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Who watches the watchmen?


The American Revolutionary War was significant for a number of obvious reasons. It expelled the British from the Thirteen Colonies, staged an international conflict, and precipitated the growth of what would become the world’s most powerful nation. Yet the ideas of that struggle are perhaps the most intriguing. Ultimately, it is the American experience under occupation which dictated the United States Constitution and its Bill of Rights.

Save for defining American liberalism, these documents staunchly governed law and order. They ensured, rather optimistically, that the injustices of colonialism would never again be perpetrated on U.S. soil.

Under British rule, general warrants and writs of assistance were an epidemic. Redcoats patrolled the streets, quartered in people’s homes and were afforded the unlimited power to search and seize property at will. Such policing was seen as oppressive. It violated personal liberty, the castle doctrine (defense of habitation law) and obstructed a characteristically American vision of individual freedom.

For nearly a century after independence law enforcement remained outside the hands of the military, instead it was entrusted to localized militias that enforced the rule of law with shunning and social stigmatization. Police was not a noun nor a professional career—it was a verb that meant to watch over and monitor the public health and safety.

As America’s population grew, so too did its internal strife and subsequent need for organized law enforcement. By the twentieth century, city and state police forces were ubiquitous.

Today there are over 14,000 law enforcement agencies in the United States employing three quarters of a million officers. The scope of the law, and its role, has changed. Instead of integrating with and protecting communities, police forces have responded to symbolic threats, government policy and abstracted fears of drug use and terrorism to launch a war on the American public. In other words, cops have become fragmentary appendages of the national security apparatus, fluttering dangerously at the boundaries of the Constitution.

In Rise of the Warrior Cop, author and journalist Radley Balko sketches a trajectory of this transformation. Importantly, he asks, “Are today’s police forces consistent with the principles of a free society?” If not, the United States has become a police state writ small: a nation in which a violent drug war has fixed law enforcement in an antagonistic relationship with citizens and their privacy.

Central to Balko’s analysis is the American ‘experience’ under colonialism, a period which decided the Constitution’s goals to curb government abuse of authority and the influx of militaristic elements in everyday life. A homogenous view of the 18th-century American psyche though it is—many loyalists did not maintain the same desires for independence—Balko asserts that modern police tactics are out of line with the Constitution. Surely, he suggests, fatigue-clad, assault rifle-wielding paramilitary task forces are an excessive means with which to deal with consensual, non-violent infractions or acts of civil disobedience. After all, considering crime rates in the United States are in steady decline, what is the precedent for the over 100 SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics) raids happening each day, many of them in response to petty drug possession?

Balko is culturally progressive and a proven libertarian (he was senior editor at Reason magazine and an analyst for the Cato Institute) yet his analysis is grounded not in a rigid ideological position, but a journalistic perspective invoking statistical, oral and anecdotal correspondence.

From the proliferation of tactical SWAT divisions under the tenure of LAPD Chief Daryl Gates, to Nixon’s real and imagined drug wars of the late–1960s, Balko investigates through deep research and interviews how changing trends in police departments have run parallel with chapters of social unrest (Watts Rebellion, L.A. Riots) and national crisis (the terrorist attacks of 9/11) in American history. He also identifies how federal policy like the Posse Comitatus Act has extended the linkages between the military and law enforcement, equipping regular officers with heavy weapons and armoured vehicles–—the physical and psychological means to instigate violent encounters with suspected criminals.

Especially captivating are Balko’s stories of no-knock raids and warrantless police invasions of the homes of suspected drug dealers. These barbarous operations, partially the result of martial rhetoric and an “us and them” mentality, often result in needless violence against suspects who are either misidentified, or of no real danger to the public.

Warrior Cop is a scathing criticism of militarized policing in the U.S. and the erosion of personal liberty and individual privacy as a result, though it is not without its suggestions for reform. Perhaps conveniently, Balko recommends greater accountability and the scaling back of government grants supplying powerful weapons to local and state police. He doesn’t go much further, but then again, political will is not his focus; rather, it is to expose the hazards of a police state and warn readers of how disturbingly vivid it may become.

Harrison Samphir is an editor, writer and policy analyst based in Toronto. His work has appeared in CBC, Jacobin, NOW Magazine, Huffington Post,, Ricochet, Truthout, and the Winnipeg Free Press, among others. In 2016, he completed an MA in International Relations at the University of Sussex. Harrison has served as Dimension’s web editor since 2014.


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