Review: Radley Balko's Rise of the Warrior Cop

Since the beginning of time, great philosophers have theorized about the true nature of man and the proper role of government. Clearly, there is a direct nexus between the underpinnings of the rule of law and its role in creating public order. There are both rights and responsibilities that are created when individual needs converge with man's desire to live cooperatively and communally with one another. So how do we answer the question of what is the best way to order society? Thomas Jefferson stated that "the purpose of government is to enable the people of a nation to live in safety and happiness. Government exists for the interest of the governed, not the governors."

Radley Balko's book, Rise of the Warrior Cop asks many questions about the proper role of law enforcement and the effect of the drug war, America's longest war, on our communities. In it, he states that his book is not anti-police, but was written to show the effect that the drug war has had not just on policing, but on the subversion of our civil liberties, as well as the damage done to the relationship between law enforcement and the people they serve.

There will be those within the law enforcement community who will dismiss Balko's book and attack it as being anti-cop, but some of the same concerns have been expressed on the over-emphasis on military-type training within the law enforcement community. In an article written for a June 2013 Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) newsletter, for example, the author noted that:

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Report on State and Local Law Enforcement Training Academies (BJS Report), the majority of police recruits receive their training in academies with a stress-based military orientation. This begs the question; is this military model -- designed to prepare young recruits for combat -- the appropriate mechanism for teaching our police trainees how to garner community trust and partner with citizens to solve crime and public order problems?

Balko asks the same question but uses the backdrop of the war on drugs and the exceptions to the Constitution justified in its name to lead us to the present day war, not on drugs, but on people. The war on drugs as initiated by President Nixon changed the dynamics of domestic policy. But it was not until the 1980s that wholesale exceptions to the Fourth Amendment were carved out by Congress.

This ever-increasing federalization of what traditionally had been a state and local law enforcement effort received massive funding as politicians, presidents and the Drug Czar increased the rhetoric of war. This rhetoric contributed to the silencing of dissent as Americans watched while the law and its practical application by law enforcement attempting to create a drug-free America resulted in a myriad of unintended consequences.

It is clear and well documented that Fourth Amendment exceptions based on drug violations have contributed to precedent balanced heavily in favor of law enforcement over civil liberties. These exceptions include civil asset forfeiture, warrantless drug testing of government employees and students, random drug searches at our borders and government facilities, stop and frisk policies that contribute to mass incarceration and racial disparities, and police corruption. But the drug war has resulted not just in a "drug exception" to the Fourth Amendment, but also to due process, privacy rights and freedom of speech. At its core, the drug war has encroached on the fundamental and enshrined right of Americans to "be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures.

Balko interweaves history, the Constitution, and case law to create an account of how the massive expansion of SWAT teams occurred as the perfect storm of politics, ideology and federal fiscal coercion. But Balko makes it clear that he is not anti-SWAT, but believes that SWAT teams and the way they are deployed have evolved beyond their true mission of responding to life threatening events and of saving lives to being used indiscriminately as a political message.

The Rise of The Warrior Cop was particularly riveting for me since my career started in 1983 and ended in 2004, after 9/11, I saw the effects of many of the things that Balko points out in his book. The "pop culture" surrounding police reality shows; the federal fiscal coercion that results in a police arms race fueled by a "keeping up with the Joneses" mentality; the change in attitude towards meeting the needs of our constituents. All these were fueled notably by a federal drug policy that focuses on the number of arrests rather than reductions in crime, or drug use.

I am, and have been, a strong supporter of SWAT teams throughout my career as member, supervisor and then commander of my agency's Crisis Negotiations Unit. I worked hand-in-hand with SWAT and believe that its primary mission is to save lives, yet I also agree with Balko's demand for more transparency and accountability from law enforcement. It is this lack of transparency that contributes to the notion that law enforcement has run amok.

Balko concludes, and I agree, that there are many good police officers, but that "systems governed by bad policies and motivated by incentives will produce bad outcomes." Most notably, Balko points out the increasing levels of disrespect and distrust between law enforcement and the communities they serve as we employ more military tactics in the day-to-day job of policing. For many of the same reasons that Balko outlines in his book, it is these bad policies that drove me to my work with Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, a group of law enforcement officials who advocate for the end of the war on drugs and all its failures. In a country founded on freedom and the ideals of liberty, we would be wise to remember James Madison's words when he said "No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare."