Category Archives: Book

Kate Burkholder Is an Authoritarian Bitch

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 United States of Paranoia – Review

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.”

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The Forensic Geology Series – Review

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.)

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10 Books, More Or Less

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.

Rise of the Warrior Cop – Review Part 5 of 5: Reform

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.

Rise of the Warrior Cop – Review Part 4 of 5: Violence

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.

Rise of the Warrior Cop – Book Tour

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!

in Book

Rise of the Warrior Cop – Interlude

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…)

in Book