The Magazine

Forces in Excess

As always, who will guard the guardians?

Sep 23, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 03 • By MIKE RIGGS
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That’s actually a germane response, considering that it was the War on Drugs that turned SWAT from a Los Angeles phenomenon to a Your Town thing. President Richard Nixon and his advisers realized that drug crime was the only kind of local crime against which the federal government could wage a demonstrable, if largely theatrical, battle. Never mind that even the biggest federal busts represented only a drop in the supply bucket, or that drug users weren’t actually committing the violent crimes of which they were accused: Seized drugs could be stacked for the camera, drug money splayed out like a green, fibrous fan. Figures could be listed in kilos, pounds, thousands, millions. 

Americans came to see the drug trade not just as an explanation for what had happened to great cities but also as a bogeyman to be kept out of their own neighborhoods, whatever the price. And so the executive, legislative, and judicial branches hacked away at the Fourth Amendment, watering down evidentiary requirements and expanding the circumstances under which police could forcibly enter Americans’ homes. Police militarization gained momentum in the 1980s and ’90s, as Congress armed domestic police departments with military surplus, increased the funding for antidrug efforts, and empowered police to seize assets not just of convicted drug offenders but from people remotely associated with crimes yet never charged. 

After 40 years of funding and encouragement from local, state, and federal politicians, it’s understandable that police departments don’t want to cede ground on how much force they can use, and when. But police are too vital to modern society to be allowed to determine, without challenge or supervision, the best way to protect our democracy and preserve order. Moreover, the need for reform is all the more pressing considering how little empirical knowledge has been applied to the militarization experiment, a deficit that’s reflected in the wide array of situations in which police use extreme force. How likely is it that an independent body of legal experts, psychologists, and police veterans would conclude that a charity poker game and a hostage situation merit the same response? 

Radley Balko’s suggestions range from the unlikely (decriminalize drugs) to the sensible (stop sending military surplus to nonmilitary bodies). And insofar as this book is tangentially about the conflicts between policing strategies—police as members of the community versus police as “us” and the communities they police as “them”—he also calls for a return to community policing, which requires cops to be members of their community, to know business owners and school principals and community power brokers. The benefit of this model is that police know the lay of the land, and residents can trust them to mediate without violence. 

It also means relying less on brute force to keep peace. But then, as Balko argues, SWAT teams often introduce violence where previously there had been none. 

Mike Riggs is a staff writer at the Atlantic Cities