WASHINGTON, August 1, 2013 ― Radley Balko, a senior investigative journalist for The Huffington Post, has written a book entitled “Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces.”
Balko explains in great detail why Americans should become increasingly alarmed over the militarization of law enforcement agencies explaining how figures such as Daryl Gates helped accelerate the militarization of police departments, his response to those who claim law enforcement should have access to weapons and programs reserved for the military, and how citizens are beginning to hold officers who violate the law accountable.
Kevin Kelly: As we approach the 1970’s and progress forward, you document how the pace of the militarization of law enforcement continues unabated. One of the figures that was instrumental in this process is a man by the name of Daryl Gates. Could you describe who he is?
Radley Balko: Daryl Gates is sort of the father of the SWAT Team. He came up with the idea after he was in charge of the LAPD’s response to the Watts riots in 1965. He was really kind of overwhelmed by how ill equipped the LAPD was to respond to the uprising. His idea was to come up with these elite forms of police officers who would be training as the military was training.
You have specialists such as snipers, crowd control people, and somebody who would have been trained at breaching doorways and the entrance to the buildings. You would have this elite team that you would pull out in these situations where they had an immediate threat to the public, an overwhelming threat to the public, and you would send this team in and they would take care of it. The idea was you were bringing violence to diffuse a situation that was already violent, and the idea quickly spread.
There were a couple high profile raids, one in which a SWAT Team was involved against a Black Panther headquarters in L.A. Another involved the Sudanese Liberation Army in 1973. Both of them were televised, highly publicized, and very newsworthy. They were against two groups that a lot Americans were genuinely afraid of. It really injected the SWAT idea, and with the rise of pop culture police began really exploring-the truth is since the time of civil unrest, riots, antiwar protests, going on across the country, and police departments in larger cities were contemplating how would we react to a situation like Watts or- another kind of defining moment in the book that I talk about is The Texas Clock tower Massacre at the University of Texas with Charles Whitman.
Here you have an active shooter who had a long gun and was perched high enough off the ground that police officers weapons were useless. You put all of this together and this provides the perfect environment for SWAT Teams to take off, and it did very quickly. It went from one SWAT Team in the country in 1970 to about 500 by 1975.
Kelly: What do you say to those who support the militarization of law enforcement because they claim that police departments need these weapons and programs because of the dangers they face on the job.
Balko: There a few responses to that. I guess I would say that there is this common conception that criminals are increasingly armed with bigger guns and more powerful guns, and we have to keep the police ahead of them in the arms race or the police are going to be overpowered. The response to that is that there isn’t much evidence to back it up.
There have been two DOJ studies, I think the most recent one was in the early 2000’s and then there was another done before the expiration of the assault weapons ban. What they found is that the overwhelming majority of homicides in this country are committed with handguns. This idea that AR-15’s or AK-47’s are being regularly used in violent crimes in the U.S. - there is just no real empirical evidence to back that up.
A lot of the police officers that I interviewed in the book said the same thing. Drug dealers prefer smaller guns that can be easily concealed. They don’t want to be lugging around a big rifle all the time. The other response to that is, and a lot of police officers I spoke to could back me up on this as well, drug dealers are in the game because they have some self interest, they are trying to make money.
People who are trying to make money are trying to create wealth for themselves, and they genuinely don’t have a death wish. When you read about a SWAT Team who breaks into a drug dealer’s house in the middle of the night, and then he opens fire on them…the more likely explanation is that he thought he was being ripped off by a rival drug dealer.
Even hardened drug dealers know that if you shoot at a cop, you’re going to be lucky to survive the next five or ten seconds. Even if you survive that, you’re going to be going to jail for the rest of your life and you’ll probably be executed. I think that this makes things more dangerous for cops because you’re creating confrontation, and you’re creating violence, and you’re putting people in this very primitive state of mind where you wake up, there’s an immediate threat to your life, what do you do? That’s where you have the classic fight or flight response, and if you’re at home then flight isn’t really an option.
The other thing I would say is even if all of that were true, even if the violence criminals were increasingly well armed, and the drug dealers were violent people with death wishes who were well armed the vast majority of these raids are done against very low offenders. When the police department confronts someone they know has to be violent, they usually don’t break into their house in the middle of the night. They set up a perimeter, yell at them through a megaphone for a while and try and get them to give up peacefully.
Or in the case of Whitey Bulger, which I mention in the book, here is a career criminal, I think he was wanted for about nineteen homicides by the time he finally arrested him. He’s old, he’s ill, if anybody was going to go down in a blaze of glory and take out a bunch of law enforcement officers it would have been Bulger. The way that they got him was they knew he rented a storage locker, and they had somebody from the storage company call him and claim that somebody had broken into his storage locker.
He showed up, and they arrested him. A lot of the older retired police officers that I talked to for the book, explained that the way that it has been done when you have somebody who is genuinely violent and does genuinely pose a threat to police officers, and the public’s safety, you come up with creative ways to bring them in to minimize the chance of violence.
The problem with doing that with your average day to day drug dealer is that there are just too many of them. We are talking 100 to 115 SWAT raid per day in the U.S., and if we are going to continue to fight the drug war we need to go after these low and mid level offenders. There’s just not enough police man power, there’s just not enough creative non-violent ways to come up with to get them to turn themselves in.
This has become the default way to carry out the drug war…bashing into somebody’s home at night. It’s born from just an overwhelming case flows, and also a lack of creativity. You also have a lot of incentives coming from the federal government that encourage warrants to be served this way.
Kelly: Finally, could you describe the ways in which citizens are beginning to hold officers who do abuse their power accountable for their actions? For example, we’ve seen many people use their cell phones and cameras to record law enforcement officers when they use excessive force or violate the law.
Balko: You’ve hit on the technological change that is bringing more transparency to these issues, and that is that everybody is carrying a video camera in their pocket now. You combine that with the ability to instantly stream or upload video to an offsite server, and then you go into social media and the ability to get it out to a lot of people. This is pretty powerful.
We’ve seen it from that case at a DUI checkpoint in Murphy borough, to the Arab Spring where you had all of these dramatic photos and videos of crackdowns on protests that were getting out to the Internet very quickly and spreading across the world. It’s really, really powerful, and it’s a way of bringing transparency to these issues.
Once police officers know that they are going to be recorded, and that there is nothing they can do about it, it’s going to encourage them to act better, to adopt better practices, to stop bullying people. If you know that any of your actions could be caught and put on the Internet for everybody to see, you’ll start to act better.
I’ve given interviews on this particular topic before, and police officers will call onto shows and tell me in person they welcome it. If you’re doing your job properly, you shouldn’t be worried about everyone having a camera. In fact, if people are making false reports against you, having lots of people recording the incident could only help you.
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