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Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America's Police Forces

Radley Balko · 11 HN comments
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Amazon Summary
Now updated with new material, the groundbreaking history of how police forces have become militarized, both in equipment and mindset, and what that means for American democracy. The last days of colonialism taught America's revolutionaries that soldiers in the streets bring conflict and tyranny. As a result, our country has generally worked to keep the military out of law enforcement. But according to investigative reporter Radley Balko, over the last several decades, America's cops have increasingly come to resemble ground troops. The consequences have been dire: the home is no longer a place of sanctuary, the Fourth Amendment has been gutted, and police today have been conditioned to see the citizens they serve as an other-an enemy. Today's armored-up policemen are a far cry from the constables of early America. The unrest of the 1960s brought about the invention of the SWAT unit-which in turn led to the debut of military tactics in the ranks of police officers. Nixon's War on Drugs, Reagan's War on Poverty, Clinton's COPS program, the post-9/11 security state under Bush, Obama: by degrees, each of these innovations empowered police forces, always at the expense of civil liberties. And under Trump, these powers were expanded in terrifying new ways, as evidenced by the tanks and overwhelming force that met the Black Lives Matter protesters in 2020. In Rise of the Warrior Cop, Balko shows how politicians' ill-considered policies and relentless declarations of war against vague enemies like crime, drugs, and terror have blurred the distinction between cop and soldier. His fascinating, frightening narrative shows how over a generation, a creeping battlefield mentality has isolated and alienated American police officers and put them on a collision course with the values of a free society.
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All the comments and stories posted to Hacker News that reference this book.
> That's because of an increasing number of magic tricks the neoliberal governments

The BLS has been measuring the unemployment rate the same way since 1940.

> Yes. And still the US had less CO2 production, less plastic waste, and more sustainable lifestyle.

You're taking a by-product of 1970s car exhausts as if it's a permanent given.

The was more of almost every type of type of non C02 industrial pollutant. There was acid rain, and we were punching a hole in the ozone with refrigerants. Pesticides in use then were far more toxic to people and wildlife. Asbestos was everywhere, and lead was in everything.

We could certainly consume fewer disposable things, but the tradeoff is that being poor today affords people a far higher material standard of living than in 1960 by literally any metric.

> Yes. And still the US had less CO2 production

This is almost entirely solvable over the next few decades.

> 2022 really doesn't want to start an argument about extinguished species with the 1960s.

You could and you'd find that numerous large charismatic species on the verge of extinction by the mid 70s have recovered in much of the world. The US has become so rich that we're re-wilding and re-introducing displaced species. The rest of the world could follow.

> Far better, more progressive, and forward looking political upheaval than in the last 10 years...

We started a drug war and the expansion of the carceral state in the late 60s[1]. MLK, JFK, RFK, and Malcom X were all assassinated so I wouldn't call that progressive upheaval. And the progressive upheaval caused by the likes of The Weather Underground or the SLA is hardly impressive.

> Those are historical incidents

Everyone living under the constant threat of nuclear holocaust was kind of a wer blanket.

> The 60s was the era that got rid of the last of Jim Crow laws.

By the end, and replaced it with a drug war.

In the 60s crime was higher, material wealth was less plentiful, more people lived in poverty, life expectancy was shorter, and most people in society had few options. Localized environmental pollution was worse. Cars were far less safe, and mortality by all causes was higher.

> Not the experience of most who lived through them and herald them as a great age

Nostalgia does that to people, but basically all objective measures of life quality were worse.


You can ignore the racial angle and still come away with the criticism that the culture among most police departments in American is VERY antagonistic towards the populations they serve. I could bang on about my personal experience but it's not super relevant here.

Just look at any major police scandal in the past decade. There's almost always an attempt at a cover up, and always a ton of officers that knew about it and did nothing. No matter what the crime or infraction is, police protect their own and circle up in the face of even the most benign criticism. There's a great book called I Got a Monster [1] that details Baltimore's infamous gun task force, and it's shocking how many people knew what they were up to for years. People who look the other way aren't good apples. For a bit of history, Radley Balko's Rise of the Warrior Cop [2] does a great job detailing the growth of us vs. them thinking among police nationally.

> It can be VERY hard to do the right thing, especially when it means it's the last thing you get to do (before you lose your job).

Police are almost NEVER fired. The number one goal of police unions is to prevent any firing for any reason ever, and they are very successful at that.



> Police are almost NEVER fired

But police chiefs and above are forced to "resign" much more commonly. And it happens when the optics are bad on something that was the right thing to do (like policing higher crime areas more, when those areas have a higher rate of minorities).

I don't really se a lot of evidence for that, and I don't see how it relates to peoples' general displeasure with policing.

I would also note that the kind of policing like stop and frisk that people hate, is not the kind of policing that actually prevents crime. THere's a giant body of research on this. Across America police departments, regardless of how "focused" they are on high crime areas seem to have abysmal closure rates for murders, assaults, rapes, and property crimes. Police in the US are far too focused on dumb shit like clearing corners, and policing nuisance crime.

Moreover, who cares if a police chief, a political appointee, resigns? It means almost nothing for day to day policing which is governed by lower level union members and informed by trainings selected by the police unions.

> I don't see how it relates to peoples' general displeasure with policing.

It doesn't. It relates to the post I was replying to, which said that

> I’d hope police chiefs have thicker skin enough to make the right choice despite the (agenda pushing) flak they might receive.

Having thick skin doesn't help when you're out of a job and can't pay your bills; because you did the right thing.

> Having thick skin doesn't help when you're out of a job and can't pay your bills; because you did the right thing.

I didn't say anything about thick skin. The truth is that police are virtually never fired, and when they are they usually get rehired by other departments. I'd be surprised if you could find a police officer being fired for "doing the right thing" anywhere in America, unless it was whistle blowing.

As for police chiefs, who cares? They are political appointees, who are probably fired or forced to resign at similar rates to heads of other departments. I still doubt you can find a single police chief who was fired for "doing the right thing." Where in America has there ever been a police chief who was trying to put resources into solving violent crimes and was subsequently let go for it? Sure, some have been let go for cargo culting CompStat and failing, but that's a shitty idea anyway.

Community based policing, cops on neighborhood patrols, has been on the decline for years.

Police funding is now more often used to to acquire military weapons/hardware.

"Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America's Police Forces" is a highly recommended study of this problem.

The "Rise of the Warrior Cop" seems directly correlated with the rise of massive drug cartels.
Drug cartels are on the decline. Rise of the Warrior Cop is directly correlated with centralization of power and the influence of police unions over politics and public spending.
> Drug cartels are on the decline.

Are you just saying that because weed is being legalized?

Economic inequality sure isn't in decline, and there are a lot of 18-24 year old uneducated men out there with nothing to lose. The turmoil in places like Venezuela and Colombia leaves power voids that cartels step in to fill.

Look at the southern border.

The person you replied to did make a claim with no evidence, but so did you. What about the southern border, do you have a reliable citation for something bad happening there compared to 10, 20, 30, 40 years ago?
It's also correlated with the change from the US military Soldier's creed, to the "Warrior ethos" [0].

The differences are quite interesting: The soldier swears to always act in ways creditable to the service and the nation, recognizing it as a honored profession not to be disgraced.

While for the warrior the mission always comes first. Honor, credibility, disgrace? Not even in the vocabulary, replaced with "deploy, engage and destroy the enemies of the US, in close combat".


Radley Balko[1] has been reporting on that kind of thing for years. It's quite disheartening.


So the agency stockpiled arms neither for the purposes of fighting crime nor for any drug-dealing or nefarious state-overthrow activity but effectively as a kind of entertainment or a sort of fantasy that they'd be acting like the cops they saw on TV.

And here, it may seem strange but is actually logical that the thinking of real cops who don't shoot it out everyday seems to be driven by the images of TV cops who do.

This book is relevant here.

It's true that local police have become much more militarized over the past decade or two. Trickle-down military-industrial complex, so to speak.

Radley Balko is a writer who's covered the issue thoroughly:

I just think it's pretty clear by now that the primary driving factor for police criminality becoming a political issue is that very many members of the socio-economic underclass now have internet-connected video cameras on them at all times.

I think the book "the rise of the warrior cop" explains that how the police does their job in the US has changed and why. It gave pretty satisfying answers as to why it's become what it is now.

er, they're getting skewered in the media. United is paying the price for their mistake.

If they're regulated, next time they drag someone off a plane, they'll say "We were just following the handbook and were in accordance with federal regulations. Take it up with the FAA"

So no, no need to regulate the industry.

Also, the body you want to regulate them (the government) routinely does much, much worse to people.[0]



There's more volatility in the stock to be sure, but I wouldn't call this "paying the price for this mistake" according to public perception just yet. I don't know airlines well enough, but if I were going to take a position, it'd be long. The initial dip in the stock price tapered off, and the current price in pre-market trading has reached parity with 4/7 despite the relative increase in volatility.

Aside from market perception, I don't think UAL is going to lose much in sales (I'd love to be proven wrong though!). Airlines do not seem to really need to compete or differentiate themselves in customer service to be profitable.

These controversies have an impact on the stock price that is like the "villain of the week" impact on a show's overall plot - it's entertaining this week, but next week no one is going to care.

Arguably, while it was United's policies that got the police involved, it was the police that did the bloodying. It's a prime example of government abuse of physical and legal power, and Chicago is apparently reviewing the whole situation to verify the officers acted in accordance with policy.

I agree; hard to see precisely how more government intervention should have been expected to fix this.

Clear regulation stating that a passenger may not be forced to leave for any but safety reasons once they're seated, rather than leaving it up to a contract, and providing sufficient funding to whichever organization enforces that regulation?

One of the more promising candidates for the cause of such great expense for various services and projects in the US versus other (generally more-regulation-heavy and more-worker-friendly) OECD states, as recently discussed on here (following a Slate Star Codex post on the topic) is the risk/expense of relying so heavily on contracts and lawsuits to sort out this kind of stuff on a case-by-case basis rather than simply stating that things will be a certain way through regulation, removing (or at least greatly reducing) the uncertainty.

If you're interested in how this kind of thing happens (and alarmingly how often it happens), this book is an excellent read:

In my opinion you're viewing this from the opposite angle (bottom-up versus top-down).

To me, much of the root cause (it's not just black males per se; think of all the dogs shot mostly unnecessarily by police for instance -- is the over-aggressive militarization of the American police force. Which occurred for many reasons, but primarily was due to various moral panics such as the "war on drugs", and the need of our oversized military industry to dispose of excess military equipment. (See Balko's book on this:

Ultimately, the problem I can see with such policies is that the "war" paradigms too many police departments are obsessed with divide people between The Good Guys and The Enemy. The police force should be about community first (protect and serve etc.). But when the motif is more Good Guys vs. The Enemy, this probably does allow things like racial bias to play an oversized role. And when the motif is more War War War, it probably encourages hair-trigger responses.

In my opinion, American police violence (and we do IMHO have the most over-aggressive culture of any rich world nation I've seen) won't be fixed until this attitude changes. This is less a police officer issue (officers can be trained to any culture) and more of the type of culture encouraged at a legislative level.

I think they're two sides of the same coin.

An overly aggressive and militarized culture will tend to attract those with a penchant for violence and an excess of testosterone, while those with thug-like attitudes will tend to create an aggressive culture and to advocate for more military equipment/training.

Their number one job is not to kill anybody innocent, and they are terrible at it.


> Their number one job is not to kill anybody innocent

No, that's what you want their number one job to be. Their number one job is to punch the clock and claim their pension. I relate it to the phrase "to protect and serve." The words "protect" and "serve" are nowhere in the job description for police officer. The motto was devised by the LAPD in the 50s, probably for PR reasons.

great book.
I think this should be taken a little bit farther, and we should say that their number one job is not to kill anybody at all. Sometimes they have to, but it's not acceptable just because the person they kill is guilty of a crime, even a heinous crime. Killing should only happen when it is the only possible way to stop an imminent life-threatening situation. Any use of lethal force should be viewed as a great failure, even if it may sometimes be a necessary one. Even if one believes in the death penalty, killing as punishment should only be carried out by the justice system after a fair trial.
People tend to forget that the job of the police is to apprehend not punish. Punishment is of course for the courts.
Amen. I would go as far to say Police should serve and protect lives, period, including, if not most importantly, those they arrest. Unfortunately being a gun society is likely what makes this impossible. There is a kill or be killed mentality. If the worst weapon we had was kunf-fu we'd hire Jet Li and be done (though he does appear to dodge bullets).
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