One of the central themes of my book is that that too many cops today have been conditioned to see the people they serve not as citizens with rights, but as an enemy. My argument is that this battlefield mindset is the product of a generation of politicians telling police that they’re at war with things — drugs, terrorism, crime, etc. — and have then equipped them with the uniforms, tactics, weapons, and other accoutrements of war.
Over the last several days, the popular online police magazine PoliceOne site has been rolling out a series of opinion pieces in response to my book. As you might expect, most of them are critical, although a couple have been thoughtful.
One essay by Sgt. Glenn French was particularly disturbing. French serves as commander of a SWAT team in Sterling Heights, Michigan. French doesn’t criticize me for arguing that too many police officers have adopted this battlefield mindset. Rather, he embraces the combat mentality, and encourages other cops to do the same. Referring to an article I wrote here at HuffPost, French writes:
“What would it take to dial back such excessive police measures?” the author wrote. “The obvious place to start would be ending the federal grants that encourage police forces to acquire gear that is more appropriate for the battlefield. Beyond that, it is crucial to change the culture of militarization in American law enforcement.”
We trainers have spent the past decade trying to ingrain in our students the concept that the American police officer works a battlefield every day he patrols his sector.
Note the choice of words. Not neighborhood, but “sector.” Although I suppose such parsing isn’t even necessary when French just comes right out and declares America a battlefield. Note too that French isn’t even referring to SWAT teams, here. He’s suggesting that all cops be taught to view the streets and neighborhoods they patrol in this way.
French then tosses out some dubious statistics.
The fact is, more American police officers have died fighting crime in the United States over the past 12 years than American soldiers were killed in action at war in Afghanistan. According to ODMP.org, 1,831 cops have been killed in the line of duty since 2001. According to iCasualties.org, the number of our military personnel killed in action in Afghanistan is 1,789.
Cops on the beat are facing the same dangers on the streets as our brave soldiers do in war.
Even accepting French’s preposterous premise here, his numbers are wrong. The U.S. has lost 2,264 troops in Afghanistan, about 22 percent more than French claims. Moreover, more than half police officer deaths since 2001 were due to accidents(mostly car accidents), not felonious homicide. Additionally, depending on how you define the term, there are between 600,000 and 800,000 law enforcement officers working in the United States. We have about 65,000 troops in Afghanistan. So comparing overall fatalities is absurd. The rates of cops killed versus soldiers killed aren’t even close. And that’s not factoring in the soldiers who’ve come home without limbs. The dangers faced by cops and soldiers in Afghanistan aren’t remotely comparable.
As I’ve pointed out before, the actual homicide rate for cops on the job, while higher than that in the country as a whole, is still lower than the rate in about half of the larger cities in America. If cops on the beat face “the same dangers on the streets as our brave soldiers do in war,” so does everyone who lives in Boston, Atlanta, or Dallas.
That is why commanders and tactical trainers stress the fact that even on the most uneventful portion of your tour, you can be subjected to combat at a moment’s notice.
I think French’s choice of words in this passage speaks for itself.
What is it with this growing concept that SWAT teams shouldn’t exist? Why shouldn’t officers utilize the same technologies, weapon systems, and tactics that our military comrades do?
We should, and we will.
Again, it’s hard to even respond to this. You’re either alarmed to hear this kind of language from a domestic police officer, or you aren’t. And if you aren’t, I don’t think there’s much I can write to convince you otherwise. I highlight it here only to point out that it is indeed a domestic police officer who wrote this. I’ve been criticized at times for making the argument that too many cops in America today see their jobs in this way — that I’m exaggerating when I write or say that some cops see American streets as war zones. Well, here it is.
Black helicopters and mysterious warriors exist. They are America’s answer to the evil men that the anti-SWAT crowd wouldn’t dare face.
The second sentence is undoubtedly true. I’m not opposed to SWAT teams. When used properly — to defuse an already violent situation, where lives are at risk — they perform marvelously. I am opposed to using them to raid organic farms in response to nuisance violations, or to storm animal shelters to kill baby deer. Or, more to the point, to serve search warrants on people suspected of consensual drug crimes, the reason for the vast majority of the 100+ SWAT raids conducted each day in America.
One could argue that French is merely one cop, and there’s no evidence that his essay, alarming as it may be, is representative of any significant percentage of law enforcement officials. The problem is that his essay appeared on PoliceOne, one of the most popular police destinations on the Internet. It’s a part of a series of essays that the editors of that site chose to run in response to my book. If French’s perspective isn’t representative of a significant portion of law enforcement, it’s difficult to see why PoliceOne would have chosen to run it. At the very least, the editors don’t appear to have found it objectionable enough to exclude from the series.
It’s also worth noting that French trains other police officers. He has also written a book on policing. So his perspective and approach to the job is getting passed on to other officers. Moreover, there’s ample anecdotal evidence that plenty of other law enforcement officials share his perspective. Here, for example, is the sheriff of Clayton County, Georgia in 2008:
“The war on drugs in Clayton County, as in most jurisdictions, I liken it to the Vietnam War,” Hill said. “Hit and miss, there is no clear win — we don’t know if we’re gaining ground or not. What we want to do is we want to change our strategy. We want to make this more like a Normandy invasion.”
Here’s a Milwaukee detective and former SWAT officer writing in National Review a few years ago, chastising Berwyn Heights, Maryland Mayor Cheye Calvo for pushing for reform after his home was invaded and his dogs were killed by a SWAT team in a botched, mistaken raid:
Sorry if Calvo and his mother-in-law were “restrained” for “almost two hours.” Would you rather have them be comfortable for those two hours, and risk officers’ lives and safety? Calvo should be able to understand what the officers did and why they did it.
Municipal police departments do fight a war on the streets of this country daily. This incident should not be considered overkill (to take a word from Reason’s Radley Balko), but sound police tactics.
Here’s Milwaukee Police Chief Ed Flynn, explaining how he will instruct his officers to ignore the state’s gun laws:
“My message to my troops is if you see anybody carrying a gun on the streets of Milwaukee, we’ll put them on the ground, take the gun away and then decide whether you have a right to carry it.”
There are lots of examples like these. The sheriff in Orange County, Florida recently referred to his agency as a “paramilitary organization.” New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg recently referred to NYPD as “the seventh largest army in the world.” I’ve recently written about the disturbing culture of police t-shirts, which dehumanize the citizens they serve and make light of police brutality. (“We get up early, to beat the crowds.”)
Incidentally, a few notes about Sterling Heights, Michigan, where Sgt. French works. According to the city’s website, in 2010, Sterling Heights was rated the safest city in Michigan with a population of 100,000 or more people. It was also named one of the 100 best cities in America to raise a family. In 2008, it had the lowest crime rate of any city in Michigan. From 2005 to 2010 (the last year data was available) it had all of 10 murders, in a city of about 130,000 people. This is the “battlefield” where Sgt. French works. I’d be curious to know what the residents of Sterling Heights would say upon learning that the commander of their city’s SWAT team views each of them more as potential combatants than citizens with rights.
The lead essay for the PoliceOne series on militarization is a review of my book by Lance Eldridge. It’s titled: “Police militarization and rise of the warrior journalist: Radley Balko’s new book on police militarization — and subsequent articles by him and others — signals the radicalization of America’s discourse on civilian law enforcement.”
PoliceOne published an essay by a SWAT leader and police trainer that urges cops to view American streets and neighborhoods as “battlefields,” absurdly claims that working as a cop in America is as dangerous as serving in a war zone in Afghanistan, and says cops should look at the citizens they serve as potential combatants.
Yet it is those of us who find all of this troubling who are the “radicals.”
Radley Balko is a senior writer and investigative reporter for The Huffington Post. He is also the author of the new book, Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces.