Judging from the two excerpts published so far on Salon.com, Radley Balko’s new book, Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces is a much-needed wake-up call about the dangerously increasing power of the police in the United States.
The rapidly-growing trend of having local police departments behave more like a military force than a law enforcement agency is terrifying. Unfortunately, as Balko explains in great detail, not only is it currently legal in many cases, it is being encouraged by new policies and laws. The federal government continues to ask more of local police, local governments love their new powers, the police seem to relish their increasing ability to play “SWAT,” and the judiciary almost always gives approval. Penalties for abuse of power and unjustified killing are light and rare.
What this all accomplishes, other than needless deaths and rising anger against government, are good questions.
Clearly, as Balko writes, “The new warrior cop is out of control.” He gives many examples of SWAT teams gone wild– folks sitting in their living room suddenly facing doors busted down by men dressed in full riot gear waving assault rifles, their dogs being killed in front of them, and orders to lie down on the floor with guns being pressed against their heads—all by people who have not identified themselves.
What happened to Cheye Calvo, the 33 year-old mayor of Berwyn Heights, Maryland, is a typical story:
As Calvo took the dogs out for a walk the evening of July 29, 2008, his mother-in-law told him that a package had been delivered a few minutes earlier. He figured it was something he had ordered for his garden. “On the walk, I noticed a few black SUVs in the neighborhood, but thought little of it except to wave to the drivers,” he would later recall. When Calvo and the dogs returned, he picked up the package, brought it inside, then went upstairs to change for his meeting.
The next thing Calvo remembers is the sound of his mother-in-law screaming. He ran to the window and saw heavily armed men clad in black rushing his front door. Next came the explosion. He’d later learn that this was when the police blew open his front door. Then there was gunfire. Then boots stomping the floor. Then more gunfire. Calvo, still in his boxers, screamed, “I’m upstairs, please don’t shoot!” He was instructed to walk downstairs with his hands in the air, the muzzles of two guns pointed directly at him. He still didn’t know it was the police. . . “At the bottom of the stairs, they bound my hands, pulled me across the living room, and forced me to kneel on the floor in front of my broken door. I thought it was a home invasion. I was fearful that I was about to be executed.” I later asked Calvo what might have happened if he’d had a gun in his home for self-defense. His answer: “I’d be dead.” In another interview, he would add, “The worst thing I could have done was defend my home.”
And by the way, the police shot and killed both of Calvo’s dogs.
Jonathan Ayers was a Georgia pastor who made the mistake of counseling and ministering to troubled women who also happened to be under investigation for drug offenses. In 2009, an undercover team of cops who had the woman under surveillance saw Ayers pick her up and give her some money. Ayers was actually giving her the cash out of his wallet to help pay her rent, so she wouldn’t be evicted. But suspecting they now had a more upscale suspect, the police followed Ayers as he left the motel where the woman was staying. They followed him to a convenience store, where withdrew some cash from an ATM.
When Ayers returned to his car, a black SUV screeched into the parking lot, and a team of narcotics cops toting guns and dressed in street clothes ran at his car. Ayers threw the car into reverse and attempted to escape. The police opened fire, killing Ayers. According to a nurse at the hospital where he died, Ayers’ last words were that he thought he was about to be robbed. . .
[The] Georgia Bureau of Investigation. . . cleared the cops of any wrongdoing. The report concluded that Ayers was mostly to blame.
Many of the examples Balko writes about relate to people under suspicion for drug use, but there are also stories of “investigations” for gambling, child pornography, serving alcohol to minors, and other violations. Balko is careful to say that illegal activities may very well have been underway, but questions the need for military-style home invasions and whether proper procedures, such as search warrants, and identifying as police, were followed.
One growing but deeply troubling trend described in depth by Balko is the use of “administrative searches,” in which police departments actually use SWAT teams supposedly to enforce business regulations. Three years ago in Florida, for example, “[S]heriff’s deputies raided several black-and Hispanic-owned barbershops in the Orlando area. More raids followed in September and October. The Orlando Sentinel reported that police held barbers and customers at gunpoint and put some in handcuffs, while they turned the shops inside out. The police raided a total of nine shops and arrested thirty-seven people. By all appearances, these raids were drug sweeps. Shop owners told the Sentinel that police asked them where they were hiding illegal drugs and weapons. But in the end, thirty-four of the thirty-seven arrests were for ‘barbering without a license,’ a misdemeanor for which only three people have ever served jail time in Florida.”
Amazingly, “administrative searches” do not require a search warrant, because they are just “license inspections.” And these outrageous actions have been upheld by the courts.
Don’t think that the police ever even apologize for mistaken raids, shooting dogs, and killing innocent people. In almost all cases, they refuse to admit mistakes, and usually blame the innocent citizens for their victimization. It is as if they are saying, “Of course they should have known we were the police when we burst in the door at 2:00 in the morning wearing face masks and all-black clothing and shooting our guns!”
The militarization of the police has grown to include “riot control” duties, which in reality mean stopping legal, peaceful protests at large events such as conventions or world summits. Occupy protestors have felt the wrath of these squads. No longer is breaking the law necessary to be arrested. Just watching a legal activity and holding the potential to do something illegal is all that is needed now to be rounded up at gunpoint and carted off to the station.
Such serious abuse of police power should be of great concern to everyone across the political spectrum. Whether you worry about government being too powerful or want to protect civil liberties and the Bill of Rights, the turning of local police departments into quasi-military units whose default position is to make investigations into warrantless life-threatening SWAT raids should be enough to make your blood boil. Both the left and right should come together to fight the dangers of the growth of these actions.
As Balko writes,
So long as partisans are only willing to speak out against aggressive, militarized police tactics when they’re used against their own and are dismissive or even supportive of such tactics when used against those whose politics they dislike, it seems unlikely that the country will achieve enough of a political consensus to begin to slow down the trend.