A couple of years ago I found myself – as all of us in the new and improved America, even old housecats like me, must inevitably and repeatedly find ourselves – on my knees as when I pray, in my driveway, shivering in a winter night’s rain. My hands were cuffed behind my back and three policemen wearing visible body armor were pointing guns at me. Two of them held black, automatic handguns with the sort of high capacity magazines I must never be allowed to possess and they both were doing that cop trick – you know that thing where you hold both your pistol and a flashlight in both hands at once. So when I looked right I was blinded by the light.
Thirty feet straight in front of me my neighbor, call him Bob, had emerged grinning and fascinated by my humiliation. Bob is a lawyer who specializes in the lucrative practice of screwing injured men out of their workman’s compensation claims and we were never friends. But after years of reading the half-hidden glances of his ripe and voluptuous wife, I got the idea that some days Bob liked to live through me and some days his wife liked it when he did. “Get back in your house now, sir! It’s dangerous here,” a voice hidden in the blinding glow commanded and of course Bob obeyed. He scurried back inside where, mostly hidden by a curtain, he continued to peek at me through his front window unconcerned by the potential danger my exploding head might present. Maybe Bob had Kevlar curtains. Maybe he was just being brave.
On my left, well out of my reach but well illuminated, was an aging police sergeant with some sort of a gee-whiz gun. I belong to a generation of men who still call the M-16 rifle and all its variants the gee-whiz gun.
And that particular gee-whiz gun was a real beauty. It had a collapsible stock with the usual pistol grip. Some sort of miniaturized astronomical telescope occupied the top of the receiver group where the carrying handle should be. It had a sling, a front grip like a Tommy Gun, some sort of electronic device under the front sight and a banana clip. I’ve always thought simple systems work best and this particular weapon struck me as complicated and theatrical. And since my curse, from about the time I turned three, has always been my smart mouth I asked the trig sergeant, in that annoying way I have, “Is that a real, fucking gun?”
My question made him frown and without missing a beat he snapped back, “Of course it’s a real gun!” He took himself very seriously. He was very proud of his rifle and I’m sure he thought I was way out of line for a man on his knees. I suppose I should have just been glad they didn’t run over my motorcycle with a Bearcat.
At Last The Point
Which is all a roundabout way of saying that I am not the only person to notice the police-stating of Thomas Jefferson’s aging ideals. And, at the same time I am probably more willing than most people to care about Radley Balko’s new book, Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces.
Balko is currently a senior writer and investigative reporter for the Huffington Post, where he covers civil liberties and the criminal justice system. He is a former senior editor for the libertarian monthly Reason. His politics may explain why Warrior Cop has been mostly ignored. Although The Wall Street Journal did give Balko almost two full broadsheet pages last Saturday, July 20th, to talk about postmodern policing he hasn’t yet become one of Bill Maher’s special guests.
Balko is hardly an ideologue. He is a lucid and considerate writer. His prose is muscular and his work is information dense so it is curious that his latest book hasn’t yet been reviewed by the New York Times Book Review, The New York Review of Books, The New Yorker or any of the other national periodicals that define America’s reading list. The problem is probably that most of America’s Mandarin class more readily identifies with a Trayvon Martin who was stalked and killed by a nut with a gun than with the likes of me on my knees in the rain cracking wise about some fool’s precious machine gun. As Balko puts it, “Most Americans still believe we live in a free society and revere its core values.”
Balko wrote this book to answer the question: “How did we get here? How did we evolve from a country whose founding statesmen were adamant about the dangers of armed, standing government forces – a country that enshrined the Fourth Amendment in the Bill of Rights and revered and revered and protected the age-old notion that the home is a place of privacy and sanctuary – to a country where it has become acceptable for armed government agents dress in battle garb to storm private homes in the middle of the night – not to apprehend violent fugitives or thwart terrorist attacks, but to enforce laws against nonviolent, consensual activities.” Whether he succeeded or not depends on your cynicism. The more cynical you are the more likely you are to think that Balko might be soft-selling the situation. But it is a meticulously researched book about a problem that should be at the top of the nation’s agenda yet is not.
We Also Have Noticed
This page has taken several looks at Swat in America, for example in “Swat Murdered Russell Doza”, and with all due respect for this book and without intending to offend the man, one gets the impression that Balko has never heard of an indicia search – a pervasive form of extra-judicial punishment aimed specifically at known members of motorcycle clubs in which a Swat team invades a home in the darkest hour before dawn, kills the pets and sometimes the residents and terrorizes and humiliates those residents who survive on the pretext of searching for tangible proof, in the forms of mementos and insignia, that a known member of a motorcycle club is in fact a member of a motorcycle club.
It is a shame Balko never stumbled over the tragedy of James Hicks, whose home was invaded and who was killed during an indicia search in late 2009. The search found a “shotgun, a bank statement, assorted photos, (2) motorcycle helmets, MC Club patches, 2 Pagan walking sticks, camera, Samsung video camera” and “assorted ammunition.” And, it lasted for hours while the new widow Hicks was compelled by the police to grieve, not in her home and not over her husband’s body, but in the restroom of a nearby gas station.
Most readers here will also remember the murder of a Pagan named Derek J. Hale in Wilmington, Delaware in 2006.
Buy A Copy
But these little complaints are really only quibbles that Balko doesn’t cite my most memorable Swat atrocities. The fact is that there is a Swat atrocity somewhere in America every single day. And, Balko did manage to find a lady cop named Betty Taylor. Taylor had her own satori when she opened a door during a Swat raid and found an eight-year-old girl in “a defensive posture, putting herself between Taylor and her little brother. She looked at Taylor and said, half tearful, half angry, “What are you going to do to us.”
Balko spends about 40 pages on the history of cops and then concentrates on the evolution of police since the invention of Swat in the 1960s. He spends almost 70 pages on the incorporation of domestic policing into the war on terror in the last decade. And he does not spare politicians of either party. He calls both George W. Bush and Barack Obama to account.
If you like the things you read here you will also like reading almost anything by Radley Balko. If you are hungry to know more about how America is becoming a police state, you should read this book. And, if you want to do something about it you should encourage anyone who will listen to you to read Rise of the Warrior Cop.