Too Many Cops Are Told They’re Soldiers Fighting a War. How Did We Get Here?

This post is the first in series on the militarization of policing. Check back this week from more from Radley Balko.

I want to thank the ACLU for asking me to guest blog this week to coincide the release of my new book, Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America's Police Forces.

I suppose I should start by telling you what the book is all about. Between about the early 1980s and today, American police forces have undergone some substantial changes. Most notable among these is the ascent of the SWAT team. Once limited to large cities and reserved for emergency situations like hostage takings, active shooters, or escaped fugitives, SWAT teams today are primarily used to serve warrants on people suspected of nonviolent, consensual drug crimes.

The numbers are staggering. In the early 1980s, there were about 3,000 SWAT "call-outs" per year across the entire country. By 2005, there were an estimated 50,000. In New York City alone, there were 1,447 drug raids 1994. By 2002, eight years later, there were 5,117 -- a 350 percent increase. In 1984, about a fourth of towns between 25,000-50,000 people had a SWAT team. By 2005, it was 80 percent.

Today, the use of this sort of force is in too many jurisdictions the first option for serving search warrants instead of the last. SWAT teams today are used to break up poker games and massage parlors, for immigration enforcement, even to perform regulatory inspections.

Troubling as all of this is, the problem goes beyond SWAT teams. Too many police departments today are infused with a more general militaristic culture. Cops today are too often told that they're soldiers fighting a war, be it a war on crime, on drugs, on terrorism, or whatever other recent gremlin politicians have chosen as the enemy. Cops today tend to be isolated from the communities they serve, both physically (by their patrol cars) and psychologically, by an us and them mentality that sees the public not as citizens police officers are to serve and protect, but as a collection of potential threats.

These are all generalizations, of course. Certainly there are great cops, great police chiefs and sheriffs, and there are plenty of police agencies that have healthy relationships with the public. But whether it's with the ubiquity of these SWAT raids, stop-and-frisk, or the default geared-up, Robocop response to political protest, the relationship between police and the public on the whole is growing increasingly antagonistic -- and oddly, this comes during a period when both crime and on-duty police deaths are at historic lows.

So my book looks at how we got here. It begins with a look at some of the fundamental concepts of liberty that I believe are threatened by these developments, including the Fourth Amendment, the Castle Doctrine (that the home should be a place of peace and sanctuary), and the Third Amendment, which is really a statement of the Founders' broader aversion to militarism and standing armies. But the book's real narrative begins in the mid-1960s, when police departments across the country were struggling to find ways to respond to protest, civic unrest, and outright rioting. It covers the birth of the SWAT team and the war on drugs, then explores the policies, events, and personalities that got us where we are today.

I'll have more on the book in later posts. But in my first post, I also wanted to give some due praise to my hosts, the ACLU, for the organization's campaign to unveil the real extent of police militarization in America. (I wrote about the campaign last March for Huffington Post.)

Back in the late 1990s, the criminologist Peter Kraska sent surveys to police departments across the country, then published several studies documenting the proliferation of SWAT teams. But since then, there's been no real, comprehensive effort to quantify just how militarized America has become. One of my frustrations in covering this issue as a journalist has been the lack of data. Some states have decent enough open records laws to request this sort of information, but many police departments simply don't want to say how often they use their SWAT team, and for what purposes. One ongoing scandal in the criminal justice world, for example, is the fact that there's no reliable data on how often police officers fire their weapons at citizens. The federal government is supposed to collect these figures, but for whatever reason, it simply hasn't done so.

So I applaud the ACLU's efforts, here. Once we have some reliable figures, then we can begin to have a more informed debate about costs, benefits, and appropriate uses of this sort of force.

More on the Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America's Police Forces.

For more on the ACLU's investigation of the militarization for policing in America, click here.

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Benwa

Thank you for writing this book. Your article on Salon opened my eyes, and I can wait to read more.

Anonymous

Of course there is also the constantly creeping war against "weapons"--not just guns, but absurd things like 2-inch pocketknives. But the ACLU doesn't care, because that's the one form of fascism they like.

Anonymous

How did we get here? Like any question. There is a short answer and a long answer. We have gotten to the militarization of the police for the same reason we have a 17 trillion dollar debt. There are forces at work that are just out to destroy the Country. We call them republicans and democrats. But in truth there is just 1 category. Globalists. Why are people told that a few bad Muslims terrorists is not a reason to condemn them all. Yet police are taught that every time they walk up to a car they could be shot? Why is it wrong to paint the Muslims with broad brush but not American citizens? Why are we not to be wary of Muslims. But police are taught to be paranoid of Americans?
It has gotten to this point for 1 reason. The people voting the lesser of 2 evils for decades. Without having the simple understanding that the Country still gets left with evil. We have watched the last few decades as more of our freedoms go by the way side. Most in the name of our safety. Yet they do nothing about securing the borders where terrorists walk across nor do they do anything about all those who overstay visas. These demicans and republicrats have not and do not work in the best interests of the Country or the people.

Anonymous

How did we get here? Like any question. There is a short answer and a long answer. We have gotten to the militarization of the police for the same reason we have a 17 trillion dollar debt. There are forces at work that are just out to destroy the Country. We call them republicans and democrats. But in truth there is just 1 category. Globalists. Why are people told that a few bad Muslims terrorists is not a reason to condemn them all. Yet police are taught that every time they walk up to a car they could be shot? Why is it wrong to paint the Muslims with broad brush but not American citizens? Why are we not to be wary of Muslims. But police are taught to be paranoid of Americans?
It has gotten to this point for 1 reason. The people voting the lesser of 2 evils for decades. Without having the simple understanding that the Country still gets left with evil. We have watched the last few decades as more of our freedoms go by the way side. Most in the name of our safety. Yet they do nothing about securing the borders where terrorists walk across nor do they do anything about all those who overstay visas. These demicans and republicrats have not and do not work in the best interests of the Country or the people.
The politicians have NSA spy on each of us. They themselves ignore the laws and Constitution. They train police that we are the enemy. The courts make very specious rulings. All these things are done to erode the BOR and the Constitution. We are here because the people have failed in their responsibility to elect good leaders.

Anonymous

It is great to see a book like this to be written. However the title is not completely appropriate because military do not deserve be called what the police have become today. They are an abusive force that is treating us all as guilty before proven innocent. Probable cause is fading away and the word of the hour is "preemptive". Shoot first, ask questions later.
The USA police is bar none the worst in the world. At least in a 3rd world country you know bribing will get you out.

Anonymous

There is only one way to get them back on the side of the people. Reduce their numbers to 1970 levels so that they have to.

Anonymous

I wonder what urban blight and right wing talk radio have to do with it. And local commercial tv where "if it bleeds it leads." As far as blight goes we let cities decay and cops and many other folk see the blight as the responsibility of the people from inner city communities when it has to do primarily with retail wars between big and small stores and red lining. And right wing radio combined with crime news fuel the flame.

Anonymous

"How did we get here?"

Because people were flushing their bag of pot down the toilet before they would answer the door.

Then the cops would bust in without knocking and of course that led to people reacting poorly which led to the cops requiring greater firepower etc and so on until we got to the point of a military incursion for a non-violent arrest warrant.

All because people just can't have a bag of pot.

Anonymous

How did we get here?
I'll tell you: Sending Law Enforcement Officers to Israel for training is a bad, bad idea. Check out LEEP. They are taught that everyone is the enemy. Americans are Gazans now. Reversing that will be a hard job. Good luck with that.

Anonymous

We are where we're at because a black child is targeted from third grade until death as a back person and a white cild can burn down a house and is told it is anyones fault but his and as long as they do not kill a child consider their equal he has done no wrong; a child of color goes to jail for telling te teacher he/she is gonna tel their momma or daddy the teacer hit them and the public see nothing wrong with this.Treat John with the disrespect you give Jabaria and notice the reaction, it will be the same "why are you hurting me" this is what children of color face everyday and this is where our police come from and you tell me you relly can not see the problem, Human nature.

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