Reading the Road Map to a Police State by Aaron Tao, Ludwig Von Mises Institute
Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces, by Radley Balko, PublicAffairs, 2013
“There is no crueler tyranny than that which is perpetuated under the shield of law and in the name of justice.” —Charles de Montesquieu
If there was any silver lining to the horrifying events that took place in Ferguson, Missouri which riled the month of August, it has finally brought the issue of police militarization to the forefront. As outrageous as the police shooting death of unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown was, the brutal law enforcement response in the form of running roughshod over the First Amendment and resorting to quasi-martial law to mostly peaceful protests by local residents and activists was worse. To many observers, what took place in a Midwest suburb was indistinguishable from scenes out of occupied Iraq.
How did this happen? For an answer, the writings of investigative journalist Radley Balko are an invaluable resource. Perhaps more than any other person, Balko has reported substantially on police militarization and injustice across the country for years.
The full details can be found in his book Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces . This important book, which was recently released in its paperback edition, could not have arrived at a better time. Despite going into an intellectually rigorous analysis of law, politics, and history, Balko has a gift for storytelling, which highlights many heartbreaking stories and makes Rise of the Warrior Cop an accessible and gripping read.
In the introduction, Balko begins with the provocative question:
How did we evolve from a country whose founding statesmen were adamant about the dangers of armed, standing government forces — a country that enshrined the Fourth Amendment in the Bill of Rights and revered and protected the age-old notion that the home is a place of privacy and sanctuary — to a country where it has become acceptable for armed government agents dressed in battle garb to storm private homes in the middle of the night — not to apprehend violent fugitives or thwart terrorist attacks, but to enforce laws against nonviolent, consensual activities?
In the first chapter, Balko traces classical history and its lessons on America’s Founders as well their own experiences under British rule. As students of the Enlightenment, they were familiar with how the Roman Republic was overthrown by ambitious military leaders and how the Praetorian Guard in the Empire era, which not only acted as bodyguards for the emperor but also took on many policing roles as well, was responsible for much political intrigue and instability. In the lead-up to the American Revolution, British authorities used the hated writs of assistance to enforce tax laws and to crackdown on contraband in the colonies. This type of general warrant allowed for authorities to “search broad groups of people, for evidence of any number of crimes, sometimes over long stretches of time.” As bad as they were, Balko noted that in contrast to what police can do today, the writs of assistance could not be exercised at night and they required a knock-and-announcement before entry into a private home. Finally, it was the deployment of British soldiers to enforce the law that brought long-simmering tensions to a boil. After the Revolutionary War, with these abuses still fresh on their minds, the Founders framed and ratified a Constitution with a Bill of Rights.
The Fourth Amendment, in particular, was written explicitly to prohibit general warrants and to reinforce the Castle Doctrine, an even older principle carried over from the British common law that can be traced back to antiquity. The Castle Doctrine simply reinforces the timeless idea that “a man’s home is his castle.” As explained by Balko:
Implicit in the sentiment is not only the right to repel criminal intruders but also the idea that the state is permitted to violate the home’s sanctity only under limited circumstances, only as a last resort, and only under conditions that protect the threshold from unnecessary violence. Thus, before entering without permission, government agents must knock, announce and identify themselves, state their purpose, and give the occupants the opportunity to let them in peacefully. … The announcement requirement under English law was not a formality, as it has become in police raids today. It was elemental. Its purpose was to give the homeowner the opportunity to avoid violence, distress, and the destruction of his property.
Balko also goes into interesting detail regarding the Third Amendment, the “runt piglet of the Bill of Rights,” which contains the seemingly antiquated provision that prohibits the quartering of soldiers in private homes. The case law pertaining to the amendment is scant but Balko asks us to consider why the Founders placed such an importance on it. Read in light of the Castle Doctrine, it makes sense that those who revere the principle that “a man’s home is his castle” would not tolerate their homes being occupied by soldiers. But most importantly, “the amendment was a placeholder for the broader aversion to a standing army. … It represented a long-standing, deeply ingrained resistance to armies patrolling American streets and policing American communities.”
Until the Civil War and Reconstruction, active duty troops were rarely if ever used for domestic law enforcement. In the early American republic, law enforcement was left mostly in private hands. Close-knit communities with shared values relied mostly on social stigma and shaming to maintain order. Professional full-time prosecutors didn’t exist, and it fell upon crime victims themselves to initiate the charges before a grand jury, a panel of private citizens who had the power to indict. The citizen militia was called out for only the worst cases that required force. But as urbanization advanced and an increasingly diverse population grew, it brought the need for changes.
One particularly interesting historical fact noted by Balko is that after the fall of Rome, centralized metropolitan police forces were not to be formed for almost another two millennia. In places that developed strong civil liberties traditions such as England and the American republic, people remained suspicious of standing armies, martial law, and powerful executives. In the United States, the New York Police Department (NYPD) was not formed until 1845. Modeled after London’s famous “bobbies,” political leaders had to wage major public relations campaigns to win over the trust of citizens. Major efforts were taken to distinguish the police from soldiers, and to ensure they were responsive to elected officials and the public. But in many jurisdictions, the police became a little too responsive to politicians, acted as corrupt henchmen for anyone who won office, and oppressed minorities and outsiders. The issue of police corruption was serious enough that it became a plank in the progressive movement by the early twentieth century. Reformers introduced the concept of professionalism which “transformed the job of police officer from a perk of patronage to a formal profession with its own standards, specialized knowledge, and higher personnel standards and entry requirements.” Although it helped address the problem of corruption, this new