Review: Rise of the Warrior Cop, by Radley Balko

Russ Allbery eagle at
Sun Jul 26 19:22:49 PDT 2020

Rise of the Warrior Cop
by Radley Balko

Publisher: PublicAffairs
Copyright: 2013
ISBN:      1-61039-212-4
Format:    Kindle
Pages:     336

As the United States tries, in fits and starts, to have a meaningful
discussion about long-standing police racism, brutality, overreach,
corruption, and murder, I've realized that my theoretical understanding
of the history of and alternative frameworks for law enforcement is
woefully lacking. Starting with a book by a conservative white guy is
not the most ideal of approaches, but it's what I already had on hand,
and it won't be the last book I read and review on this topic. (Most of
my research so far has been in podcast form. I don't review those here,
but I can recommend Ezra Klein's interviews with Ta-Nehisi Coates, Paul
Butler, and, most strongly, sujatha baliga.)

Rise of the Warrior Cop is from 2013 and has had several moments of
fame, no doubt helped by Balko's connections to the conservative and
libertarian right. One of the frustrating facts of US politics is that
critiques of the justice system from the right (and from white men) get
more media attention than critiques from the left. That said, it's a
generally well-respected book on the factual history of the topic, and
police brutality and civil rights are among the points on which I have
stopped-clock agreements with US libertarians.

This book is very, very libertarian.

In my callow youth, I was an ardent libertarian, so I've read a lot of
US libertarian literature. It's a genre with its own conventions that
become obvious when you read enough of it, and Rise of the Warrior Cop
goes through them like a checklist. Use the Roman Republic (never the
Roman Empire) as the starting point for any political discussion,
check. Analyze the topic in the context of pre-revolutionary America,
check. Spend considerable effort on discerning the opinions of the US
founders on the topic since their opinions are always relevant to the
modern world, check. Locate some point in the past (preferably before
1960) where the political issue was as good as it has ever been, check.
Frame all changes since then as an erosion of rights through government
overreach, check. Present your solution as a return to a previous era
of respect for civil rights, check. Once you start recognizing the
genre conventions, their prevalence in libertarian writing is almost

The framing chapters therefore leave a bit to be desired, but the meat
of the book is a useful resource. Starting with the 1970s and its use
as a campaigning tool by Nixon, Balko traces a useful history of the
war on drugs. And starting with the 1980s, the number of cites to
primary sources and the evidence of Balko's own research increases
considerably. If you want to know how US police turned into military
cosplayers with body armor, heavy weapons, and armored vehicles, this
book provides a lot of context and history.

One of the reasons why I view libertarians as allies of convenience on
this specific issue is that drug legalization and disgust with the war
on drugs have been libertarian issues for decades. Ideologically honest
libertarians (and Balko appears to be one) are inherently skeptical of
the police, so when the police overreach in an area of libertarian
interest, they notice. Balko makes a solid argument, backed up with
statistics, specific programs, legislation, and court cases, that the
drug war and its accompanying lies about heavily-armed drug dealers and
their supposed threat to police officers was the fuel for the growth of
SWAT teams, no-knock search warrants, erosion of legal protections for
criminal defendants, and de facto license for the police to ignore the
scope and sometimes even the existence of warrants.

This book is useful support for the argument that fears for the safety
of officers underlying the militarization of police forces are
imaginary. One telling point that Balko makes repeatedly and backs with
statistical and anecdotal evidence is that the police generally do not
use raid tactics on dangerous criminals. On the contrary, aggressive
raids are more likely to be used on the least dangerous criminals
because they're faster, they're fun for the police (they provide an
adrenaline high and let them play with toys), and they're essentially
risk-free. If the police believe someone is truly dangerous, they're
more likely to use careful surveillance and to conduct a quiet arrest
at an unexpected moment. The middle-of-the-night armed break-ins with
battering rams, tear gas, and flash-bangs are, tellingly, used against
the less dangerous suspects.

This is part of Balko's overall argument that police equipment and
tactics have become untethered from any realistic threat and have
become cultural. He traces an acceleration of that trend to 9/11 and
the resulting obsession with terrorism, which further opened the spigot
of military hardware and "special forces" training. This became a point
of competition between police departments, with small town forces that
had never seen a terrorist and had almost no chance of a terrorist
incident demanding their own armored vehicles. I've encountered this
bizarre terrorism justification personally; one of the reasons my local
police department gave in a public hearing for not having a policy
against shooting at moving vehicles was "but what if terrorism?" I
don't believe there has ever been a local terrorist attack.

SWAT in such places didn't involve the special training or dedicated
personnel of large city forces; instead, it was a part-time duty for
normal police officers, and frequently they were encouraged to practice
SWAT tactics by using them at random for some otherwise normal arrest
or search. Balko argues that those raids were more exciting than normal
police work, leading to a flood of volunteers for that duty and a
tendency to use them as much as possible. That in turn normalizes
disconnecting police tactics from the underlying crime or situational

So far, so good. But despite the information I was able to extract from
it, I have mixed feelings about Rise of the Warrior Cop as a whole. At
the least, it has substantial limitations.

First, I don't trust the historical survey of policing in this book.
Libertarian writing makes for bad history. The constraints of the genre
require overusing only a few points of reference, treating every
opinion of the US founders as holy writ, and tying forward progress to
a return to a previous era, all of which interfere with good analysis.
Balko also didn't do the research for the historical survey, as is
clear from the footnotes. The citations are all to other people's
histories, not to primary sources. He's summarizing other people's
histories, and you'll almost certainly get better history by finding
well-respected historians who cover the same ground. (That said, if
you're not familiar with Peel's policing principles, this is a good

Second, and this too is unfortunately predictable in a libertarian
treatment, race rarely appears in this book. If Balko published the
same book today, I'm sure he would say more about race, but even in
2013 its absence is strange. I was struck while reading by how many
examples of excessive police force were raids on west coast pot farms;
yes, I'm sure that was traumatic, but it's not the demographic I would
name as the most vulnerable to or affected by police brutality. West
coast pot growers are, however, mostly white.

I have no idea why Balko made that choice. Perhaps he thought his
target audience would be more persuaded by his argument if he focused
on white victims. Perhaps he thought it was an easier and less
complicated story to tell. Perhaps, like a lot of libertarians, he
doesn't believe racism has a significant impact on society because it
would be a market failure. Perhaps those were the people who more
readily came to mind. But to talk about police militarization, denial
of civil rights, and police brutality in the United States without
putting race at the center of both the history and the societal effects
leaves a gaping hole in the analysis.

Given that lack of engagement, I also am dubious of Balko's policy
prescriptions. His reform suggestions aren't unreasonable, but they
stay firmly in the centrist and incrementalist camp and would benefit
white people more than black people. Transparency, accountability, and
cultural changes are all fine and good, but the cultural change Balko
is focused on is less aggressive arrest tactics, more use of mediation,
and better physical fitness. I would not object to those things (well,
maybe the last, which seemed odd), but we need to have a discussion
about police white supremacist organizations, the prevalence of spousal
abuse, and the police tendency to see themselves not as public servants
but as embattled warriors who are misunderstood by the naive sheep they
are defending.

And, of course, you won't find in Rise of the Warrior Cop any
thoughtful wrestling with whether there are alternative approaches to
community safety, whether punitive rather than restorative justice is
effective, or whether crime is a symptom of deeper societal problems we
could address but refuse to. The most radical suggestion Balko has is
to legalize drugs, which is both the predictable libertarian position
and, as we have seen from recent events in the United States, far from
the only problem of overcriminalization.

I understand why this book is so frequently mentioned on-line, and its
author's political views may make it more palatable to some people than
a more race-centered or radical perspective. But I don't think this is
the best or most useful book on police violence that one could read
today. I hope to find a better one in upcoming reviews.

Rating: 6 out of 10

Reviewed: 2020-07-26


Russ Allbery (eagle at             <>

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