From Abracadabra to Zombies
September 16, 2014. The front page of today's Sacramento Bee honors the valor of fourteen California police officers. Three were involved in a deadly shootout with Christopher Dorner, a former Los Angeles Police Department officer charged in connection with a series of shooting attacks on police officers. The attacks left four people dead, including three police officers, and left three police officers wounded. Dorner shot himself in the head when he was cornered by the cops.
Others honored by Gov. Jerry Brown and Attorney General Kamala Harris included officers who stopped shooting rampages in Santa Monica and at Los Angeles International Airport, a San Bernardino County deputy who saved an adult and four children from a fire, and a Shasta County officer who rescued a fellow diver at Lake Shasta.
None of these officers or any others who performed similar acts of heroism are mentioned in Radley Balko's book on the rise of the warrior cop. Balko doesn't deny that there are courageous men and women who wear the uniform of the police officer, but his focus is on what he calls the militarization of our police forces. Never mind that being armed better than most armies around the world allows our police officers to engage in deadly shootouts with the angry or demented killer on a rampage or a gang of equally well-armed bank robbers. Balko's focus is on what cops do with all that military gear the rest of the time, when they're not engaged in deadly shootouts to protect innocent citizens.
Balko is concerned that, while the U.S. is not yet a police state, we are moving in that direction. He notes that we're free to travel and free to write or say just about anything we want as long as we do it in an orderly fashion. Take to the streets to assemble and exercise what many take to be a right guaranteed by the Constitution and we run the risk of being attacked by the very people we pay to protect us from attackers. He notes that most of us will not have our doors kicked in during the middle of the night and have menacing weapons pointed at our heads while we watch our dogs being shot by cops who got the wrong address about a drug operation from a tipster nobody will ever hold accountable for any lies he tells or mistakes he makes. The most that the average citizen has to worry about from his local cop is being given a ticket for not making a complete stop at a stop sign even when there is nobody else on the road in the area. Unless, of course, you happen to be a person of color or mentally ill. In that case, there are no rules. You may be shot on the spot because you scared a cop. You made him fear for his life when you reached for your wallet or lunged at him with a ceremonial sword. You didn't obey a command, so now you're dead. The cops, of course, see it differently.
According to Balko, some laws encourage the police to break the law and behave like the Mafia. Sabbatarian laws that shut down bars in New York City on Sundays led to organized crime on the part of the city's cops. They extorted the bar owners: pay up and you can open your bar. Don't pay and you will stay closed or go to jail if you try to open up. (This is my example, taken from a recent PBS program on Theodore Roosevelt and the Roosevelt clan.) The evil effects on law enforcement of our current drug laws are in a category that defies comparison. We let cops confiscate the property of innocent people. We arm them with weapons of mass destruction and invite them to break down our doors in the middle of the night on the basis of some scumbag informant whose reputation seems to mean nothing either to the cops or the judges who issue no-knock ("dynamic entry") warrants. We let them terrorize citizens who are non-violent and little threat to the social order. On utilitarian grounds, we should legalize all drugs immediately, but Balko realizes that this will never happen in the U.S. There is way more harm being done to our society by the so-called war on drugs than is being done by drug users. We need to create police forces that put the lives of citizens above the lives of cops and who see that it is the duty of cops to serve and protect the citizens who pay their salaries. Balko seems to believe that the police see all of us as potential enemies who want to kill them. They are trained to kill us and our pets at the slightest provocation. And we ignore it all, as if nothing is happening. Too much social media? Too busy revealing the intimate and boring details of our lives while talking on our smart phones in public places? Too self-absorbed to care about privacy, the right to be left alone in one's own home unless the police have a warrant for a specific purpose based on good evidence that we are committing a crime or conspiring to commit a crime? Too indifferent to care about the right to assemble and protest the actions of corporations, the government, or elected politicians and their insane policies? We live in a country where there are SWAT teams everywhere. We take them for granted. The SWAT team is now the face of law enforcement in the United States of America. Balko wants us to return to something called "community policing," where cops walk a beat, know the people they serve, and have an ongoing friendly relationship with the communities they serve. Sounds like some sort of pipe dream.
Reading this book awakened several unpleasant images that have been resting uncomfortably in my subconscious. Thanks to the magic of Google and the Internet, I can find facsimiles of my memories posted for all to see and I can reproduce them here to show you what it means to have other peoples' lives flash before your eyes.
UC Davis November 18, 2011
Oakland policing protests of Oscar Grant killing 2009
Los Angeles policing Rodney King protests 1999
Oklahoma City Federal Building bombing 1995
Waco, Texas, April 19, 1993
Los Angeles SWAT & the Symbionese Liberation Army 1974
National Guard at Kent State May 4, 1970
Los Angeles SWAT raid on Black Panthers 1969
Detroit Riots 1967
Chicago, Democratic National Convention, August 1968
Bobby Kennedy assassination June 1968
Martin Luther King assassination, Memphis, April 1968
Charles Whitman, Austin, Texas, 1966
Watts riot August 1965
Bloody Sunday, march to Montgomery, March 1965
Alabama, Freedom Riders Bus Burned May 1964
JFK assassination, Dallas, November 1963
Birmingham, Alabama, murder at a church, September 1963
Medgar Evers murdered in Jackson, Mississippi, June 1963
Birmingham, Alabama, May 3, 1963
University of Mississippi 1962
Central High School Little Rock, Arkansas, 1959
Don't read Warrior Cops. It will just make you angry about something you probably can't do anything about. If you have oppositional defiant disorder or any kind of problem with authority figures, you definitely don't want to read this book. It may push you over the edge. If you are a dog lover, don't read this book. It will anger you or move you to tears. If the sight of a group of human beings in SWAT gear does not make you feel secure that these folks are here to protect and serve you rather than kill you and your dog, then you definitely should not read this book. You may go ballistic.
Ostensibly, this is a book about how the police departments in the United States, from the smallest to the largest, have become military units designed for offensive attacks and raids. Warrior Cops, however, is mainly a story about how politicized policing has become and how the policies our politicians have been pushing, with the help of the mass media, have created the kind of world we live in. The war on drugs has led to countless deaths of nonviolent people who have been demonized. The deaths are countless because nobody keeps track. Correction: D. Brian Burghart is trying to keep track. He reports on what he's learned here. He's found that 96% of those killed by police are men, most of whom are either black or mentally ill. Kyle Wagner is also trying to compile a database of how many people are killed by police. Jim Fisher compiled a database of police killings for the year 2011.He found that police only kill about half the people they shoot and that they kill at least 3 people for every police officer who dies in the line of duty from any cause. President Obama signed into law the Death in Custody Reporting Act of 2013, authored by Virginia Democratic Rep. Bobby Scott. This legislation, H.R. 1447, updates a law from 2000 that required states to report to the U.S. Department of Justice how many people died while in law enforcement custody and the manner and circumstances of the deaths.* Will the update do any good? Who knows? Nobody followed the law in 2000, but times have changed. There are no statistics for how many citizens are killed each year by police officers. [update 12/9/2015, Washington Post] According to Stephen L. Morris, assistant director of the FBI’s Criminal Justice Information Services Division, the FBI will dramatically expand the information it gathers on violent police encounters in the United States. The new effort will track any incident in which an officer causes serious injury or death to civilians, including through the use of stun guns, pepper spray, fists, and feet. Currently, less than 3 percent of the nation’s 18,000 state and local police agencies voluntarily share information about officer-involved killings. The change in FBI information gathering on police killings is in response to widespread news coverage of numerous such killings. The Washington Post recorded police killings in 2015: the number was 913 on 12/8. The Officer Down Memorial Page lists 116 police officers killed in the line of duty in 2015, 36 by gunfire and 27 in car crashes. Don't hold your breath to see any statistic gathering on how many student confidential informants have been killed by drug dealers while trying to entrap their friends and classmates into buying small amounts of marijuana. [/update] Nor are there any statistics for how many dogs and other animals the police kill during their raids. Nor are there any statistics on how many wrong addresses SWAT teams have invaded; no count of the number of homes battered and ransacked, no count of the number of innocent lives traumatized while blindly fighting a "war on drugs." It was only a matter of time before this war on citizens in their own homes would be carried to the streets where public assembly to protest government or corporate policies used to be taken as a basic right. Today, the right of assembly to protest grievances immediately evokes a SWAT team response of military proportions or a calm police lieutenant pepper spraying quietly seated protestors.
Stories of police beating up, tasering, or shooting mentally ill people have become commonplace. When a police officer issues an order, you better obey, even if you're deaf, mentally ill, totally confused as to why the police are even there in your home. It doesn't matter. Obey or die. Maybe that's the motto that should be on the doors of police cars. Stories of internal investigations exonerating officers of any wrongdoing in killings, botched raids, etc. are also commonplace. The police are just doing what they are trained to do. That's the scary part. These aren't aberrations. These are model cops. Many of them are back from the real wars in Iraq or Afghanistan or they're trained by the real warriors in how to treat citizens as terrorists and threats to security, law, and order.
Much of the book details how local police departments get all the military equipment that has made them such formidable little armies. Much of the funding comes from the federal government, led by none other than Joe Biden. It may surprise some people to learn that the arming of our police departments and the ill consequences of our drug policies has been a bi-partisan effort. Balko notes that "the raids, grants, and giveaways of Pentagon gear have all only increased since Obama took office." Nationwide, the program that distributes excess military gear to local police departments has been worth billions of dollars to the local cops. The Sacramento Bee today reports that "Controversy erupted in Davis [California, my home town] this summer over its police department’s recent acquisition of a surplus armored vehicle from the Pentagon. [See the last SD newsletter for more on this $689,000 Mine-Resistant, Ambush-Protected vehicle.] But did you know Citrus Heights and South Lake Tahoe also received high-powered mine-resistant vehicles? The Sacramento Police Department got eight grenade launchers. In all, California police agencies used a federal program to acquire about 420,000 military items worth a total of $150 million from the Pentagon, according to new federal data released by the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services. The military gave California police agencies roughly 8,000 M16 assault rifles, 100 mine-resistant or armored vehicles and 45 helicopters, along with myriad other items under the program, which was initiated in the mid-1990s. Most Sacramento police agencies use the program. The Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department, for instance, acquired more than $9 million in equipment, including eight helicopters (six of which were used for parts). Only two other agencies in the state acquired gear worth more than the equipment obtained by the Sheriff’s Department, the state’s data show. Police response to protests in Ferguson, Mo., has caused some, including several U.S. senators, to criticize the militarization of police agencies. Law enforcement officials have countered that the Public Safety Procurement Program provided them with essential, modern gear, often during lean times."
update: President Obama announced on May 18, 2015, that he was barring the federal government from giving certain types of military-style equipment to local police forces and sharply restricting others, and called for a broader shift in law enforcement practices across the country, in which community connections and transparency are the norms and mistrust and aggression are the exceptions.