Kate Burkholder is an authoritarian bitch. Kate Burkholder is also a fictional character. This is a problem for me.

I enjoy police procedural mysteries — the crime scene, the forensics, the autopsy, interrogations, politics, history, secrets — but all these years of blogging about libertarian issues and the criminal justice system have made it hard to maintain the willing suspension of disbelief needed to enjoy fiction.

Most procedurals are set in major urban police departments, but the Kate Burkholder series by Linda Castillo is set in the supposedly quiet town of Painter’s Mill, Ohio, in the middle of Amish country. In Gone Missing, Burkholder is asked to assist the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Identification and Investigation with a search for some missing Amish teenagers, one of whom has turned up dead.

That part is a pretty good story, but I kept getting distracted by one of the subplots. Over the course of the book, Burkholder has a series of fruitless arguments with the town mayor, who’s upset because her department has arrested his son for drug possession. Sheriff Burkholder may be a fictional character, but like most law enforcement officers, she’s part of the War on Drugs, and that makes it hard to think of her as one of the good guys. I mean, what’s next? Rousting homosexuals from bathhouses? Chasing blacks out of town before the sun goes down?

I have similar problems with the way other fictional portrayals of criminal justice clash with my beliefs and values. On a recent episode of Major Crimes they were trying to find a missing child, and when they interviewed a suspect they told him that because there were exigent circumstances he had no right to remain silent and no right to a lawyer. I’m not a lawyer, but I don’t think that’s how it works. There might be some special rules about the admissibility of statements made to the police when questioned about certain things, but I’m pretty sure you can always shut up and lawyer up. They were lying to him about his rights.

They lie a lot on that show, often tricking suspects into doing or saying things that give them away. That seems legitimate enough, but the Major Crimes detectives also lie about how much evidence they have against suspects in order to trick them into confessing. That’s pretty cool on television, where the rules of series drama pretty much guarantee they’ve got the real bad guy. But in real life, unfortunately, sometimes when the cops convince a suspect that they’re sending him to jail, he ends up telling them whatever they want to hear in the hope of getting some leniency, even if it means admitting to a crime he didn’t commit. This is how false confessions are made.

Even worse, Major Crimes‘s Captain Sharon Raydor doesn’t just want suspects to leave the interrogation room under arrest, she wants them to leave having accepted a plea deal, so there’s no change they’ll escape justice by winning at trial.

It doesn’t help that police brutality has become increasingly acceptable in police fiction. When Harry Callahan tortured the Scorpio killer in Dirty Harry to get him to reveal the location of a kidnapped child, at least we could understand why he felt he had to do it. Since then, however, the cop who “plays by his own rules” has become a staple of police dramas, from Jethro Gibbs on NCSI to Julio Sanchez on Major Crimes to Sheriff Walt Longmire. These fictional cops get tough on criminals because they care so much about the victims and will do whatever it takes to protect the innocent and bring the guilty to justice. (Except Steve McGarrett on the new Hawaii 5-0 who seems to torture suspects just to annoy Danno.)

But in the real world, brutal cops don’t get started by torturing serial killers into revealing the locations of their kidnap victims or by executing crime kingpins who are too smooth to get caught. In the real world they start by beating down street kids who mouth off. They start by tasering belligerent motorists and shooting people’s dogs. In real life, we get guys like Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge, who was involved in torturing 200 criminal suspects, some of whom appear to have been innocent.

I’m currently reading a murder mystery in which the victim is a prostitute who the investigating officer had busted and then turned into an informant. The story is full of talk about the dangers facing police informants without once considering that the victim became an informant only because the officer coerced her into it by threatening to jail her for a victimless crime. In the real world, I don’t have much respect for cops who arrest someone for a victimless crime and threaten them into doing dangerous work as an informant.

I didn’t have much respect for Hank Schrader in Breaking Bad either. He wasn’t a murderer like Walter, Gus, and all the rest, but he was a DEA agent who had presumably ruined a lot of lives. He didn’t deserve to go out like that, but live by the sword, die by the sword.

Even in nonsense like Terra Nova — about a family that travels back in time to the Cretaceous period as part of an expedition to save humanity from ecological disaster — it bothered me that the father was a former narcotics officer. I kept expecting him to import his poisonous ideology into the colony.

In Gone Missing, Sheriff Kate Burkholder eventually figures out what has been happening to the children. (Spoiler alert, although I won’t give away the killer’s identity.) The Amish are expected to live their lives according to the ordnung, an informal but rather strict moral code, and much of the story involves Amish children struggling with its requirements. It eventually turns out that all of the abducted Amish children had broken the rules — by having sex, smoking cigarettes, drinking beer, or wearing makeup — and the villain is a crazed Amish man who’s trying to save the children from their sinful ways by kidnapping them and keeping them locked up in dismal cells for months or years. The villain was willing to subject the teenagers to great suffering because, to paraphrase Shaw, he has mistaken the customs of his tribe for the laws of the universe.

This is, of course, the exact same thing that Sheriff Burkholder is doing to the mayor’s son: She’s willing to lock him in a dismal cell for months or years in order to “straighten him out” for breaking rules that are just as arbitrary and essentially religious in nature as the ordnung. And even when the mayor pleads for his son’s freedom, Burkholder is a merciless enforcer of her society’s moral customs.

For a while, I held out hope that author Linda Castillo saw the same parallels I did, and I half expected to see a scene at the end where Burkholder saw the horrors brought by overzealous enforcement of conformity to authority and decided to cut the mayor’s kid some slack. But it didn’t happen. Either Linda Castillo or the character she created just doesn’t see the world my way.

Which is a shame, because the Kate Burkholder stories are actually a pretty decent mystery series. I still enjoy them, but I feel funny about it.

The nice folks at the Reason Foundation sent me a free review copy of Jesse Walker’s The United States of Paranoia: A Conspiracy Theory all the way back in September of last year. At the time I was churning through my close reading of Radley Balko’s Warrior Cop, so it took me a month or so to get around to reading Walker’s book. And after reading it, I really didn’t have much to say about it, so I kept putting off writing anything.

I still don’t have as much to say as I did about Radley’s book (which will probably come as a relief to readers) because United States of Paranoia doesn’t really tell a single unified story that I can talk about. Stories have arcs and plots, but one of the guiding premises of the book is that when it comes to conspiracy theories and paranoia, not much has changed. So USoP is more like a collection of short stories tied together by a common theme.

Of course, when I say “stories” I’m not talking about fiction. These are true stories. Well…they’re sort of true stories. I mean, many of the conspiracy theories are wild nonsense and paranoia, with little or no truth to them, but they are conspiracy theories that people really, truly believed in. United States of Paranoia is filled with true stories about untrue stories.

Jesse Walker seems to have been inspired to write this book at least in part by Richard Hofstadter’s 1964 essay, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” in which Hofstadter discusses political paranoia and conspiracy theories in fringe political movements. Walker has argued at least since his 2009 article “The Paranoid Center” in Reason magazine, that paranoia and conspiracy theories are often found in the mainstream.

In 2006, a nationwide Scripps Howard survey indicated that 36 percent of the people polled—a minority but hardly a modest one—believed it “very” or “somewhat” likely that U.S. leaders had either allowed 9/ 11 to happen or actively plotted the attacks. Theories about JFK’s assassination aren’t a minority taste at all: Forty years after John F. Kennedy was shot, an ABC News poll showed 70 percent of the country believing a conspiracy was behind the president’s death. (In 1983, the number of believers was an even higher 80 percent.) A 1996 Gallup Poll had 71 percent of the country thinking that the government is hiding something about UFOs.

In the worst case, these mainstream conspiracy theories become political causes and influence legislation and public policy. Probably the most infamous recent conspiracy theory to take hold is the Satanic Ritual Abuse panic that spread through law enforcement agencies in the 1980s, when police investigators and prosecutors (and unfortunately judges and juries) seemed willing to believe any stories told by the child victims, no matter how incoherent or imaginative.

One child […] began by saying she had no secrets to share, then eventually declared that she had been raped. After more days of questioning, she said “she was forced to drink [a teacher’s] urine and to consume his feces covered with chocolate sauce.” With time the girl “was talking about animals being slaughtered at the school and about how she was taken to a ‘mansion’ to be molested,” about adults “forcing her to take drugs, about fellating animals, about trips to a church and ‘devil land,’ and about being made to touch dead people.”

More recently, sex work activists like Maggie McNeill have been chronicling the conspiracy-theory-like thinking engaged in by so many people who are worried about human trafficking.

Although Walker didn’t write United States of Paranoia as a guide to recognizing and analyzing conspiracy theories, that’s certainly something you will be better equipped to do after you read the first of its two major sections, “Primal Myths,” which discusses some of the conspiracy theories that have circulated in the United States since before it was a country. This is an effective way to illustrate the structures of conspiracy theories, because the myths are no longer in our common consciousness, they concern matters no longer of direct importance, so we don’t get caught up in them as we think about them. However, it’s not hard to see the similarity of the old conspiracy theories to modern ones, which helps us to recognize and think about them.

Walker attempts to organizes the conspiracy theories into taxonomic categories roughly according to the identity of the bad guys: The Enemy Outside, the Enemy Within, the Enemy Above, the Enemy Below. (Walker also identifies a fifth category — the Benevolent Conspiracy — which posits a secret society working behind the scenes to help us and protect us from greater evils.)

In the early days of what eventually became the United States, the local Indian tribes were a prime candidate for conspiracy theories about the Enemy Outside. The mostly Christian immigrants were suspicious of the non-Christian Native American religions, often suspecting the Indians of being in league with Satan. On the other hand, most of the immigrants were Protestants, leading some of them to suspect that the Indians were in league with the Catholics. Making matters worse for the conspiracy-minded (and for the Indians), the colonists were unreasonably concerned that the tribes were on the brink of uniting under some imaginary “superchief” or Indian “King.”

Like most conspiracy theories, these fears were not completely made of whole cloth. Some tribes were a real source of danger for the settlers, but they were also likely to go to war with each other, or to join the colonists in attacking another tribe. In fact, tribes would sometimes spread rumors that other tribes were planning to attack the Europeans, hoping to encourage the colonists to bring their powerful military forces to bear against a rival tribe.

(We see similar patterns in our modern Enemy Outside, when we imagine that all the world’s Muslim terrorists are arrayed against us, an alliance of evil masterminds hiding in caves. It’s not that there aren’t Muslim terrorists, but they aren’t by any means unified, and some of the various Islamic groups have tried to manipulate us into fighting their enemies.)

Walker illustrates the Enemy Within through the witchcraft hysteria in Salem, Massachusetts. It started with accusations against an Indian slave, an obvious Enemy Outside, but soon the fear spread that almost anyone might be a witch — prostitutes, businessmen, ministers, even the governor’s wife. Many of the accusations followed preexisting animosities — business rivalries, cultural conflicts, religious differences — because if you’re going to suspect someone in your life of being a witch, it’s probably going to be someone you already have reason to dislike. And besides, an accusation of witchcraft was a good way to cause trouble for your enemies.

There was also, as the sociologist Richard Weisman has pointed out, a change in the role of the government. The typical New England witchcraft accusation involved townspeople blaming their neighbors for various mundane misfortunes. If you look past the fact that the charges involved the use of magical powers, you’ll find that the conflicts weren’t so different from the disputes that modern people have over rat-attracting junk piles, dogs that dig up gardens, or tree branches that extend into an adjoining yard. Even by the legal standards of the time, the use of malevolent magic was difficult to prove, so the New England courts were ordinarily reluctant to take on such cases.

But now the state was throwing itself into the conflict, creating a situation closer in spirit to Europe’s persecutions than to traditional tiffs between neighbors. An ordinary citizen of Salem might worry that the witches next door were poisoning his cow or making his children sick. The authorities had a grander fear: in Weisman’s words, that “an organized plot to subvert the Puritan mission had successfully infiltrated the core of the church.” Tales of vast conspiracies began to appear in the confessions.

Those confessions were easy to get, since accused witches could avoid execution by revealing the names of other witches, and the confessions led to an ever-expanding list of suspects, which raised the chilling prospect that the Enemy Within was actively recruiting conspirators, and that they might use their mysterious powers to induct your friends or even your children. These sorts of accusations have been routinely leveled against minority religious groups such as Shakers, Catholics, and Mormons.

(We can see similar Enemies Within in the anti-cult panic that followed the Jonestown massacre, or the rhetoric used to stir up oppression of fascists, communists, and homosexuals.)

The Enemy Within was also suspected to be capable of using almost every new medium to recruit. In modern times, comic books, television, video games, and the internet have all been sources of concern. Fear of manipulation through some form of mass media leads to perhaps the ultimate expression of the Enemy Within: The belief that most of the people around you are an easily manipulated mob, “sheeple,” deluded into “false consciousness,” and that only you — and a few especially intelligent people who share your views — can see the real truth.

The fear of mass culture had an authoritarian side too. It was shot through with distrust of ordinary people, who were often described in terms that suggested they weren’t fully human. Erich Fromm’s influential Escape from Freedom (1941) argued that while some of us had achieved a “genuine individuality,” monopoly capitalism had created a “compulsive conforming” in which “the individual becomes an automaton, loses his self, and yet at the same time consciously conceives of himself as free and subject only to himself.” Not every critic of mass culture would go that far, but they all contrasted the individual man with the amorphous mass.

Such ideas don’t have to lead to authoritarian conclusions. But if you see the average voter as an automaton, it’s obviously easier to support laws that might otherwise seem like restrictions on his freedom. And if you think he’s being manipulated by occult forces—advertisers, broadcasters, comic book publishers— it’s easier to rationalize those restrictions as an act of liberation.

Whereas the Enemy Within could be your neighbor, your priest, or the people teaching your children, the Enemy Below was identifiable as a particular social class. In the American colonies and the early United States, the most identifiable Enemy Below was the African slave population, who were frequently suspected of plotting an uprising to kill their white owners.

Slave escapes and revolts were real, of course, and the successful rebellion in Haiti set the slave-owning regions on high alert for signs of trouble. Rebellious slaves had often resorted to starting fires to destroy property and distract the authorities, so as far as the white population was concerned, every building that caught on fire was potentially a portent of a slave uprising. There was also concern that various shady people in rough neighborhoods were fomenting slave rebellions for dastardly reasons of their own, and during wars the slaves were often said to be working with the enemy.

(I think we can see echoes of the Enemy Below in the 1992 riots that erupted in black communities in Los Angeles. Fifty three people died and thousands were injured before military forces quieted the city. Just as slave owners couldn’t believe that slaves would spontaneously rise up, right-wing conspiracy nuts couldn’t believe that the riots were the result of poor police handling of genuine widespread outrage at the acquittal of white police officers accused of beating a black man. Rumors began to circulate that black and Hispanic street gangs had been planning the whole thing for weeks in advance so they could loot, burn, and kill.)

The opposite of the Enemy Below was the Enemy Above, the rich and powerful people who were supposedly keeping everyone else down. In the early days, predictably, the lead suspects were a cabal within the British government, intending to extinguish all liberty, starting with the colonies:

If the colonies could be subdued, one pamphleteer warned, the plotters “might open their batteries with safety against British Liberty; and Britons be made to feel the same oppressive hand of despotic Power.” The alarm was sounded: “a PLAN has been systematically laid, and persued by the British ministry . . . for enslaving America; as the STIRRUP by which they design to mount the RED HORSE of TYRANNY and DESPOTISM at home.”

(Apparently, even back then, ALL CAPS was a bit of a warning sign.)

The secret plan, John Adams explained, was to “establish the Church of England, with all its creeds, articles, tests, ceremonies, and tithes, and prohibit all other churches.” When the Stamp Act of 1765 imposed a tax on printed paper , Joseph Warren of Massachusetts announced that the law had been “designed . . . to force the colonies into a rebellion, and from thence to take occasion to treat them with severity, and, by military power, to reduce them to servitude.” The Boston Massacre of 1770, the Tea Act of 1773, the Intolerable Acts of 1774: All were evidence of the dark design. One isolated act of oppression “may be ascribed to the accidental opinion of a day,” Thomas Jefferson acknowledged, but America was undergoing “a series of oppressions, begun at a distinguished period and pursued unalterably through every change of ministers.” And that meant it faced “a deliberate and systematical plan of reducing us to slavery.”

If you were to poll the founding fathers, you would hear slightly different accounts of who was a part of this conspiracy and what exactly the conspirators were up to. But when it came to where the enemy was taking them, they agreed with Jefferson. George Washington wrote that “a regular Systematick Plan ” threatened to reduce the colonists to “tame, & abject Slaves, as the Blacks we Rule over with such arbitrary Sway.” Alexander Hamilton concurred: A “system of slavery,” he said, was being “fabricated against America.” When the revolutionaries formed a Continental Congress, the body denounced the “ministerial plan for enslaving us” and issued a warning to the people of Great Britain: “May not a ministry, with the same armies, enslave you?” When the colonies declared independence, the plot against America was detailed in the new country’s founding document. The Declaration of Independence did not merely describe “a long train of abuses and usurpations.” It argued that those abuses added up to “a design” to bring the colonists “under absolute Despotism.”

Again, as is often the case, the conspiracy theory was not entirely based on fiction. The British did, after all, rule over the colonies. But perhaps their ultimate goal was something less than total enslavement. (The British and their American loyalists suspected a mysterious cabal was behind the rebellion in the colonies. And that the French might be behind it .)

Other Enemies Above included the Masons, the Illuminati (but of course!), and bankers. Leading up to the Civil War, northern Republicans saw the hand of the Slave Power behind behind every setback. After the war, the KKK loomed larger than life in the nightmares of freed blacks. In more modern times, some people blame all political opposition on either George Soros or the Koch brothers.

Throughout the historical section of the book, certain themes seem to emerge:

  • Conspiracy theories often have a basis in reality: Indians really did attack the colonies, rich people really do have undue influence in the government, slaves really did rise up against their masters.
  • The conspiracies tend to imagine a much greater degree of coordination than is actually evident: That the Indians have a secret king, that all those fires can’t just be random accidents, and that people seeking political change must be serving a hidden master.
  • The conspiracies tend to imagine very ambitious goals: The European royals don’t just want to rule the colonies, they intend to destroy all freedom, and the witches aren’t just hexing people they don’t like, they’re destroying the foundations of the church.
  • The conspiracy tends to deny the agency or legitimacy of the enemy: The slaves aren’t unhappy, they’re being goaded into rebellion by outside forces, and the workers demanding unions are just following the commands of their communist paymasters.
  • The conspiracy theorists often imagine that an entire religious group or immigrant community could live among us for years or decades for purposes of enacting a secret agenda when the right moment arises.
  • The conspiracy is often declared to simultaneously be (a) vast and far-reaching and yet (b) hidden so well that we can only surmise its existence indirectly, unless we coerce people into confessing their complicity and naming co-conspirators.
  • The enemy — whether above or below, inside or outside — always, always wants our women.

Having laid the historic foundation, the rest of the book explores some modern conspiracy movements. It’s a longer section, but if you’ve been around a while, the conspiracies are mostly pretty familiar: Super-secret government programs, the CIA, MK Ultra and COINTELPRO, the Illuminati and the Rothschilds, the Weavers and the McMartins and the whole Satanic Ritual Abuse panic. There’s also the whole extremely weird discordian movement, which deservedly gets a chapter of its own.

(The militia movement alone has a fascinating history. Vaguely organized around a opposition to  federal power, globalization, and/or the militarized police state, the movement included racists opposed to government equal rights policies, but the militia movement also included blacks and Jews, which often brought condemnation from white supremacists. Various militia groups have opposed the Rodney King beating, they’ve reported attempts to bomb gay bars and abortion clinics, and they’ve infiltrated police groups to expose racist behavior. That didn’t stop militia opponents from manufacturing their own conspiracy theories about what the militias were really all about, and it didn’t stop people from smearing their opponents with accusations of ideological affiliations with militias. The resemblance to witch hunts, Red Scares, and, well, a lot of modern politics, is not coincidental.)

By the end of the book, Walker has caught up to the present day, and the internet has put every conspiracy theory just one Google search away from anyone who’s curious, and which has led to a confusing mishmash of conspiracies — crop circles one day, CIA brainwashing the next, followed by the latest news on the Zionist conspiracy. And so now we have black nationalists who’ve adopted sovereign citizen theories that originated with the white power patriot movement.

The events of 9/11 were, of course, the result of a genuine conspiracy, but they also added fuel to the fire and touched off paranoid conspiracy theories about Muslim fifth columnists. As with the witch trials, these theories affected the government, leading to conspiracy-driven policies about how much liquid we can carry on planes and official paranoia about photography at a time when everyone in the country was about to start carrying small digital cameras.

Somewhere along the way, historians started to collect conspiracy theories and trace their origins. Soon people started collecting conspiracy theories and trading them like baseball cards, mixing the historic with the modern and the made-up-just-for-fun.

Which is, I guess, where Jesse Walker comes in.

One final note: While United States of Paranoia is a book about conspiracy theories, it’s also very much a book about telling stories that grab people’s imaginations. If you’re a novelist or screenwriter working on a series of stories, and you need to construct a compelling enemy, one that is at once secretive and powerful, then United States of Paranoia is an excellent guide. As H. P. Lovecraft says in the epigram that opens the eighth chapter, “No weird story can truly produce terror unless it is devised with all the care & verisimilitude of an actual hoax.”

When I don’t have any new novels from my favorite major authors, I like to browse the cheap e-books at Amazon to try to find new authors. Many of them turn out to be unappealing — not so much because they are badly written but because, like most indie art, they have a somewhat narrow appeal. Of course, when that narrow appeal is aimed straight at me, it’s like digging a random hole and striking gold.

Discovering Toni Dwiggins‘s Forensic Geology series was like that. It’s not that I like geology in particular — I know very little about it — but I do like science, and Dwiggins’s stories all come with a heavy serving of geological science. It feels like real science too, without a lot of gee-whiz speculation. Dwiggins is exploring Michael Crichton territory, but she’s doing it with a far more accurate map.

Badwater introduces us to the forensic geology team of Cassie Oldfield and Walter Shaws as they are brought in to help figure out what happened to a stolen cask of ion-exchange resin beads used to clean radionuclides from the cooling water in a nuclear power plant. Yeah, you read that right. Radioactive beads. There’s no threat that someone will turn this stuff into a bomb, and it won’t melt your face off like the Nazis at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. What it will do is give you a fatal dose of invisible radiation that you won’t even notice until it’s far too late. That will happen quickly if you run into a large amount of the stuff, but if you spend too much time around even a small amount, you could be just as dead. I think it’s very cool that Dwiggins didn’t try to jazz up the story by making the radioactive waste into some sort of super-secret super-special radioactive stuff, but instead chose to build her thriller around a realistic depiction of the hazards of radioactive materials.

Volcano Watch takes us to Cassie and Walter’s home town of Mammoth Lakes, where the mayor has just been murdered and the local volcano has been rumbling ominously. Actually, it’s not just a volcano, but a whole volcano system, and the mayor had apparently learned something alarming about it, but nobody knows what. It’s not the usual disaster cliché — there’s no young volcano expert trying desperately to warn the town about the impending eruption while feckless politicians try to suppress the truth because they don’t want to lose tourism dollars. Instead, Dwiggins builds her story around evacuation planning until the volcano erupts (it’s not really a spoiler) and then it switches to a story of survival. The eruption of the volcano is described in extensive detail, and the volcanology feels accurate and not sensationalized.

Quicksilver is the third and most recent installment in the series, although it is technically a prequel. It’s also a novella rather than a full-length novel, so it tells a smaller, tighter story. All of the books in the series feature a significant amount of exploration and outdoor adventure, but Quicksilver focuses on a single expedition, as Cassie and Walter get caught up in a family’s obsessive search for a legendary vein of California gold. It turns out that some gold mining operations use a mercury amalgamation process to extract the gold from the earth, and before it was outlawed, a great deal of mercury was lost into the environment. Mercury is an amazing substance — a metal that’s liquid at normal temperatures — but under the wrong conditions it becomes a deadly cumulative neurotoxin. This fact turns out to be pretty important in Quicksilver.

If the Forensic Geology series sounds like the kind of thing you’d like to read, you might as well read through them in order, starting with Badwater, as I did. If you’re not so sure, I recommended reading Quicksilver first. It’s short and tightly written and it’s a good example of the kind of story that Dwiggins likes to tell. It’s also currently available for download at the low, low introductory price of free. Or you could go all-in and just download the whole set for $3.99.

(I interviewed Toni Dwiggins briefly about the self-publishing business for a post I wrote a couple of months ago.)

There’s a meme of sorts going around, the rules to which are: “List 10 books that have stayed with you. Don’t take more than a few minutes; don’t think too hard. They don’t have to be great works, just the ones that have touched you.” The rules don’t specify fiction, but that’s how most people seem to interpret it.

Here’s my list:

  1. The Mote In God’s Eye. Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle.
  2. Protector. Larry Niven.
  3. Ringworld. Larry Niven.
  4. Iceworld. Hal Clement.
  5. Salem’s Lot. Stephen King.
  6. The Forever War. Joe Haldeman.
  7. All My Sins Remembered. Joe Haldeman.
  8. Stand On Zanzibar/The Jagged Orbit. John Brunner.
  9. In the Ocean of Night/Across the Sea of Suns. Gregory Benford.
  10. Hyperion/The Fall of Hyperion/Endymion/The Rise of Endymion. Dan Simmons.
  11. Arc Light. Eric L. Harry.
  12. Revelation Space. Alastair Reynolds.
  13. A Fire Upon the Deep. Vernor Vinge.
  14. Pandora’s Star/Judas Unchained. Peter F. Hamilton.

That’s a lot more than 10, but I’d have had to “think too hard” to cut it down to just 10.

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.

— Radley Balko. Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces

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.

It’s a no-knock raid,
Don’t be afraid
We’ll shoot your dogs,
In front of your kids

Cuz we’re the SWAT
We’re here for your pot,
And all the cash that you got,
We are adrenalin junkies taking orders from the top,

Lindy, “No Knock Raid” 2011

(The song is depressing enough, but I should warn you that the link is to the video, which includes graphic footage from real police raids. I find the song haunting, but I’m never going to watch the video again.)

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 that explain how things got so bad. In Part 1, I summarized Radley’s history of policing, Part 2 discussed how the War On Drugs provides justification for raids permitted by the erosion of the Castle Doctrine, and Part 3 described the perverse federal funding incentives that fueled the rise of the warrior cop.

This fourth part discusses how the warrior cops evolved.

The Changing Role of SWAT

Daryl Gates created the SWAT concept for the LAPD in the 1970’s, with the goal of giving the department a way to handle very dangerous incidents. Although most police officers carried guns, they had little experience with gunfights — many officers went their whole career without drawing their gun in the line of duty, let alone firing it at someone. However, after a number of violent incidents for which the police had been ill-prepared, Gates got the LAPD to accept his idea for an elite team of officers who would respond to such incidents with effective force. When the bad guys started a violent encounter, SWAT could end it.

Other major cities soon copied the SWAT concept, but many of these departments faced pressure to deploy their teams in more situations in order to justify the cost. Using them for drug raids was an obvious solution. SWAT teams end up going on a lot of drug raids — raids on homes, raids on bars, raids on raves, even raids on schools. A 1997 survey found that 20 percent of departments used SWAT teams for patrols in bad neighborhoods. Sometimes they pretty much just raided whole neighborhoods, with frightening fervor but largely unimpressive results. And they weren’t always looking for drugs:

By the end of the [2010’s], state and local SWAT teams were regularly being used not only for raids on poker games and gambling operations but also for immigration raids (on both businesses and private homes) and raids on massage parlors, cat houses, and unlicensed strip clubs. Today the sorts of offenses that can subject a citizen to the SWAT treatment defy caricature. If the government wants to make an example of you by pounding you with a wholly disproportionate use of force, it can. It’s rare that courts or politicians even object, much less impose consequences.

The courts have ruled often and in some detail on the rules for issuing search warrants or entering homes without them, but other than the pretense of a knock/no-knock distinction, there have been very few rulings on the tactics police can use to serve those warrants — it could be a friendly officer knocking at the door, or it could be a SWAT team battering down the door.

Because of federal incentives (see Part 3), many small departments have formed SWAT teams over the past few decades. That leads to problems:

Stephen Downing, who worked in the same LAPD patrol bureau as Daryl Gates while Gates was developing his SWAT idea, explains how the move to smaller police departments makes already dangerous SWAT raids even more perilous. “You’d have this ‘I want one too’ phenomenon,” Downing says. “And so the SWAT teams get bigger, and they start to spread. And standards would start to drop. You have to be very careful about who you put on the SWAT team. The guys who want it most are the last ones who should be given a spot. At LAPD, you were choosing from a force of nine thousand strong. You’re getting elite, disciplined officers, and the pool is big enough that you can screen them. For fitness and marksmanship and all the usual stuff. But also for attitude and psychology.”

Choosiness isn’t a luxury at smaller police agencies. “Right now, I’m preparing to testify in a lawsuit stemming from a wrongheaded raid by a SWAT team in a twenty-eight-man police department,” Downing says. “How do you even begin to select from twenty-eight people?” […] “And how do they find time to train? At LAPD, the SWAT team will spend at least half their on-duty time in training. In these smaller towns, the SWAT team is something these guys do on the side. They’re patrol officers. And so what happens is that they train by practicing on the people.”

There is very little tracking of SWAT deployments and even less civilian oversight.

Dynamic Entry

Radley has often pointed out that as originally conceived, SWAT teams were intended to confront criminal violence, but nowadays most SWAT-style drug raids actually create violent confrontations where none existed before.

I would go further and argue that most of these raids aren’t actually conducted by real SWAT teams at all. Police departments may call them “SWAT” teams, and they may superficially resemble SWAT teams, but that aren’t SWAT teams in the original sense. They’re something more specialized and limited that I’m going to call dynamic entry teams. (If you know a better term for these units, tell me.)

Sometimes the distinction is explicit. I’ve heard that New York City narcotics officers don’t like to use the Emergency Services Unit (NYPD’s world-class SWAT team) for search warrants because they are too deliberate. They clear buildings methodically and with a lot of attention to safety, but for serving drug warrants their approach would give occupants too much time to destroy evidence, so drug cops prefer to use specialized dynamic entry teams that hit the target fast and hard.

Smaller cities and towns can’t afford to operate two different types of SWAT teams. They don’t have as many officers to choose from, and they don’t have the budget for the kinds of extensive training it takes to build a traditional SWAT team. So they build the kind of team that’s less expensive to operate, the kind of team that trains on the job doing dynamic entries, and perhaps most importantly, the kind of team that pays for itself by doing drug raids.

Although police leaders usually justify SWAT teams to the public by invoking the specters of terrorism and school shootings, Radley correctly points out that school shootings are incredibly rare, and terrorist incidents are all but non-existent. Statistically speaking, the average school can expect an on-campus shooting of a student once every few thousand years, and excluding 9/11 (which no SWAT team could have stopped), terrorists only kill about 3 people per year in the United States. So most SWAT teams will never be deployed in either of these situations.

I suspect it’s even worse than that, though, because given the small choice of personnel, the lack of training, and the focus on only one operation — dynamic entry warrant service — I doubt many of these teams are up to the task of handling the kinds of incidents used to justify them. The school shooting at Columbine was used for years afterwards to justify SWAT teams everywhere, but  SWAT was not a decisive factor at Columbine:

Though there were eventually eight hundred police officers and eight SWAT teams on the Columbine campus, the SWAT teams held off from going inside to stop shooters Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris because they deemed the situation too dangerous.

Fortunately, the shooters apparently got bored with killing students and committed suicide.

(To be fair, most active shooting incidents are over in a few minutes, and Columbine was no exception. By the time most of the police got there, the shooting had already stopped. However, at least one person is known to have bled to death while waiting for rescue that didn’t come for hours.)

I’m no expert on SWAT tactics, but it seems to me that dynamic entry teams must gain a big advantage from controlling the initiative: They get to choose their target, they have time to gather intelligence, and they control when the assault begins. If they arrive on scene and the situation is different from what they expected, they can postpone the operation so they can do more planning and assemble a larger team, or they can just leave and go raid some other drug dealer.

In an active shooter incident, the SWAT team has no control over when and where they deploy, they have little to no intelligence, and they can only use team members who happen to be available at the time. If the shooters are terrorists or well-prepared individuals, they can equip and train themselves to fight, they can fortify the location, and they can take hostages, so they’ll be ready when SWAT arrives. I don’t believe a dynamic entry team’s experiences serving warrants will prepare them for this level of conflict.

Furthermore, if dynamic entry teams are training on the job by doing drug raids, it means they are only getting practice dealing with the most common scenarios. So when something unusual happens, they will find themselves in a situation they are unprepared for. We can see some evidence of this, for example, in the Atlanta police raid on the home of 92-year-old Kathryn Johnston. She apparently thought they were intruders and pulled a gun, getting off only a single shot before the raid team shot her. The raid team, however, was so unprepared for even this meager opposition that three officers were wounded by gunfire from other officers.

Police Culture

Given the economic incentives for police militarization, I’m skeptical about sociocultural explanations, but Radley makes a case for several cultural factors. For one thing, those economic incentives start to feed back into police attitudes: Once police start conducting heavily armed raids and patrols in certain neighborhoods, they begin to think of the residents as the kinds of people who deserve heavily armed raids and patrols. And it extends up and down the chain of command.

The commission reviewed radio transmissions of LAPD officers referring to a drug roundup in a black neighborhood as “monkey slapping time” or fantasizing about driving down one particular street with a flamethrower—“ We would have a barbecue.”

The comments themselves would have been bad enough. Even worse was the fact that a culture existed within the department in which officers felt free to make them over police radio. The LAPD’s focus on reacting to crime instead of preventing it, the commission found, had isolated officers from the communities they patrolled. Cops were rewarded for putting up impressive arrest statistics and for being “hard-nosed.” The report found that drug and gang sweeps of the late 1980s had alienated LAPD cops from the community, creating reciprocal hostility and resentment.

In addition, police departments need to justify all those fancy weapons and vehicles they like to buy, and claiming that they’re outgunned by the bad guys is a common ploy. However, studies of gun violence have been finding that only a small fraction of the murders in this country (including murders of police officers) are committed with assault weapons.

But playing up the risks and dangers of the job, even in spite of overwhelming evidence that things are getting better, almost certainly has an impact on the mindset of the average cop. If you approach the job as if every day could be your last, you’re going to approach every citizen encounter as if it could be your last. That makes everyone a potential enemy. The job becomes about survival, not public service. Hence, the unofficial motto of the job you often hear from cops, or see posted on police discussion boards: “Whatever I need to do to get home safe at the end of the day.”

Another cultural factor that Radley identifies is simply that dynamic entry raids are an exciting way to do police work:

The officers with SWAT and dynamic-entry experience interviewed for this book say raids are orders of magnitude more intoxicating than anything else in police work. Ironically, many cops describe them with language usually used to describe the drugs the raids are conducted to confiscate. “Oh, it’s a huge rush,” Franklin says. “Those times when you do have to kick down a door, it’s just a big shot of adrenaline.” Downing agrees. “It’s a rush. And you have to be careful, because the raids themselves can be habit-forming.”

The adrenaline high of doing dynamic entry raids probably discourages police from trying alternatives, such as traffic stops or surrounding the place and calling people out.

These sorts of police activities make for exciting popular entertainment, and police officers are as susceptible as anyone to the influences of pop culture. For example, in the 1970’s television programs were a lot less gritty than they are today, and almost everyone looked good, meaning male actors wore suits all the time, including those playing plainclothes police detectives on shows like Kojak, Hawii Five-O, Cannon, and McMillan & Wife. I remember hearing that some real-world detectives had adopted this behavior, and could be seen trudging around muddy outdoor crime scenes in expensive suits and shoes, much to the amusement of the patrol cops.

In his chronicle of the 1970s How We Got Here, conservative pundit David Frum argues that the decade’s parade of renegade cops who skirt the law but still abide by a familiar moral code (think Dirty Harry ) reflected the prevailing opinion at the time that bad court decisions and criminal-coddling procedures were preventing well-meaning cops from getting the bad guys. Ed Burns, the former narcotics cop and co-creator of HBO’s The Wire, thinks the influence might have been the other way around. In a 2008 interview, Burns said that the Gene Hackman movie The French Connection had a big influence on the culture of drug cops. “In The French Connection, [detective] Popeye Doyle had this very cynical, harsh, rough, law-breaking type of drug style that sort of set the tone in how street narcotics guys work. Very flippant. What the movie didn’t pick up, and what you didn’t see, is all the intense surveillance and hard work that would go into a drug bust back then. But they put out the idea of this guy who cracks heads, especially in that scene they went and they shook the bar down. That became iconic. And that is the way the cops were afterward. I mean, you’d see white cops in black neighborhoods looking like Serpico, and they’re not undercover. It was just this mind-set that took over of how you’re supposed to dress and act and the way you’re supposed to be.”

Modern-day reality shows spread the same message:

A&E broke in first with Dallas SWAT, which sent a camera crew with the city’s elite paramilitary police unit to document drug raids and standoffs. The show’s success spawned Detroit SWAT and Kansas City SWAT. Court TV then jumped in with Texas SWAT and SWAT U.S.A. Testosterone-infused Spike TV joined the mix in 2008 with DEA.

When police are depicted in popular culture as badass warriors against the savage streets, police forces begin to attract applicants who want that kind of high-power adventure: People who enjoy kicking ass and taking names. And the process feeds back on itself as police recruiting materials are targeted at those kinds of people.

Browse the dozens of police recruitment videos on YouTube, for example, and you’ll find that many of them feature images of cops tackling suspects, rappelling out of helicopters, shooting guns, kicking down doors, and siccing dogs on people. The images are often set to blaring guitars or heavy metal music. These are the videos that police departments send to high schools and colleges to attract new recruits. At the very first step in the process of staffing their departments, then, these agencies are deliberately appealing to people who are likely to be lured by the thrill-seeking, adrenaline-producing, butt-kicking aspects of law enforcement. Build an entire police force of people who fit that description and you have a force of cops who seek confrontation instead of avoiding it and who look to escalate volatile situations instead of resolving them peacefully.


Radley makes a sensible and surprising point about the way dynamic entry teams use flash-bang grenades to stun the occupants of a room before entering.

Clay Conrad, a criminal defense attorney in Houston, has argued that flash-bang grenades are unconstitutional because, by design, they’re intended to inflict injury on people who have yet to even be charged with a crime, much less convicted of one . “It’s just an assault,” Conrad told me in a 2010 interview. “These things are designed to blind and deafen. They produce a shock wave of 136 decibels or more. You’re intentionally injuring people.”

A cop throwing a flash-bang grenade might as well be whacking everyone over the head with his nightstick. Actually, that might be preferable, since the cop could still use some judgement about who might resist, whereas cops who “bang the room” before entering know nothing about the people they are assaulting. Flash-bang grenades are indiscriminate assault and battery against people who are not known to present any threat.

What surprises me most is that I hadn’t thought of it that way before. I thought only of what could go wrong — grenades starting fires, grenades shattering glass objects into shrapnel, grenades lobbed through windows into baby’s cribs — without realizing that even if everything worked perfectly, the police were still hurting American citizens.

What Warrior Cop makes clear, over and over, is that police are increasingly using violence on the American people without cause. Drug raids routinely involve breaking down doors, pointing guns at people who aren’t presenting a threat, shoving people to the ground, and restraining them while the place is searched. Any one of us would be arrested if we committed such violence, yet many of these raids are evidence-gathering missions, meaning that the people being assaulted are not known to have committed any crimes, even as the police come barging in with grenades and guns.

Shouldn’t that be shocking? Shouldn’t we object to the widespread violence against the American people? Yet we seem to have become numb to it, and we treat it as normal. Armed invasions of people’s homes by police don’t make the news. Even when police kill someone, it doesn’t stay in the news for very long.


Although the U.S. military has historically been used to put down riots and rebellions (as mentioned in Part 1), it hasn’t done so very much in recent times, but now that our police forces are armed with military weapons, trained with military tactics, and often think of their mission as military in nature, they have begun using a militaristic approach to put down protests.

It all started with the 1999 protests against the World Trade Organization (WTO) meeting in Seattle, when riot police attacked protesters with tear gas after they refused to disperse. The scene erupted into chaos, and confrontations between rioters and cops continued throughout the meeting. Although there was considerable property damage, the Seattle WTO protests had no major violence and only a few minor injuries. Nevertheless, it changed the way police departments all over the country responded to protests, including the recent Occupy-whatever protests.

This is how the country that gave the world the First Amendment now handles protest. There’s a disquieting ease now with which authorities are willing to crush dissent— and at the very sorts of events where the right to dissent is the entire purpose of protecting free speech— that is, events where influential policymakers meet to make high-level decisions with far-reaching consequences. In fact, the more important the policymakers and the more consequential the decisions they’ll be making, the more likely it is that police will use more force to keep protesters as far away as possible.

So what are we to do? I’ll discuss that in Part 5.

Yesterday evening I drove downtown to visit Roosevelt University to catch the Chicago stop of Radley Balko’s tour for his book Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces.

Radley’s presentation is pretty interesting, although not of course as in-depth as the book itself. He starts with a clip from the Columbia SWAT raid that brought so much national attention to the issue, and illustrates the rest of his presentation with a series of slides, some of which will be familiar to his regular readers (Sheriff Leon Lott makes an appearance, and we had a rousing game of Cop Or Soldier). If Radley comes to your area, it’s worth your time.

Radley Discusses the Murder of Kathryn Johnston
Radley discusses the murder of Kathryn Johnston

This was followed by an hour-long panel discussion which included representatives from several of the local organizations that sponsored his visit. The subject was broader than just police militarization — straying into police brutality, the general occupation of minority communities by police, what to do about it politically, and as any discussion of policing in Chicago must, the crimes of Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge.

Rise of the Warrior Cop Panel Discussion
Rise of the Warrior Cop panel discussion

Panel members, from left to right:

The event was also sponsored by the American Civil Liberties Union Illinois, the Mansfield Institute for Social Justice & Transformation (Roosevelt University), the National Lawyers Guild (Chicago), Project NIA, and TruthOut.

Rise of the Warrior Cop Panel Discussion
Rise of the Warrior Cop panel discussion

I’ve been following Radley since shortly after I started blogging. (I met him once before in 2008.) During those early years, he was only a couple of rungs above me in the blogosphere — just another one of the libertarian voices on the web. Of course, even then he was much more of a professional than I was: He actually got out and reported stories. So seeing Radley now as a professional national journalist on his own book tour makes me proud as hell for him. I didn’t have anything to do with it, of course, but it’s like one of the guys from my old neighborhood got out and done good. The kid made a name for himself.

When I congratulated him on his success, Radley mentioned that he wished the book was selling a little better. Isn’t that always the way? Here he’s gone from being a solo blogger to a full-time professional journalist (at time when news outlets are doing massive layoffs), the L.A. Press Club named him Journalist of the Year in 2011, his work has been cited by the Supreme Court, he’s got his book out (ranked #2239 at Amazon today), he’s doing television appearances, he’s got another gig where musicians do live performances from his couch, and still…eh, book sales are a little soft…

Anyway, Radley was doing book signings, but I had already purchased Rise of the Warrior Cop as an eBook, and I wasn’t about to buy a hardcover copy just so he could sign it. So this was the best I could come up with:

Radley Poses With My Kindle
Radley Balko with his book on my Kindle

If you haven’t done so already, get out there and buy your own copy of Rise of the Warrior Cop. Make Radley feel more successful!

I’ve been writing a series of posts (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3) that outline some of the themes that Radley Balko explores in Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces. The book itself is far more detailed, with discussions of the political forces that created some of these policies, and lots of descriptions of how they went so very wrong, including plenty of accounts of police raids (complete with puppycides) that will make your blood boil.

This is great material to have at hand if you find yourself arguing with other people about these issues. Also, Radley’s background as a policy analyst is showing, because the book is lavishly footnoted, making it easier to learn more about events that interest you.

So if you like what I’m writing in these posts, then buy Radley’s book, dammit!

(And I’m not just saying that because I’ll be attending Radley’s appearance in Chicago today and I don’t want him to be mad at me for stealing borrowing so heavily from his book to write these posts…)

“It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

Upton Sinclair, I, Candidate for Governor: And How I Got Licked 1935.

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 that explain how it got so bad. In Part 1, I summarized Radley’s history of policing, and 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 this third part, I’m going to review the perverse incentives created by federal anti-drug funding and changes in police organization that I believe are the main driving force behind the rise of the warrior cop.

Federal Funding

1988 saw the creation of the infamous Byrne grants, which essentially replaced the Nixon-era LEAA program, and which would go on to give billions of dollars to local police agencies throughout the country. Then in 1994, President Bill Clinton pushed the Community Oriented Policing Services program, which he had claimed would put another 100,000 officers on the street. COPS money was supposed to be used for “community policing” — a return to having cops on the beat who learn the neighborhoods. But as it turns out, a lot of this money paid for drug sweeps, anti-gang enforcement, and SWAT raids.

With federal funding hanging in the balance, policing became a numbers game. The departments that did best in the grant process were those that could show a lot of anti-drug activity: Arrests, warrants, seizures. So by stepping up drug enforcement, departments could obtain funding for activities (or levels of activities) that had not been approved by their local elected officials. Crimes that did not receive funding — sexual assaults, burglaries, auto theft, domestic violence — were increasingly treated as low priority.

After 9/11, federal funding shifted to support the War On Terror, and police departments promptly began applying for grants to fight terrorism. As it turns out, there wasn’t any more domestic terrorism after 9/11 than there was before, so a lot of that anti-terror money ended up fueling the War On Drugs anyway. It seems that many law enforcement agencies suddenly became deeply dedicated to fighting something called “narco-terrorism,” which almost nobody had been talking about before there were billions of anti-terrorism dollars up for grabs.

(I used to see a lot of that kind of opportunism when I worked in government contracting. If the government is buying anti-terror programs, everybody tries to find anti-terror applications for whatever it is they do, even if it’s just storing road salt.)

Civil Forfeiture

At the same time police departments began scrambling for federal funding, they also learned to take advantage of changes in civil forfeiture rules pushed by the Reagan administration. Real estate was no longer exempt, the standard of proof was reduced to less than probable cause, and seizures could go forward without even an indictment. The law also allowed seizure of assets even when it couldn’t be proven that a particular asset had been purchased with drug money.

Many state governments had been concerned that forfeiture could be abused, and they were careful not to give their law enforcement agencies broad forfeiture powers. However, a federal policy called equitable sharing gutted those protections by allowing federal agencies to share seized assets with any local local law enforcement agencies that had assisted in the seizure. In practice, this meant that local police could bypass state laws by bringing seizure opportunities to federal agencies, which would take over the seizure on paper. In reality, local law enforcement would continue to do all the work and receive most of the resulting money, with the federal agency providing token support and skimming a little cash off the top.

Nobody seemed to realize (or care) that this would have the effect of giving local law enforcement agencies a source of funding that was completely outside the control of local governments.  And unlike direct federal grants, this was a funding source that local police departments could directly influence: The more drug busts they did, the more they got to seize, the more money they got back from the feds.

In theory the victims of forfeiture could fight it in court, but prosecutors would often threaten criminal charges, which they would deal away if the property owners agreed to not fight the seizure. As Radley points out, this demonstrates the lie:

Those sorts of offers exposed just how fraudulent the government’s justification for its terror tactics really were. Allegedly, these pot growers were the dregs of humanity, greedily poisoning America’s children with their sinister harvest. They were dangerous enough that the government had to send virtual armies to occupy entire towns, buzz homes and chase children with helicopters, set up roadblocks to search cars at gunpoint, and strip suspects and innocents alike of their Fourth Amendment rights. These growers were that dangerous. However, if they were willing to hand over their land, the government was more than happy to let them go free.

Now instead of trying to find major drug dealers with large drug stashes, cops began looking for people who owned valuable property that they could link to drugs somehow. A guy dealing dope in a school yard might be moderately interesting, but a kid growing three pot plants in his parents’ $250,000 home was a higher priority, and business properties such as bars and hotels were potential goldmines because of their high value and because there was always a good chance that some customers had drugs on them, which would form the pretext for the seizure.

Forfeiture had turned police departments into thieves and money launderers.

Military Support and Equipment

The third change in police funding was a series of federal programs created to provide police departments with military-style equipment. This had been allowed since 1968, but in 1987 Congress stepped-up the effort.

[T]he 1987 law was more proactive. It established an office in the Pentagon specifically to facilitate transfers of war gear to civilian law enforcement. Congress even set up an 800 number that sheriffs and police chiefs could call to see what was available, and it ordered the General Services Administration to work with the Pentagon to produce a catalog from which police agencies could make their wish lists.

The Clinton era saw the creation of the “1033” program, which made it even easier for military hardware to flow down to civilian law enforcement agencies. By 2011 the Law Enforcement Support Office was reporting annual transfer of half a billion dollars worth of military gear to civilian cops.

Those grants were small, however, compared to the billions of dollars of post-9/11 equipment grants through the Department of Homeland Security. Police departments just love armored vehicles, and DHS helped buy a bunch of them all over the country. One of the more infamous was a $300,000 Lenco Bearcat (check out the macho bullshit promotional video) for the town of Keene, New Hampshire, population 23,000.

It’s arguable that armored personnel carriers are usable as rescue vehicles — although in that case it might make more sense if they were assigned to the fire department as aid vehicles — but some law enforcement agencies actually equip them with .50-cal machine guns. I’ve written about Sheriff Leon Lott of Richland County, South Carolina, and Radley names several more.

(Honesty compels me to admit that I can think of a legitimate law enforcement use for a .50-cal rifle…but what are the chances we’ll ever see another Killdozer?)

Radley does tell my favorite militarization story:

And in Montgomery County, Texas, “the sheriff’s department owns a $ 300,000 pilotless surveillance drone, like those used to hunt down al Qaeda terrorists in the remote tribal regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan.” A couple months before the CIR report, the sheriff in Montgomery County had broached the possibility of arming his drone with rubber bullets, or possibly teargas. “No matter what we do in law enforcement , somebody’s going to question it, but we’re going to do the right thing, and I can assure you of that,” he said. Five months later, the department made headlines when its DHS-funded drone accidentally crashed into its DHS-funded Bearcat.

Makes me chuckle every time.

Task Forces

The changes in funding were bad enough, allowing departments to fund their anti-drug activities independent of the approval of the communities they were policing, but the loss of control was made complete with the development of special-purpose anti-drug task forces.

Made up of personnel drawn from several different law enforcement agencies, control of these task forces is dispersed so widely that local civilian authorities have difficulty exerting control or even monitoring their operations. Police departments have joined task forces only to discover that they’ve given cops from other jurisdictions permission to operate in their territory without oversight. I’ve heard stories of task force officers from as far away as Arizona working here in Illinois.

In addition to being federally funded, task forces can also use civil forfeiture to fund themselves by seizing cash and property from anyone they deem a suspected drug smuggler or dealer — i.e. anyone with cash or property. Throw in the lack of the accountability, and they become like sharks in the water, forever hunting for their next meal:

As a result, we have roving squads of drug cops, loaded with SWAT gear, who get more money if they conduct more raids, make more arrests, and seize more property, and they are virtually immune to accountability if they get out of line. In 2009 the Justice Department attempted a cost-benefit analysis of these task forces but couldn’t even get to the point of crunching the numbers. The task forces weren’t producing any numbers to crunch. “Not only were data insufficient to estimate what task forces accomplished,” the report read, “data were inadequate to even tell what the task forces did for routine work.”

If you follow a blog like Pete Guither’s Drug WarRant or Radley’s The Agitator, it seems like every other horror story involves some kind of task force.

Farming Drug Dealers

Police forces have responded to these funding incentives in ways that are truly perverse, often leading them to act like criminals themselves. Worse, agencies and task forces that earn a profit from crime will become dependent on the very crime they’re supposedly trying to stop. As I wrote in another context, “When a city is spending a million dollars a year running a batch of red-light cameras, the last thing they want is for everyone to drive safely.”

The same argument applies to the drug war. Cops begin permitting the very crimes they’re ostensibly supposed to be fighting:

Most perversely of all, the promise of a financial reward actually provided drug cops with an incentive to wait until drugs had already been sold to move in with searches and arrests. A suspect flush with pot or cocaine didn’t offer much forfeiture potential. If they waited to bust him until he’d sold most or all of his supply, the police department got to keep the cash. Subsequent media and academic investigations would bear this out, finding examples of police waiting to bust stash houses until most of their supply had been sold, or of being far more likely to pull over suspected drug-running vehicles in the lanes leading out from large metropolitan areas (when they were likely to be full of cash) than the lanes leading in (when they were more likely to be filled with drugs).

Essentially, the cops are skimming money off the drug trade, just like any drug kingpins. Drug enforcement teams facing such incentives become focused on busts that will make them money, to the exclusion of all else. Sometimes even to the exclusion of guilt. In 1999 a task force used tips from an unreliable informant to launch a series of raids Tulia, Texas, which resulted in the arrests of fully 10 percent of the town’s black population. Something similar happened in Hearne the following year.

Radley finds some especially interesting evidence when discussing the police response to a recent cut in Byrne funding:

In March 2008, Byrne-funded task forces across the country staged a series of coordinated drug raids dubbed Operation Byrne Blitz. The intent was to make a series of large drug seizures to demonstrate how important the Byrne grants were to fighting the drug war. war. In Kentucky alone, for example, task forces uncovered 23 methamphetamine labs, seized more than 2,400 pounds of marijuana, and arrested 565 people for illegal drug use.

Radley draws this conclusion:

Of course, if police in a single state could simply go out and find 23 meth labs and 2,400 pounds of marijuana in twenty-four hours just to make a political point about drug war funding, that was probably a good indication that twenty years of Byrne grants and four decades of drug warring hadn’t really accomplished much.

I think I disagree. It sounds like police are accomplishing exactly what they want with the War on Drugs. Because of federal grants and civil forfeiture, police are dependent on drug busts to keep the money flowing, and the ability to make drug busts depends on a steady supply of drug dealers. No wonder the drug war is showing no signs of success: If the drug warriors ever managed to put a significant dent in drug trafficking, they’d lose their funding and then their jobs. So it’s to their advantage to leave plenty of dealers in operation. That’s why when Operation Byrne Blitz came along, they had no trouble finding people to bust.

In other words, drug warriors aren’t trying to eliminate drug dealers; on the contrary, drug warriors are farming drug dealers.

In Part 4, I’ll talk about some of the effects of all this on police behavior.

The public in the past have naively avoided consideration of the fact that the principle difference between a democracy and an totalitarian form of government is not so much in the laws under which they operate as it is in the manner by which the laws are applied.

— Don L. Kooken, Ethics in Police Service. 1957.

In the Part 1 of my review of Radley Balko’s book Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces I called it a horror story, and I discussed the history leading up to the time in the 1960’s and early 1970’s, when everything started to change. The second half of the book discusses those changes, and it has a distinctly different feel to it. It’s less like a horror story and more like one of those extended conclusions to a big-budget movie, filled with so much unrelenting action that it wears you out. That’s not Radley’s fault, though. It’s the dismal record of police militarization.

Radley tells the story in chronological order, weaving together the various trends and influences that changed policing for the worse over the last 45 years. In this review — which is actually starting to feel more like a high-school book report — I’m going to try to unravel the major narrative threads so we can better understand and explain the rise of the warrior cop.

The War On Drugs

As a libertarian who believes that government has far too much power over our lives, I regularly find myself having to listen to Republican blather about how great it was back in the 1980’s when we had a freedom-loving President like Ronald Reagan — “Morning in America” and all that.

Well, I was in high school when Reagan started his first term, so I’ll grant that I wouldn’t have been aware of his record on economic freedom, but freedom is not the first thing that comes to mind when I remember the Reagan era. However, after so many years of people telling me how great he was, I had begun to doubt my memories and wonder if maybe my youthful impression was misleading.

That’s why I am thankful to Radley for writing a chapter in Warrior Cop that discusses the 1980’s and Ronald Reagan, because it reminded me of what an absolute shit that man was when it came to civil liberties.

William French set the tone for the Reagan administration early on. In one of the first cabinet meetings, the new attorney general declared, “The Justice Department is not a domestic agency. It is the internal arm of the national defense.”

For the first time, the FBI was brought into the War on Drugs — something that J. Edgar Hoover had fought when he headed the FBI out of concern that it would lead to corruption. And Reagan’s Drug Czar, Carlton Turner, really put the czar into the job, handling drug use less as a health problem requiring treatment and more as a moral issue best countered with punishment. He kicked the psychiatrists out of the anti-drug business and issued an edict preventing government employees from talking about methadone treatments for addicts. Ronald Reagan also put a stop to the talk of marijuana legalization that had been floated during the Carter years.

As for that whole “small government” thing Reagan supposedly stood for…

….Reagan called for expanding the list of crimes for which judges could deny bail, revoking Miranda and the Exclusionary Rule, a major new role for the military in fighting the drug war, an overhaul of the federal criminal code to include dozens of new laws, and in general a massive expansion of the powers and authority afforded to police and prosecutors. Without missing a beat, he then explained that America’s crime problem was not only a moral problem, but a problem inextricably linked to . . . the expansion of government.

A tendency to downplay the permanent moral values has helped make crime the enormous problem that it is today, one that this administration has, as I’ve told you, made one of its top domestic priorities. But it has occurred to me that the root causes of our other major domestic problem, the growth of government and the decay of the economy, can be traced to many of the same sources of the crime problem. This is because the same utopian presumptions about human nature that hinder the swift administration of justice have also helped fuel the expansion of government.

Conservatives had always held the somewhat contradictory position that government can’t be trusted in any area of society except when it comes to the power to arrest, detain, imprison, and execute people. But Reagan didn’t dance around the contradiction, he embraced it. He blamed crime on big government— and in the same breath demanded that the government be given significantly more power to fight it.

That, ladies and gentleman, is the Reagan era the way I remember it.

Reagan was succeeded by his Vice President, George H. W. Bush, who appointed perpetual moral scold William Bennett (still scolding, last I checked) to the Drug Czar’s office, and Bennett continued the official insistence that drug use was not a health problem but a moral problem. Under Bush and Bennett, drug treatment programs were stripped of funding, while additional money was sought for law enforcement and prison construction.

By grounding the War On Drugs in moral justification, Bennett turned it into a holy war. And as we’re all aware, holy wars require beheadings. No, really:

Later he told Larry King that he’d be up for beheading drug dealers. He conceded that doing so might be “legally difficult,” but said that, “morally, I have no problem with it.”

(I remember when Bennett made that remark. I had friends who did drugs — pot, cocaine, LSD, and amphetamines that I was aware of — and I certainly didn’t think that any of them deserved to be punished for it, but it wasn’t until the Bush/Bennett years that I began to accept the parallels between the War on Drugs and prohibition and realize that we as a nation were making the same mistakes all over again. In this way, the Bush/Bennett drug policies were responsible for starting me down the road to libertarianism.)

When Bill Clinton was elected President, many of us who opposed the War on Drugs were hoping for improvements. Democrats had traditionally been more supportive of civil liberties through the 1960’s and 1970’s, and Clinton had admitted to some drug use (his infamous “didn’t inhale” comment). According to Radley, Clinton did tone down the anti-drug rhetoric, but as we’ve all have learned by now, what Clinton says and what Clinton does are completely different things. The War On Drugs got quieter, but it continued grinding up lives at full speed.

Clinton was also responsible for one policy in particular that not only encouraged paramilitary raids on low-level offenders— even users— but by its very nature also directed such raids only at the poor…

The home the police had raided was public housing. Under the Clinton administration’s new “one strike and you’re out” policy, any drug offense— even a misdemeanor—committed in public housing supported by federal funding was grounds for eviction. The policy applied even if the drug offense was committed by someone who didn’t live in the home or was committed without the tenant’s knowledge.

This was also the start of the legalized medical marijuana era, which the DEA opposed by continuing to raid medical marijuana production and distribution sites. In a particularly totalitarian move, the DEA focused its attention on advocates for medical marijuana, using brutal raids to send a message.

(My own opposition to the War on Drugs had by this time lead me to the wonderful book Ain’t Nobody’s Business If You Do: The Absurdity of Consensual Crimes in Our Free Country by Peter McWilliams. It was a stirring call to stop punishing people for consensual and victimless crimes such as drug use. By the time it was published, McWilliams was very sick with AIDS and cancer, and he used marijuana to alleviate the nausea from treatment. He was one of the people the DEA swept up in its attack on medical marijuana advocates. While out on $250,000 bond for sentencing, and refraining from using marijuana as a condition of the bond secured by his mother’s house, he vomited and choked to death.)

When George W. Bush took over the Oval Office, he continued Clinton’s war on drugs — including busting locally-legal medical marijuana users and suppliers, despite his claim to Republican federalist leanings — and brought back the moralistic rhetoric, appointing William Bennett protege John Walters as the new Drug Czar.

Then, after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the Bush administration began trying to link the new fear of terror to the time-tested bogeyman of drugs, including a deceptive DEA touring exhibit that tried to link drugs and 9/11 in visitors’ minds. The most infamous example of this propaganda was this video:

The campaign was not only shamefully exploitative, it was simply false. The claim that casual drug users supported terrorism was dubious at best. To the extent that black market drug purchases in the United States did support terror groups, it was the “black market” part that made it possible. Nearly all of the terror attacks listed on the DEA’s website at the time had been attacks by drug-smuggling groups related to the drug trade, and nearly all had taken place in Latin America and Mexico.

This period also marked the rise of Ecstasy as a street drug, followed almost immediately by the rise of crackdowns on the new cultural phenomenon of rave parties. Radley reminds us that then-Senator Joe Biden has a lot to answer for in the war on drugs:

…Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware seemed particularly obsessed with rave parties. Politicians seemed to think that any party with techno music, pulsing lights, and neon inevitably degenerated into underage kids getting high on Ecstasy and engaging in mass orgies. In the summer of 2002, Biden was pushing his RAVE Act, an absurdly broad law that would have made venue and club owners liable for running a drug operation if they merely sold the “ paraphernalia” common to parties where people took Ecstasy— accessories like bottled water and glow sticks.

Among other things, this meant that any attempt by club owners to mitigate the damage of drug use — such as bottled water and air-conditioned rooms to cool down overheated dancers, or even having paramedics standing by — was used as evidence that the club owners knew drugs were present, which was enough for police to label it a drug operation.

Barack Obama was Clinton all over again, but at least this time we knew what to expect. Even though it was well established that Obama used drugs as a young man, few of us were expecting him to dial down the War on Drugs. But we did have some hope that he wouldn’t go out of his way to make it worse. As it turns out, even that was too much to hope for, as Obama stepped up federal raids on medical marijuana dispensaries and increased federal anti-drug funding.

(As I write this, there are rumblings and Important Memos indicating that maybe, four years into his term, with two states flat-out legalizing pot in the last election, that the Obama administration is finally dialing down some parts of the war on drugs a little bit.)

Erosion of the Castle Doctrine

If the War on Drugs provided the justification for increasing police militarization, erosion of the Castle Doctrine was providing permission.

The Castle Doctrine is the idea that “a man’s home is his castle” which traditionally meant that agents of the government need permission to enter or else must have an extraordinary reason to enter, and must do so in a way that protects the occupants’ safety and comfort. Typically, this meant knocking on the door and waiting for the occupants to answer, then explaining the reason for needing to enter and allowing the occupants to peacefully permit entry.

Since there is no right without a remedy, the effectiveness of the Castle Doctrine is protected by the Exclusionary Rule: If police enter a home without permission and without observing the procedural and practical niceties, any evidence they gather was supposed to be unusable in a criminal trial. Thus the castle walls of our homes are no stronger than the Exclusionary Rule’s support in the courts.

Radley lists a number of court cases that have eroded that support over the last 30 years, beginning with Illinois v. Gates, in which the Supreme Court weakened the test for reliability of an informant when issuing a search warrant. Next year, in US v. Leon, police got a “good faith” exception to search warrants, allowing evidence from an illegal search to come in if the police were acting in good faith. In Massachusetts v. Sheppard, the Court allowed evidence from a defective warrant. In Segura v. United States, the Court allowed evidence to come in after the police broke in without a warrant, but waited for a warrant before they started their search. And in Nix v. Williams, the court ruled that illegally-discovered evidence could still be used if the police could show that it would have been discovered anyway.

In 1995’s Wilson v. Arkansas decision, the court officially recognize two of the most common exceptions to the knock-and-announce rule, destruction of evidence and officer safety, which continue to feature in almost every “dynamic entry” search today. Richards v. Wisconsin solidified those rules for drug searches and confirmed that officers could make decisions about exigent circumstances on the scene.

After Richards, state courts fell back on the “particularity approach” to determine when a no-knock raid was or wasn’t merited. Judges determined whether a suspect was likely to destroy evidence on a case-by-case basis. There was no reliable, predictable standard. As we’ve seen, in the absence of such guidelines, and as judges were increasingly swamped with drug cases and drug warrants, the default position tended to defer to the judgment of police, even when the language in search warrant affidavits began to look like boilerplate.

Study after study, in cities such as New York, Chicago, and Denver, showed that as the volume of drug enforcement operations increased tremendously during the 1980’s, the police, prosecutors, and judges started taking shortcuts that eroded oversight of the search warrant process. In the effort to keep the the drug war moving, the mechanisms for protecting the castle doctrine were wearing away. In Hudson v. Michigan the Supreme Court essentially approved of these shortcuts by ruling that if the searches were ruled illegal, the evidence could still be used at trial, despite the Exclusionary Rule. The ruling cited studies that showed police had become more professional, ignoring the parts of the studies which attributed this new professionalism to the Exclusionary Rule.

In later years, police began to use drug raid tactics to address other crimes, such as illegal poker parties, underage drinking, people getting too frisky at night clubs, and barber-shop licensing. In some of these cases, the police claimed these raids were part of the licensing enforcement process and therefore did not require warrants at all.

In recent years, troublemakers have noticed the ease and lack of investigation with which the police will launch SWAT-style raids, and they’ve been calling 911 to ‘prank’ people by sending SWAT teams to their door, often with the hope of frightening or killing political enemies.

But police don’t need sociopathic pranksters to find a reason to break down doors. They have plenty of incentives of their own, as I’ll discuss in Part 3.

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.

I’m trying to find some good legal thrillers to read, and it’s not as easy as I’d hoped. I’ve mined out most of my favorites: Scott Turow hasn’t published anything lately, Sheldon Siegel ran out of steam with Mike Daley, John LesCroart’s stories have drifted away from the courtroom, and William Lashner seems to have stopped writing his hilarious Victor Carl series.

I’ve tried a couple new new authors who pop up in my Amazon recommendations, but they’ve both been disappointing. The protagonist of one if them is a biglaw partner who is appointed to help an indigent murder defendant and loses his partnership in the process. He teams up with an old friend from law school who has been doing storefront street-level criminal defense for about a decade. This sounds like a good idea to me because I figure the biglaw guy needs someone to teach him the ropes, but at one point the author has the crimlaw veteran tell his biglaw friend that he’s glad he is to have him on the case since he just isn’t a good enough to handle it by himself.

Now I’m not a lawyer, and all I know about criminal defense is what I learned by reading books and blawgs, so I can’t rule out he possibility that a really successful biglaw partner could be better at criminal defense than a ten-year veteran…but I don’t know any criminal defense lawyers who would believe it, let alone say it out loud.

(In the next book, he announces that his new firm only defends innocent clients, has no trouble getting an organized crime figure to testify to a motive for killing the victim, and gets the friendliest prosecutor in the world to run fingerprints for him. I guess it could happen.)

The other author’s first book begins with a decent criminal defense story, but in the second book the protagonist leaves criminal law and joins the D.A.’s office. This is a disaster for the character: As a criminal defense lawyer, his moral outrage at his clients’ crimes was a source of tension — coming up with a clever trick for evading the death penalty for a child murderer is not quite a thrilling legal victory because it was in service of a child murderer — but as a prosecutor, it just makes him seem like a self-righteous ass.

And when the defense lawyer physically assaults someone who threatens his family, it’s an exciting character moment because it’s a crime that could end his career, but when he does it as a prosecutor, with a cop along to back him up, he just comes across as a lawless authoritarian thug. The author gave him nice kids and a Wife With a Serious Illness to make him more sympathetic, but it doesn’t work: About half-way through I started hoping the satanists would kill him.

All this has me thinking about just what I want to see in a good legal thriller:

(1) It has to be about a trial. I’m not interested in some John Grisham nonsense about a lawyer who gets caught up in a conspiracy or a political thriller about a lawyer running for public office. I don’t want to read a story about a lawyer. I want to read a story about a lawyer trying a case.

Technically, the trial doesn’t even have to happen, the case could resolve before it gets to that step, but I want the story to be governed by the logic of how a lawyer takes a case to trial. I’m fascinated by the struggles that result from interplay of lawless criminality, the logic of proving a case, and the rules of the courtroom. I like the way seemingly small changes in the evidence can make or break a case. I like seeing how lawyers think about cases and the difference between what is true and what can be proven.

One of the best examples of this is in Turow’s Presumed Innocent. (Spoiler for something that happens early in the book.) Rusty Sabitch has been accused of murdering a woman he’s having an affair with. There’s a bit of evidence against him, but his lawyer points out something interesting: Sabitch may have been having an affair with the victim, but the prosecution has no proof that the affair ever happened, and thus they can’t provide a motive to the jury. The prosecutor’s accusations are false in fact, but the weakest part of the case is that they can’t prove something which happens to be completely true. I love stuff like that.

(2) The story has to be a mystery. The lawyers may be more concerned with what can be proven than with what really happened, but I want to know. If it’s a murder case, at least part of the story should involve the mystery of who actually committed the murder. No matter what the genre — science fiction, fantasy, legal thriller — I always like stories with an element of mystery.

(3) As a consequence of my first two preferences, the story probably has to be told from the defense point of view. If the protagonist is the prosecutor, it’s hard to have a whodunnit because the prosecutor should know whodunnit: It’s the guy he’s prosecuting, right? Otherwise he’s not really the good guy in the story. (Sometimes the criminal investigation can be told from the prosecutor’s point of view, but that’s really more of a police procedural than a legal thriller.)

(4) Even though there’s a mystery, and a killer to be found, there should still be lots of fascinating legal stuff — tricky points of law, thorny ethical conundrums, and good cross-examinations. I love it when a lawyer takes seemingly devastating testimony and picks it apart in a surprising way, or when he chases after some small details and shows how they are hiding a giant discrepancy. And I love seeing how these twists and turns affect the case.

This means, however, that the state’s case can’t be too good. Some authors like to ramp things up by having the defendant discovered at the scene of the crime, with the victim’s blood all over him, and the murder weapon in his hands, all after threatening to kill the victim in front of witnesses. And he was so high on drugs that he can’t remember how he got there.

That sure sets a challenge for the hero, but it’s a challenge he can really only overcome one way: By finding the real killer. That means all the trial preparation and even the trial itself will take a back seat to the search for the killer. The legal thriller becomes a procedural mystery.

So, any suggestions? Or would any of the lawyers reading this like to try writing one? Go ahead. You know you’re a storyteller at heart. I’ll bet you’d do great.

Addendum: While writing this, I found this post, which included reading recommendations from Steven Molo and (in the comments) Mark Bennett. They tend to be more historic than contemporary, but I’ll have to check them out.

Monday night I finished reading Linda Nagata’s far-future epic series The Bohr Maker, Deception Well and Vast back-to-back-to-back, and I wanted to take a break from amazing stories of super-science and find something a little more down to earth, so I looked at my Kindle’s recommendations and something about Mark Gimenez’s Accused caught my eye. Yeah, a new courtroom drama sounded about right.

But the description says it’s a sequel, so I figured I’d try to find the first one in the series. Amazon is useless for that kind of thing, so I Googled up Gimenez’s website and found this:

Mark Gimenez Website 2013-04

Well, that’s pretty useless to me. The site does not list the books by series or even in order of publication. So if I want to start reading Gimenez’s work, I have to figure out the publication dates myself. Amazon lists publication dates, but I’d have to look up every book individually. Even worse, the publication dates on Amazon seem to be the date the book was first sold on Amazon, which may not have anything to do with the order they were originally published.

Fortunately, I’ve learned that one of the best sources of this kind of information is the author’s bio page on Wikipedia. Gimenez’s page doesn’t break them down by series, but at least it gives a publication order:

  • The Color of Law (2005)
  • The Abduction (2007)
  • The Perk (2008)
  • The Common Lawyer (2009)
  • Accused (2010)

Minutes later, I had downloaded and started reading The Color of Law.

But it bothered me. Mark Gimenez wasn’t the first time I’d run across an author whose website didn’t give me useful information about their books. I’d seen it a lot, and I wanted to know why.

I decided to check out what science fiction author Charles Stross did on his website. His blog is one of my regular reads — as are his books — and it’s clear he spends a lot of time thinking about how the publishing industry works. I figured he’d have a pretty good list of books, but no, it’s almost as screwed up as the rest of them.

Stross’s US books page breaks out his two major series, Merchant Princes and Laundry Files, but otherwise all the books are listed in reverse chronological order, with the most recent first. I figured that might make some marketing sense because the casual visitor probably just wants to see if he has anything recent, but it’s a crazy thing to do in a series, especially one like Merchant Princes, which tells a single coherent story. Once you know how Trade of Queens ends, you won’t want to read the five books that came before it.

Because Stross seems to like explaining things like this, I decided to ask him directly why authors’ websites don’t list the series in any meaningful order of publication. He very kindly took the time to respond:

The primary reason is that most readers don’t want to wade through a lengthy list of stuff they’ve already read or which was published years ago: they want to see the new stuff first!

Also, if you’re maintaining a log of books, it’s easiest to add new content at the top.

Also, publication order may not reflect the order in which books were written. Or the order in which series are intended to be read.

But, in a nutshell: the place for an order-of-publication list is a bibliography or FAQ. The place for a reverse-order list with most-recent-first is a promo page telling people BUY MY BOOKS!!!1!!ELEVENTY!!!PLEASE.

(Stross is something of an ubergeek.)

So I guess that’s the explanation. Most of the people checking out an author’s website for books aren’t like me. They don’t obsessively want to read his books from the beginning. They just want to know what’s new.

I assume that people like me who want a specific reading list will just keep looking until we find it. For what it’s worth, I’ve found that if I want to know how to read a particular subset of a particular author’s books in a particular order, the first (and often only) source to check is Wikipedia.

I like to browse through Amazon’s catalog of cheap e-books to see if I can find anything interesting. As you’d expect, many of them aren’t very good and probably wouldn’t have been published in the days before on-demand printing and digital distribution. However, I thought it might be fun to blog about some of the better ones. (My first review is here.)

This time I’d like to tell you about Warren Fahy’s 2009 novel Fragment. It’s a bio-horror story, along the lines of Michael Crichton, and it shares some of Crichton’s weaknesses, such as thin characterization. The bad guy is there simply to be the bad guy, and I’m not sure why we even need a bad guy, given the book’s setting. On the other hand, only a fool reads stories like this because he wants the characters to be complex and nuanced. Like most science fiction, this is a story about ideas. Scary ideas.

It all starts with a research vessel that stumbles across an apparently inhospitable Pacific island with an isolated interior area that turns out to be filled with abundant life that has evolved along a different path — a far more aggressive path — than the rest of the Earth. This is a somewhat common story, especially in movies and television, but Fahy provides much more of the biological story of why and how than we usually get.

In particular, it’s not just a story about the giant apex predators — although those are certainly rampaging over the island — but about the hyper-aggressive struggle going on at every level and in every niche of the biome. Fahy’s story is filled with creatures described in great functional detail. It seems well-informed and well-imagined, with a lot of attention paid to real evolutionary and biological sciences.

If you like this sort of thing, it’s a very good read.

Whenever I get tired of checking the bestseller lists on my Kindle book reader for new novels to read — the top of the list has been owned by Hunger Games and Lisbeth Salander ever since I got the thing — I like to try out a few of the cheap e-books. It’s a bit like checking out experimental theater productions: Most of them turn out to not be very good, but sometimes they’re unusual and different enough to get your attention.

I’ve been thinking for a while that it might be fun to blog about a few of these books, and the first one I’d like to tell you about is Shifted, by Colin D. Jones. It’s been a while since I read it, and even at the time, it defied easy explanation, but I’ll try.

First, however, I should point out that even though the main character is a werewolf of sorts, Shifted is not one of those books spawned by the popularity of the Twilight books or the Underworld movies. It’s not even a counterpoint to those storylines. Colin Jones arrives at his werewolf story from a whole different direction.

Or maybe from several different directions. Shifted is kind of a coming-of-age story about a kid who grows up in an abusive environment and discovers that he has a…werewolf, of sorts…inside him, or maybe alongside him, since there’s something about quantum physics and multiple universes. There’s a ghost of sorts too, and secretive government agents, and a little bit about Norse legends.

Jones pulls these elements together from all over the place, and assembles them into a story that — while not exactly a seamless whole — isn’t nearly as messy as it sounds. Jones’s writing style is simple and unpretentious, and the book is a pretty quick read.