raids for white-collar and even regulatory offenses, and there’s been barely any opposition or concern from anyone in Congress, any governor, or any mayor of a sizable city. That, more than anything, is what needs to change.
Radley’s book has brought a lot of attention to the problem, and I hope it’s one good step down the long road to change, but the rest of us need to step up and keep pressing the issue.