Balko opens up this book with the statement that it is not an anti-cop book, but rather an anti-politician/ policy book, and he largely maintains that theme throughout.
He starts are far back as before the Norman Conquest of England, showing how law enforcement evolved under the English tradition and common law, the source of the American model. He moves into the colonial period, where he shows how the writs of assistance – and one defense lawyer’s 5 hour courtroom diatribe against them – provoked the colonies to begin openly opposing the Crown. Then he moves through the Civil War and Reconstruction, showing the origins of the Posse Comitatus Act and the beginnings of the “professional” police force. Yes, unlike what many may expect, the modern police force didn’t come into being until less than 150 years ago. Much of this period of the book speaks of direct militarization – using the military as cops.
He then spends the bulk of the book in just the last 50 years or so speaking primarily of indirect militarization – having cops increasingly act, speak, and look like soldiers. The Boston Bombings happened as the book was being printed, so there is no mention of that particular scenario and the now infamous picture of the “cop” in full military gear sitting in the turret of an APC pointing a sniper rifle through a window and having his picture taken from inside the window he was pointing at.
He begins with SWAT and Darryl Gates, then switches back and forth between SWAT and the nascent Drug War, eventually showing how the two became tied to each other. Even at this point in the book, you’re barely 40% in. The raw numbers he cites at the end of each chapter begin to get more and more chilling, and the case studies he illustrates start bad and get worse.
Through it all, he maintains what he said at the beginning: He focuses more on the policies that allow these abuses than the cops themselves, though obviously he names names when speaking of specific abuses. He also highlights men who bucked the trend, such as Norm Stamper and the police chief of DC in the early 70s who was given explicit authority by Congress to use no-knock warrants and refused to do so. He shows that in San Diego, while crime was getting worse in the rest of the country it was actually getting lower there due to their less militant approach to policing. He discusses the SLA shootout and the pop culture, including the show SWAT, and how they led to the proliferation of SWAT units.
In the 1990s chapter, he specifically speaks of the North Hollywood Shootout and Columbine – and shows how that if the SLA raid and North Hollywood Shootout highlighted the strengths of SWAT, Columbine arguably showed them at their worst. It was another situation almost tailor made for SWAT – and SWAT said it was too dangerous for them.
He then spends time on the Battle for Seattle and how Norm Stamper, who defended the actions at the time as Seattle’s police chief, later came to call his decisions there the worst mistake of his career.
Through it all, Balko points out time and time again the truth of the old adage “give an inch and they’ll take a mile”. In his last two chapters, he drives the point home repeatedly that had my grandparents at my age woken up one morning to the America I now live in, there would have been riots in the streets at how (my illustration here) Andy Mayberry had become Judge Dredd.
His recommendations for changing things are solid, though I wish he would have mentioned the organization I have worked with for the past couple of years as well as a newer offshoot – CopBlock.org and InnocentDown.org. The closest he gets is acknowledging the rise of “cop watch” sites and social media as one useful tool in holding police accountable. Through all of his recommendations, he keeps a realistic eye on how likely they are as well as pointing out simple things that could go a long way to restoring at least some balance. While he does indeed address the police culture in at least one of the recommendations, by and large his recommendations all center around the overall theme of changing bad policy.
IMHO, every American citizen needs to read, comprehend, and take action on this book’s recommendations. Together, we can save ourselves, our families, our communities, and complete strangers we’ll never meet on this earth. As cops like to say so often, if it saves a single life, it is worth it.