Radley Balko on the "Rise of the Warrior Cop"

In part one of my interview with Balko, he explains his book's premise, Posse Comitatus, and an essay by General Patton. Photo: Radley Balko

WASHINGTON, July 21, 2013 ― For years Radley Balko, a senior investigative journalist for The Huffington Post, has been documenting the egregious assaults on civil liberties, especially how they pertain to law enforcement.

In his new book “Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces,” Balko has released a comprehensive history of how law enforcement agencies have become increasingly militarized, while simultaneously documenting the failures of decades long policies such as the war on drugs.

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Balko wants readers to understand that he has not published an “anti-cop book,” but an “anti-politician” book. Speaking with Balko, the author explains the premise of his book, the restraints the Founding Fathers placed on law enforcement, the misinterpretation of the Posse Comitatus Act, and a disturbing essay written by General Patton.


Kevin Kelly: What people should know about your book is that it is not an “anti-cop book” as you mention in the introduction. You say it is an “anti-politician book,” could you expound upon that statement?

Radley Balko: Sure. Well, first I don’t think that it’s healthy or productive to direct all of the invectives about this issue at police officers. They’re basically just rare products of the system that they operate in, and the policies they are enforcing were passed by the politicians and the policymakers. If we want to circle this back and change any of it, screaming about the cops themselves isn’t going to do it. I think we need to start holding the politicians accountable, and have some of these policies changed.

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I think I make this point several times in the book that if you have a system that is loaded with bad incentives, then you’re going to continue to get bad results. If you have good people in the system then they will get frustrated and quit, or they are going to turn bad, or they will be miserable and won’t be very good at their jobs. The important thing is, is to change the incentives and not-I still believe that bad cops need to be held accountable, and clearly really bad cops need to be fired, but until we change the policies that have created all of this, things are not going to change.

Kelly: Towards the beginning of the book you mention how concerned the colonists were about the presence of an army/executive branch that might abuse its powers. Could you describe some of the measures that were passed in order to prevent America’s leaders from just arbitrarily using the military against their citizens whenever they wished?

Balko: The most obvious answer would be the Second, Third, and Fourth Amendments. The Second Amendment was, whether you’re thinking of it as an individual right or a group right, it clearly also does indicate that the Founders wanted safe law enforcement. The Second Amendment is part of that era’s adherence that law enforcement should be a part time position only, and that people should only be called up into it when there is an immediate emergency.

The Third Amendment, it prohibits the quartering of troops without congressional approval, but there is a lot of historical research that I cite in the book that I think supports the premise there was more to it than that, that it was a placeholder for kind of a broader skepticism of militarism, and putting armies among the populace in general. There was fierce debate between the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists after the American Revolution ended and before the Constitution was drafted, and there was a lot of historical evidence that the Third Amendment was sort of a compromise between the two sides.

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Then of course the Fourth Amendment protects privacy and it was a direct response to what was going on in Boston between British troops, and the general warrants that allowed them to break into houses at anytime. It adds to the animosity that builds up between the British troops and the citizens of Boston.

The Fourth Amendment is in a lot of ways a restatement of the Castle Doctrine. The ancient sentiment that the home should be a place of peace and sanctuary, and that the state or the king, should not be able to breach the home except in extreme circumstances. Even then, the common law tradition was you should have to knock, announce his presence, and his intent. Only in dire situations could he bring violence into the home.

There’s the idea that the Castle Doctrine is part of the Fourth Amendment.

Kelly: You say in the book, that a lot of the federal government’s restraint concerning the military and its policing powers changed after the Civil War. You’ve also provided an interesting history of the Posse Comitatus Act, a measure that was enacted following the War. You claim that there has been some misinterpretation about the Act among those who believe it actually placed restraints on the executive branch. Could you discuss that?

Balko: I think there are two things going on here. One is that the actual text of the Posse Comitatus Act does not prevent the president or congress from using soldiers for domestic law enforcement. What it does do, is it prevents a federal marshal or some other federal law enforcement official, arguably probably also applies to local law enforcement officials, it states that a law enforcement official cannot basically draft a soldier to perform domestic law enforcement without authorization from the president or congress.

The actual language of the statute doesn’t say that the president can’t use the military for law enforcement. A lot of people I think mistakenly think that it does. At the same time, there’s also a symbolic meaning and significance of the word, and what the word has come to mean in the last 150 years or so, and I think here there is a lot of evidence that just the mere fact that people do think that the law applies to the president and congress and that it prohibits them from using the military for law enforcement shows that the general sentiment of keeping the two separate is alive and healthy.

It’s a misunderstanding, but I think that it’s a healthy misunderstanding. 

Kelly: Another part of your book that fascinates me, and frightens me is the essay that General Patton wrote about law enforcement. Would you mind explaining that?

Balko: I was kind of shocked when I saw it too. After the Bonus March, where you had these World War I veterans march on Washington because they weren’t given pension bonuses that Congress defaulted on. They march on Washington, and the response from the Hoover administration was to send in the military, and it ended up being a huge fiasco that probably contributed to Hoover losing his bid for reelection.

There were images in newspapers and newsreels throughout the country of- I think they had one sort of tank like equipment, others were soldiers on horses, others with bayonets, and they were using them against veterans. People who had served their country, and they were protesting because they weren’t given something they had been promised. That was a striking image for a lot of the country, and there was a lot of backlash against it. Reaction from Patton was defensive in this essay he wrote. It was never actually published anywhere, but it was in the archives of his estate.

In the essay, he goes through history, he talks about revolutions that succeeded and failed, and he concludes that the regimes that were successful at preventing revolution were the regimes that were willing and able to use violence against their own citizens. The lesson that he draws from it is that the federal government should be more willing to use violence against its own citizens. He goes into specifics about-I think at one point he says that if you shoot and kill a protestor, leave their body in the street as a warning to other protestors. He talks about not shooting over them, just shoot right into the crowd.

I don’t think anybody would have mistaken Patton for a hippie peacenik, but even for that, the language is pretty shocking when we read it.  

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Kevin Kelly

Kevin Kelly is currently a college student majoring in History and Political Science. His writings have appeared in The Daily Local, Lew Rockwell.com’s blog, The Washington Times, Antiwar.com, and Freedom’s Phoenix Online Digital Magazine. He has been a popular guest political contributor to numerous national radio shows across the country, offering his perspective on a wide array of issues. 

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