Radley Balko: "Once a town gets a SWAT team you want to use it"

America's police are beginning to look like an army, and the author says there's very little we can do about it

Published July 13, 2013 12:30PM (EDT)

Radley Balko          (Noel St. John/Reuters/Steve Nesius)
Radley Balko (Noel St. John/Reuters/Steve Nesius)

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.

Few of us encounter the warrior cop phenomenon. How pervasive is it?

 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.

Before 9/11, what do you see as the main drivers of the equipment aspect of this phenomenon?

 The drug war, unquestionably. The drug war is what got us to a crisis point and Sept. 11 just kind of blew it out of the water. A Pentagon program hit its record in 2011 by giving away about $500 million of equipment. [Department of Homeland Security] grants in the last 10 years have given away $35 billion. DHS has accelerated the trend.

Politically, this is a fascinating issue because police seem to be totally untouchable. Everybody loves cops, even if cops are unrecognizable. Are there any reasonable political approaches to this issue?

 It’s tough. The interesting thing is in writing about this issue – and I’ve been writing about this for six, eight years now – is there’s almost no opposition when I write about this. Every so often, a prosecutor who has a blog or something will respond, but in terms of left, right, libertarian, everyone seems to agree that there’s a problem, but then you go to politicians and nobody cares. Nobody is interested. The Republicans want to be tough on crime, and Democrats, police unions are very influential with them. Also I think, on a bipartisan level, every congressman likes to put out that press release, announcing he’s just procured $500,000 for our local heroes in blue. The local newspapers write it up, and it looks good for the community. That’s a difficult thing to wean them off of.

Can you describe how this plays out at the local level? How do any number of small towns now have SWAT teams even as small towns are suffering? How does that training happen? And how does it get used?

 I think part of it is the Pentagon giveaway, the DHS grant; that gets them some of the hardware they need. And then they make the case for starting a SWAT team, and inevitably – I’ve watched this happen in towns – they’ll get the equipment and they’ll get the SWAT team. They’ll invoke Columbine or Virginia Tech or Newtown, now, and they’ll say, “This could happen here. This is why we need to be prepared.” And of course, as high-profile as those things are, they’re vanishingly rare.

Once a small town gets a SWAT team and starts one, it’s expensive to maintain and you want to use it, and the easiest way to use it is to send them out on drug raids. It’s not just that it’s easy – there are incentives. There are federal grants that are tied to drug policing. If you wait until you’re about to arrest a suspected murderer or rapist – which, in small towns, doesn’t happen that often – a SWAT team’s going to be a negative when it comes to revenue. Send them out on a bunch of drug raids, you get all this federal money; there’s also asset forfeiture that is usually tied to drug crimes, and the SWAT team can actually generate money for the department.

So, it starts with the equipment. You just need unsupported justifications for why it’s necessary, and then there are all these incentives for police departments who are using it for pretty low-level crimes.

Training is another problem. At least in the big cities, when they have these SWAT teams, they’re usually well-trained. It’s usually a full-time position. In some of these small towns and little counties, there are cases where there’s a 15-man police department and they also have an eight-member SWAT team. These guys are part-time, and they’re not getting the training that they need to do this. I think even the well-trained SWAT teams are used too frequently, but it’s better to have a well-trained SWAT team than a bunch of guys who are kind of in it for the thrill.

Do you see this bad-ass thing they’re doing as a recruitment tool?

I don’t know how you would define using it as a recruitment tool.  I can say that the tanks and the armed personnel carriers – they roll them out at parades. You see them at various festivals and so forth.  The other thing that I find particularly disturbing is if you Google "police recruitment video," you'll get a lot of videos that these police staff send out to high schools and colleges to recruit police officers.

A disturbingly high percentage of them are [police] kicking down doors and siccing dogs on people and coming out of helicopters to heavy metal music or some kind of high-intensity music and that's the very first step in the process in staffing a police department. You're appealing to young people who are attracted to jobs that allow them to basically kick ass and take names and there's no appeal to the [other] aspects of policing. If that's your recruitment message, you're sending a pretty strong message from the very start about what you think the proper relationship between police and the community ought to be.

Quite a few times, you mention incidents of cops killing dogs. Aside from the poignant aspect of it, what do those incidents demonstrate to you about police training or mentality?

It is another indicator of this battlefield approach that so many police officers have. If you think it’s appropriate to discharge your weapon in a public place --  like what we saw in this more recent viral video in a residential area --  if you think it's appropriate to do this to prevent a dog from breaking your skin, that's a mentality that says "police officers' safety is to be preserved at all costs."

I can name cases where police officers have shot dogs and missed and shot one another, shot bystanders. Even if you don't particularly care about the dogs, it is dangerous. I've interviewed national spokesmen for the Humane Society who says they offer this kind of training to any department that wants it — it's training that every U.S. postal worker gets and, you know, it's training on how to read a dog's body language, how to recognize a defensive dog from a vicious one and how to deal with these dogs in ways other than dealing with culpable force, and hardly any police agencies do this.

You talked just then and in the book about a lack of accountability being ingrained in police culture. Do you see any signs of any programs trying a different approach?

Yes and no. The fact that everybody's armed with a camera in their pocket now is forcing a lot of police departments to become more accountable and to hold officers more accountable. Certainly more cops are going to be more aware of this and aware of the fact that they could be recorded at any time. That’s going to be an incentive to act better.

At the same time, though, police unions are some of the few unions in this country that are still powerful. That in part goes back to the fact that no politician really wants to look anti-police officer, and so the unions have negotiated in a lot of states the Police Officer Bill of Rights, which give rights to cops above and beyond what regular citizens get when they're accused of a crime.

In theory, the Police Officer Bill of Rights only applies to internal investigations; it doesn't affect criminal investigations. Problem is, criminal investigations usually don't start until after the internal investigation is over and at that point the police officers have been given time to put a story together. A lot of times they’re allowed to collaborate with other police officers who are involved and the other thing it does is it gives cops within the department a handy way to get the charges against other cops dismissed.

The Houston Chronicle just launched a new series this week about how difficult it is [to fire a cop]. Cops who are accused of assault and sexual assault and domestic abuse just think they can get their jobs back. Even when they do get fired, another police department ends up hiring them because part of the contract that they negotiated may bar the police department from giving them a bad reference for future law enforcement jobs.

You say in the book that it’s not an anti-cop book. Is there a way for good cops to fight this culture in an effective way?

It’s difficult. I tell a couple stories in the book of cops who try to turn in other cops for this conduct, and usually they end up being the ones disciplined. So, yeah, it’s tough. And there’s a reason why groups like LEAP [Law Enforcement Against Prohibition] is almost exclusively retired cops, because you just can’t make these kinds of points while you’re on the job. There have been a few police chiefs who I mention in the book who have successfully reformed individual police performance.

I guess my point in saying that it isn’t an anti-cop book is that you can rail against cops and call them names, and attack the police culture all you want, but that’s not going to change anything, and as long as you have these bad policies you’re going to attract the wrong personalities because cops are either going to quit in frustration, turn bad or just, you know, hate their jobs. So, until we can get politicians and public officials to start making actual policy changes and insist on holding police accountable, I just don’t think it does any good to rail against police officers.

However, many of the trends you’re describing seem to be accelerating. You say that Obama has stepped up raids, for example, on medical marijuana dispensaries. What sort of indications, if any, do you see of the federal government reining in the incentives for police militarization?

I don’t think so. I look at police militarization under Obama, and surprisingly, the Bush administration was phasing out two of the programs that were really driving a lot of this. The Byrne Grant program, and the COPS program. These are both federal spending programs, so it’s easy to understand why the Bush administration would put it in the back, and then why Obama would then re-fund them. But, you’ve got to look at the consequences.

Just saying we need to spend more money on police officers and then throwing money at them, and then not really caring or following up or having any concern about how that money is being spent, is a problem. Obama restored the Byrne Grant program at record funding shortly after taking office. I think there’s just this notion on the left that, with leftist politicians all federal spending is good, and so you see this re-funding of this program.

I’d like to see these programs phased out entirely, but again, you get the same problem where the right wants to look tough on crime. The left, sort of defensively also, wants to look tough on crime.

I’ve been pleasantly surprised from the reaction to the book among people who aren’t politicians. Across left, right, libertarian, I think most people who are familiar with the issue recognize that it’s a problem and something needs to be done about it. But you know Congress always lags behind public opinion. And on this issue, it’s just difficult to get them to care. I’m optimistic about how the public is coming around on this issue, but I’m skeptical that we’ll ever get any reaction from politicians.

What sort of solutions do you see? What can be done?

At the local level, I think people could pressure local officials to rein in SWAT teams, and have them only used in the emergency situations and stop sending them on drug raids.

You can do an open record collection of the police department to find out how many times the SWAT teams had been out, for what reasons, and what the result was. Most times you’re going to find it was sent out, let’s say 200 times in the last year, and you’re going to find that maybe 40 of those cases are over criminal charges. Those are good numbers to put out, and just to spark a debate on whether this is an appropriate use of this sort of force.

I think all these raids should be videotaped and should all be subject to open record requests. When an officer makes a negligent error that results in a SWAT team terrorizing an innocent family, you know there should be consequences, and a family should have recourse in court, to collect damages, and right now it’s very, very difficult to sue a police officer in court.

A lot of other recommendations in the book, like ending the drug war, aren’t going to happen any time soon, but there are incremental reforms that can be made to at least kind of get a handle on the problem even if you can’t rein it in completely.

By Alex Halperin

Alex Halperin is news editor at Salon. You can follow him on Twitter @alexhalperin.

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