America’s police are beginning to look like an army and there’s very little we can do about it

radley_balko-620x412By Alex Halperin

Radley Balko’s new book, “Rise of the Warrior Cop,” details how America’s police forces have grown to look and behave more like soldiers than neighborly Officer Krupkes walking the beat. This new breed of police, frequently equipped with military weapons and decked out in enough armor to satisfy a storm trooper, are redefining law enforcement.

How did this happen? For decades, the war on drugs has empowered police to act aggressively. More recently, 9/11 and school shootings enforced the notion that there’s no such thing as too much security. Since 9/11, the newly formed Department of Homeland Security has distributed billions in grants, enabling even some small town police departments to buy armored personnel carriers and field their own SWAT teams.

Once you have a SWAT team the only thing to do is kick some ass. There are more than 100 SWAT team raids every day in this country. They’re not chasing murderers or terrorists. For the most part they go after nonviolent offenders like drug dealers and even small time gamblers. As you’d expect when there is too much adrenaline and too much weaponry, there have been some tragedies. Suddenly goofball comedies where an elite squad invades a house to find a pot-smoking kid don’t seem so funny. (Balko’s book describes such incidents at length in excerpts Salon published here and here.)

This problem defies the usual conservative vs. liberal calculus. As Balko sees it, Democrats love spending money on cops and Republicans want to seem tough on crime. In this fertile ground, the police-industrial complex has grown. Many of its excesses are almost impossible to defend, but it’s not going anywhere. Balko talked to Salon about the decline of community policing, the warrior cop mentality, why so many dogs get killed by police. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

There are several levels of militarization. The rise of SWAT teams nationwide, the number of annual SWAT deployments in the U.S., has gone from a few hundred in the ’70s, to 30,000 per year in the early ’80s, to 50,000 in 2005. That’s 100, 150 times a day in this country you have these heavily armed police teams breaking into homes, and the vast majority of times it’s to enforce laws against consensual crimes.

Beyond that, you have a military or soldier mind-set, and that, I think, goes beyond the SWAT team. They’ve been telling police officers for a generation now that they’re fighting various wars, but it’s also because the patrol car has isolated police officers from the communities that they serve. Police officers who live in the communities they serve is also less and less common.

So when you arm a cop like a soldier, when you dress ‘em like a soldier, when you tell ‘em to fight in a war and then send ‘em out into a neighborhood that he has no stake in and doesn’t consider himself a part of, you get a very antagonistic, us-versus-them relationship between the officer and that community. I think that is really pervasive, and the rise of the stop-snitchin’ movement, whatever you think of it, shows there are entire communities in this country that are more afraid of police than they are of the people that the police are supposed to be protecting them from. That is a pretty terrible development.

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