Book Review: Radley Balko’s Rise of the Warrior Cop

Reading a book written by a friend is a leap of faith, approached with trepidation. What if it’s awful? What if it’s not awful, but just not very good? But there is no real option, particularly when it is about a subject of deep concern and fascination for both of us.

And so there was never a question when Radley Balko announced his forthcoming book, Rise of the Warrior Cop, The Militarization of America’s Police Forces. I would read it. I would review it. I would be as critical of it as I would of any other book, and hope for the best.  Let’s get this out of the way up front: Every person who shares an interest in the relationship among policing, criminal justice and American society must read this book. And there is no one who can afford not to share that interest.

The book, published by Public Affairs and scheduled for release on July 9, 2013, starts at the beginning, taking us from the days when Americans policed themselves to the birth of the occupation of policing.  While I was well aware of  Radley’s persistence and acumen at chronicling current events, I never realized what a thorough researcher he is. The history of policing is remarkably impressive.

It’s critical to appreciate the history of policing, to understand that what we now see as normal and inescapable wasn’t always the case. For most of our history, this country did not have a group of people with shields and guns who wandered the streets ordering people about. The fall from grace, If you perceive it as I do, came fast and hard.

American attitudes toward police were built on images of Andy Griffith, strolling the streets of Mayberry to save random cats and, an allusion Radley employs, serving as guest umpire in the occasional baseball game. Good. Honest, One of us. This was the police officer upon whom we relied, and the one we pictured as we told our children that they were here to help us; they were our friend. 

Starting in the 1960’s, Radley takes us decade by decade down the road to perdition.  As he wears his libertarian politics on his sleeve, it came as no surprise that he gave the politics of law enforcement special scrutiny.  His hatred of Richard Nixon for manipulating the silent majority’s hatred of hippies and counterculture into the War on Drugs is palpable. On the other hand, there is no reluctance to blame Bill Clinton for his deceitful abuse of the COPS program, and its infusion of billions into the drug war a few decades later.

Radley is a surprisingly good story teller, generally low key in recounting tales of individual harm interspersed with broad influences that gave rise to putting heavy weaponry into the hands of children.  There are times when the narrative gets a bit breathless, trying hard to capture the confluence of political deceit on the part of some and ignorance on the part of others.  Then again, the alternative would be to simply call out the liars and morons for their contribution to a state of affairs that served to put a naïve American public at grave risk for such puny and transitory purposes as winning an election. 

What came as quite a surprise was Radley’s discussion of the start of SWAT, special weapons and tactics (notably not including the word “attack” because, well, that might upset people).  His description is not merely calm, but borders on sympathetic.  It reflects the balance of his approach, which is quite shocking in light of what we all know to come at the end of the story.

The book contains required caveat number 3, mentioned numerous times that this is not an anti-cop book.  And indeed, Radley pays homage to those within law enforcement who recognized the developing schism between police and the public that would lead us to blur the line between soldier fighting a foreign enemy on the battlefield and police fighting a domestic enemy on the streets of America, using the same clothing, weapons and attitudes.  The book has its heroes, though they pale in comparison to such moral scolds as William Bennett.

At the outset, Radley tries to develop a theme based on the symbolic Third Amendment, the quartering of soldiers, to show our tradition of not allowing a standing army in our midst to trump the sanctity of our Castles.  He returns to that theme from time to time, bringing it full circle toward the end. The theme seemed strained at times, and not really necessary to appreciate how government intrusion into our lives and homes has worked its harm. 

As anyone who has even a passing familiarity with Radley’s efforts at chronicling wrong door raids and puppycide would expect, the book infuses individual tales of horror throughout, with a special pounding at the end of story after story of what becomes of a police presence more concerned with using the toys in hand than showing restraint, thoughtfulness, concern for the fact that the people on the other end of their bullets are their fellow Americans.  Radley does not disappoint.

While the book, not surprisingly, provides an in depth look at the political forces and machinery at work in creating the militarization of police, it doesn’t dwell too much on the role of the cop on the street. Sure, there is the machismo and the great fun of wearing body armor and carrying assault weapons when serving a warrant on a medical marijuana user, but the focus is more macro than micro. 

It’s unclear what makes a guy who is otherwise a fine neighbor, a good father, a great fan of baseball perhaps, into a mindless killer of his fellow citizens.  Wearing a black jumpsuit and Kevlar helmet isn’t enough of an explanation for pulling the trigger on his assault rifle pointed at the head of a child. Even with Washington dumping tons of surplus military equipment on police departments with three cops, all of whom want to be on the SWAT team so they can be just as cool as the big city guys, there is a gap in what happens in the head of a police officer who looks into the eyes of another man’s child and decides that he’s going to end his life. How did that happen?

It’s impossible to fathom how any reader of SJ won’t read this book immediately. It’s a critical history of how we got from there to here, from Officer Friendly to the Lenco Bearcat in a town with no crime.  And why, once the toys are in hand, they must be used.  And they are used against us.  But this book needs to go much farther, as there is no person, not even a child, who hopes to survive life in modern America who doesn’t need to know that this nation wasn’t always at the mercy of an overly weaponized, seemingly omnipotent force.

If there is any hope of changing the course of the militarization of law enforcement, it will come from a greater understanding of why this was never meant to be the internal norm of this country, and that it doesn’t have to be.  Radley Balko has done an exceptional job of making the case.  Every person who hopes to preserve the integrity of his Castle from dynamic entry needs to read The Rise of Warrior Cop. Spread the word.



13 comments on “Book Review: Radley Balko’s Rise of the Warrior Cop

  1. Pam Lakatos

    Just pre ordered the Kindle version of this book. I, too, have been appalled at the militarization of law enforcement. Can’t wait to read this.
    Thanks for your review.

  2. Pete

    Great review, I can’t wait to read it. I’ve been following Balko for a couple years, I’m glad he introduced me to this site. Add an aspiring crim defense lawyer from Kansas to your readership.

  3. A. Culosi

    I too preordered RISE of the WARRIOR COP, and your review was not wasted on me as I have been on both sides of the issue, recognizing that there are good and bad in every profession.

    My brother, a NYS Trooper, was killed while on duty in 1961, and my son, who was his namesake, was unjustifiably killed in 2006, by a FCPD SWAT officer. We all know in one way or another, that life is full of both joys and sorrows so we go forward one day at a time, coping as best we can, with God’s help, when tragedies befall us.

    As for Radley Balko’s crusade in shedding light on the many injustices wrongfully brought to citizen/victims of and by law enforcement, I commend him; and I continue to admire his dedication in wanting to understand and explain how this US vs THEM mentality has come to be and is now par for the course with most badge wearers.

    Personally and not having read the book yet, I believe the attitude is a direct result of law enforcement officers and police departments knowing that it is near impossible to hold them accountable for their over the top actions let alone to prevail against them in a court of law.

    I look forward to receiving my copy soon and I thank you again Mr. Greenfield for your posting in 2011 of THINGS THE LAW DOESN’T DO WELL. And no, I will never come to terms with what happened to my family and how it (still sticks in my throat) had to be concluded.

  4. SHG

    I’m terribly sorry to hear about what happened to your brother and your son.  There are parts of this book that will have special meaning for you, and as you already know, won’t lessen the pain.

  5. Jim Majkowski

    Sheriff Andy managed not only to rescue cats from trees, but to capture the occasional escaped felon and to command respect and good behavior from (admittedly relatively tame) con men and bullies.

    Here in the Detroit area we’ve seen the trial of Ofr. Weekley, who fired the shot that killed 7 year old Aiyana Jones ( a mistrial was declared just minutes ago when the jury couldn’t reach a verdict), a recent example of what can go wrong when SWAT tactics are misapplied.

    I look forward to reading the book.

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