Review: “Rise of the Warrior Cop”

Radley Balko (2013). “Rise of the Warrior Cop.” New York: PublicAffairs

This book was a timely read after the last book I reviewed for C4SS, Tyranny Comes Home: The Domestic Fate of U.S. Militarism by Christopher Coyne and Abigail Hall. Tyranny Comes Home gives a “macro” overview of the broader policy implications of U.S. military adventurism, while Radley Balko, in “Rise of the Warrior Cop,” provides more of the “micro” investigations, referring to specific botched no-knock raids that set precedent for the broader trend toward a militarized police force. I was initially struck by the similarities throughout periods of government expansion that saw rapid intensifications in police militarization.

Much of the precedent that set the stage for the contemporary police state the U.S. occurred in tandem with periods of unprecedented civil unrest. Balko spends much of the first half of the book catching the reader up on the history of police in the world, and especially in the United States. He also provides a thoughtful background on the Bill of Rights. One would expect to find a staunch defense of the Fourth Amendment in a book about police misconduct, and Balko surely delivers on that end, but I was pleased to find a thorough defense of the oft-overlooked Third Amendment and the context that connects the Third and Fourth Amendments.

Balko notes that police militarization was initially kicked into high gear by Richard Nixon’s administration, which found capitalizing on white fears of black criminality to be particularly effective. The public was largely ignorant to the finer details of crime science, like the idea that mundane things such as increased street lighting did more to reduce the prevalence of crime than say, outfitting a police department with a fully-armed SWAT team to serve drug warrants.

In the 60s, Nixon could distract from the war in Vietnam and even the Watergate scandal by fanning flames of racial unrest and the scourge of dangerous drugs. Nixon would even admit behind closed doors that he knew drug use and crime were trending down, but he could still capitalize on the public’s misconceptions that crime was rising. It’s a case study in the perverse incentives that abound in the decades-old War on Drugs.

Furthermore, it seemed as though many of Nixon’s decisions were calculated to “stick it to the left,” to take a quote directly from Nixon’s Chief of Staff, which doesn’t seem far off at all from the contemporary GOP’s North Star.1 Why do what works when you can do what’s politically expedient? This attitude was evident in the direction taken by the Office of Drug Abuse Law Enforcement (ODALE), the precursor of the DEA, which sought to make a high quantity of arrests of low level drug pushers versus high quality arrests of criminal enterprises that contributed to drug proliferation.

Balko writes:

The [Nixon] White House needed something tangible to tout to the public. If they couldn’t use actual crime data to show their initiatives were working, perhaps they could just create their own impressive statistics by generating lots of arrests and convictions at the federal level.

One major takeaway the reader gets from Balko’s book is how much of the early push toward militarized policing was the result of a PR campaign on the part of the federal government. Nixon in particular was keen to notice how white middle America, the so-called “Silent Majority,” was rife with racial animosity. Nixon could lump all of the “undesirables” during his administration under a common umbrella: narcotics. Black Americans, hippies, and anti-war protesters were easy to point to as “the problem” and characterizing them all as stoners was an effective way of inoculating his opposition.

A major feeling that I took away from the book was that while there have been major gains in scaling back in the egregious abuses of power within the War on Drugs there are a lot of areas where it seems we’ve taken a few steps backward. In one telling episode from the late 80s, Balko recounts a moment in drug war hysteria that reads today like a prelude to the Trump Administration.

Despite consistent data showing that drug use and addiction were abating, [a 1989 White House] Drug Strategy report declared drugs to be a ‘deepening crisis’ that presented ‘the gravest threat to our national well-being.’ [William] Bennett’s appointment [as H.W. Bush’s drug czar] and subsequent hard line instigated a new round of drug war hysteria from other public officials. Sen. Phil Gram, Republican of Texas, and Republican Georgia representative Newt Gingrich introduced a bill to convert unused army centers into mass detention centers for drug offenders. Republican representative Richard Ray of Georgia proposed that drug offenders be exiled to Midway and Wake Islands. With no distractions, Ray argued, it would be easier for them to rehabilitate. Ray’s proposal even passed the House Armed Services Committee. He said that when he proposed the idea to a conference of sheriffs and police chiefs, he received a standing ovation…. In testimony before Congress, Daryl Gates [founder of the original SWAT teams and the anti-drug program DARE] proclaimed that casual drug use was ‘treason,’ then recommended that users be ‘taken out and shot.’ In several occasions in the 1980s, the House and Senate also flirted with extending the death penalty to convicted drug dealers.

These were policy proposals that were floated and debated during George H.W. Bush’s administration, an administration that comes across as almost quaint compared to the Trump administration. Even so, Trump himself has called for extending the death penalty to drug dealers.The proposal by then-representative Newt Gingrich to convert Army centers into mass detention centers for drug offenders seems eerily similar to plans today by the Pentagon to convert Army bases into de facto internment camps for up to 20,000 immigrants. It feels worth repeating that this rhetoric and show of force, both in the 80s and today, are in response to what amount to victimless and non-violent “crimes,” such as crossing the border without permission or the exchange of drugs and money between mutually consenting adults.

Shortly after taking office President Trump took a phone call with Rodrigo Duterte, the president of the Philippines, who has made headlines in recent years for ratcheting up his own country’s war on drugs. President Duterte himself has called on his countrymen to take matters into their own hands and exact vigilante “justice” by killing anyone they suspect of being involved in the drug trade. In that phone call with Duterte in November of 2016, President Trump praised Duterte specifically for his handling of drug crime.

Balko’s book is a slow burn. He is methodic in his documentation of piecemeal policy proposals that ratchet up the war on drugs and police militarization gradually over time. The trend to embolden police officers and prosecutors, and to chip away at Fourth Amendment protections of those accused is methodical across party lines and across the three branches of government. Balko shows how willing Democrats were to have a hand in expanding the government’s authority for fear of appearing “weak on crime.” One name that routinely pops up is then-Senator Joe Biden, who just recently made headlines when he and Hillary Clinton appeared at the top of the list of desired potential Democratic President candidates to face off against Donald Trump in 2020. This is supposed to be the opposition party.

Nearly every time a Democrat is named in Balko’s book it is to express how Republican efforts to crank up the War on Drugs and requisite police powers doesn’t go far enough. At one point Dick Cheney, acting as Bush Sr.’s Secretary of Defense, said “The detection and countering of production, trafficking, and use of illegal drugs is a high priority national security mission at the Department of Defense.” At the same time then-chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Senator Joe Biden, is quoted by the Associated Press as saying, “…quite frankly, [the Bush-Bennett] plan is not tough enough, bold enough, or imaginative enough to meet the crisis at hand.”

Nearly a decade earlier in 1982 Balko notes that Biden would introduce a bill that would give the Reagan administration a laundry list of expanded powers to wage its war on drugs, including expanding civil asset forfeiture to allow the Feds to seize property from those not even charged with a crime and the ability of prosecutors to estimate the amount of money an individual had made in the drug trade and to be able to confiscate property equivalent to that number. Previously authorities had to actually make the case that the property being seized was itself used in some criminal activity. That bill passed the Senate 95-1.

This book will raise the blood pressure of anyone with a conscience. I found it hard to read at times, especially when Balko dives into the finer details of botched no-knock raids. That said, it is a crucial read for anyone who wants to get their mind around the bipartisan atrocity that is US drug policy.

  1. Dan Baum, Smoke and Mirrors: The War on Drugs and the Politics of Failure
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