In Rise of the Warrior Cop, Radley Balko takes a look at the current state of policing in these United States and asks "how did we get here?"
How did we come to a point in which police officers wear camouflage gear, carry assault-type weapons and raid houses in tanks? When did the police move from being a part of the community to being an occupation force within the community?
He starts out asking whether there is any Constitutional authority for the police as they exist today. You see, back in the early days of the Republic, there was no organized police force. Yes, there were constables who served process and sheriffs who might raise a posse of able-bodied men; but there were no police departments. And there certainly weren't professional police officers who dressed and acted like soldiers.
Mr. Balko points to the Castle Doctrine and the Third Amendment as two ideas that served to limit the authority of the police. The simplest way to look at the Castle Doctrine is to think of one's home as being inviolate. If the government wants inside your house, they must obtain a warrant from a judge after showing probable cause to believe you are breaking the law. The Third Amendment is a companion notion that says the government can't force you to allow troops to stay in your house or on your property. Oh, but such ideas do get in the way of the government getting its nose all up in your business. And the Right was ready to do something about in 1969.
The origins of the paramilitary forces that patrol our cities trace back to President Nixon and the first so-called War on Drugs. Nixon's proposals to legalize no-knock raids (up that point, with rare exception, when executing a warrant, the police had to knock and announce themselves and give the folks inside the house time to respond) and to suspend bail and suspended sentences marked the beginning of a decades long march to the occupation of our inner cities.
Mr. Balko chronicles the rise of SWAT units throughout the country as well as government garage sales of surplus military equipment to local law enforcement agencies. Much more disturbing is a look at how the police use force and intimidation to serve warrants in drug cases. Why go through the effort of tracking the suspect and arresting him outside his home when you can send in a tank full of paramilitaries to knock down the door, point guns indiscriminately and shoot the family pet all in the name of confiscating a few ounces of marijuana or cocaine? Of course doing some homework - rather than just relying on the words of informants - might prevent the police from busting down the wrong door and scaring the shit out of the wrong family.
We have seen the use of paramilitary police units to quell dissent at international conferences and national political party conventions. And who could ever forget the image of a Cal-Davis police officer wearing full riot gear discharging pepper spray in the faces of college students who were doing nothing more than sitting in front of an administration building during a protest?
By declaring war on this or that our political "leaders" have created a culture by which the police no longer see themselves as part of the community; instead they see themselves at war with the "bad" guys at large. This us-versus-them culture has created a situation in which the use of force is now the default response to a situation instead of a last resort.
We have allowed the occupation of America to thrive over the past four decades. It is time to stop the rising militarization of our law enforcement agencies. It won't be easy to undo what's been built up since the Nixon days but if we don't start now we will reach a point where it's too late.