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How Police Became a Standing Army

On July 15, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) sent 13 law-enforcement officers to execute a paramilitary raid on a no-kill animal shelter in Kenosha. The crime? The shelter was harboring a fawn that had been abandoned by its mother and named Giggles by shelter volunteers. The shelter intended to turn the animal over to a wildlife reserve the next day, but that was not good enough for the DNR. Wisconsin law forbids the possession of wildlife, so DNR sent the heavily armed team to capture and euthanize Giggles.

Eleven days later and less than 100 miles away, staff at a nursing home in the Chicago suburb of Park Forest called paramedics after 95-year-old World War II veteran John Wrana, suffering from a delusional episode, refused medical treatment. The paramedics in turn called the police, which further agitated Wrana, who threatened them with his cane and a knife. The police responded by shooting Wrana with stun guns and bean bags fired from a shotgun. Wrana died from internal bleeding shortly thereafter.

A generation ago, it is unlikely that either of these situations would have elicited such a violent response from law enforcement. But over the last 40 years, police have moved steadily towards increasing levels of force and militarization with little regard for the situation. Journalist Radley Balko has been documenting this phenomenon for nearly a decade, and in Rise of the Warrior Cop he explains how America has been transformed into a country where police conduct something on the order of 50,000 SWAT raids a year.

Balko starts with the provocative proposition that police as we know them in modern America are unconstitutional. “The Founders and their contemporaries would probably have seen even the early-nineteenth-century police forces as a standing army, and a particularly odious one at that,” Balko writes. “Just before the American Revolution, it wasn’t the stationing of British troops in the colonies that irked patriots in Boston and Virginia; it was the England’s decision to use the troops for everyday law enforcement.”


Balko links that decision to the oft forgotten Third Amendment, which forbids the quartering of troops in Americans’ homes against their will during peacetime. The Third Amendment is rarely litigated, and the Supreme Court has never heard a case primarily concerning the amendment, but Balko argues that it was included in the Bill of Rights out of a larger concern that a standing army could be used for the purposes of enforcing the law. “The actual quartering of British troops in the private homes of colonists was rare…It was the predictable fallout from positioning soldiers trained for warfare on city streets, among the civilian populace, and using them to enforce law and maintain order that enraged colonists.”

Balko calls this “more robust expression of the threat that standing armies pose to free societies” the “Symbolic Third Amendment.” He spends the vast majority of the book documenting how that concern has been whittled away by overeager cops, deferential judges, and politicians seeking to bolster their law and order credentials.

During Prohibition, some particularly zealous drys such as Henry Ford encouraged the federal government to use the military enforce the ill-conceived law. But the country repealed Prohibition before direct militarization of law enforcement—“the use of the standing military for domestic policing”—was ever seriously considered.

The trend towards police militarization did not begin in earnest until the 1960s, when law enforcement struggled with civil unrest and cracked down on the drugs associated with political dissidents and the counterculture. It also crept in subtly through “indirect militarization,” when domestic law enforcement agencies “take on more and more characteristics of an army.” That phenomenon can largely be traced to longtime Los Angeles Chief of Police Daryl Gates, who founded America’s first SWAT team.

Gates saw the weaknesses in the department’s response to the Watts Riots and a shootout with a sniper shortly thereafter. In his autobiography, Gates writes that he would have to “devise another method for dealing with snipers or barricaded criminals other than our usual indiscriminate shooting.” He formed an elite unit he called D-Platoon and arranged for them to train with Marines from Camp Pendleton at the Universal Studios lot.

The SWAT team was deployed for the first time in December 1969 to raid the Los Angeles headquarters of the Black Panthers. The operation did not go as planned. The team attempted to enter via the backdoor, which was blocked by a pile of dirt from an escape tunnel the Panthers had dug. That blew the officers’ cover and forced them to approach the front door, behind which the heavily-armed Panthers sat waiting. The Panthers opened fire and drove the SWAT team out of the building, beginning a three-hour standoff in which over 5,000 rounds of ammunition were fired.

Gates eventually asked Los Angeles Mayor Sam Yorty to request permission from the Department of Defense to fire a grenade into the building. Balko notes that this story is remarkable not because police used a grenade launcher in a city setting but because of “the procedures, the caution, and the trepidation that went into procuring the grenade launcher. About twenty years later, the Pentagon would begin giving away millions of pieces of military equipment to police departments across the country for everyday use—including plenty of grenade launchers.”

Miraculously, the raid on the Panther compound ended without any fatalities. Despite the tactical failure of the operation, it was a major media coup and brought a great deal of attention to the idea of SWAT.

The perceived success of the Los Angeles SWAT team in the Panther raid and in a shootout with the Symbionese Liberation Army in 1974 led to swift proliferation of SWAT teams in major cities across America, totaling 500 by 1975. These teams were originally staffed by elite specialists who trained to negotiate and de-escalate potentially violent situations whenever possible. But as the teams increased in number and spread into smaller cities, departments began staffing them with officers who participated in the SWAT team part-time and cut back on training that did not involve the use of force.

Heavily armed terrorist groups and hostage situations are not nearly as common as television would lead us to believe, so departments began deploying their SWAT teams for more routine work. As Balko puts it, “just about every decent-sized city police department was armed with a hammer. And the drug war would ensure there were always plenty of nails around for pounding.”

For instance, the drug war turned very literal in the summer of 1983, when drug czar Carlton Turner and California attorney general John Van de Kamp called in the National Guard to eradicate marijuana in Humboldt County. The federal government sent helicopters and even U-2 spy planes to spot pot plants in the Northern California forests, and officers enforcing the eradication program went from house to house, kicking in doors and searching the residences without warrants.

Meanwhile, the courts used the drug war to chip away at the protection that warrants once gave to Americans’ Fourth Amendment right to be secure in their persons and houses from unreasonable search and seizure. When serving a warrant, law-enforcement officers were traditionally required to knock and announce themselves and give residents time to allow them entry before the police could resort to breaking down the door. But in the 2003 decision United States v. Banks, the Supreme Court ruled that the primary concern should not be the amount of time residents would reasonably need to answer the door, but how much time it might take for them to start disposing of the evidence of drugs. That ruling effectively gave police the power to serve every drug warrant as if they were taking down Pablo Escobar.

With essentially no judicial checks on their behavior, the number of SWAT teams and raids continued to grow. By 2005, approximately 80 percent of towns with a population between 25,000 and 50,000 people employed their own SWAT team. Even seemingly innocuous federal bureaucracies such as the Department of Education, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the Consumer Product Safety Commission had created their own tactical teams.

Given the number of SWAT raids executed every year, tragedies like the ones described at the beginning of this review are now inevitable. But Balko offers some suggestions for how to reverse the trend towards militarization and return SWAT teams to their limited role of responding to inherently violent situations.

Many of Balko’s policy recommendations are almost as infuriating as the problems he identifies—not because they are wrong but because they are such obvious safeguards that it is difficult to fathom how they are not already in place. For instance, Balko suggests that SWAT teams should not be used for regulatory inspections. Police departments should also record any raids they conduct and document how many involve diversionary devices, such as flash-bang grenades, and what evidence is found, then make that information available to the public.

“If these tactics are going to be used against the public,” Balko writes, “the public at the very least deserves to know how often they’re used, why they’re used, how often things go wrong, and what sort of results the tactics are getting.” We would not tolerate this sort of opacity from a city utility company, yet it is the norm for bureaucracies that have the power to break into our homes with automatic weapons.

The biggest reform Balko proposes is ending the drug war, which he thinks will never completely happen. That may be true, but it is surprising that he does not mention the 2012 legalization of marijuana in Colorado and Washington, which may set off a potentially rapid trend towards legalization elsewhere. Such a massive policy change could conceivably herald a thorough rethinking of drug policy as a whole in the not-so-distant future.

The later chapters of the book contain a large amount of material that Balko published previously in magazines or online, and, although the content is just as strong, the narrative becomes choppier. The subject of the book is so immense, and many of the individual stories so compelling, that Balko could easily have written a book twice as long.

That is, of course, praise disguised as criticism. Rise of the Warrior Cop diagnoses a grave threat to our constitutional rights. If Americans still possess the wisdom of our Founders, we will heed Balko’s warning and turn back our drift towards a police state.

John Payne is the executive director of Show-Me Cannabis and lives in St. Louis, Missouri.

62 Comments (Open | Close)

62 Comments To "How Police Became a Standing Army"

#1 Comment By Mark Cleary On January 5, 2014 @ 10:12 pm

Never ever have any sort of voluntary contact with the Stasi……ever. Avoid them as just as you would any private enterprise scum thug or vicious wild animal for that matter.

#2 Comment By Adam On January 6, 2014 @ 4:13 pm

Dynamic entries are also an occupational safety issue for police. Google “Basil Parasiris” to see what can happen, and what the courts say, even in gun-controlled Canada.

Police have drifted far away from Peelian principles, and the blame rests from right to left. Conservatives often fetishize Dirty Harry cops, and complain that suspected criminals have too many rights. Progressives also put public safety and expediency above civil rights as well, only their bogeymen are different (e.g., David Koresh-type militias, rather than suspected drug dealers). And everybody is cheering the Bush-Obama snoop machine and suspension of civil rights, or things like the guilty-as-charged impaired driving legislation in Canadian Provinces like Alberta and BC. Unless people in the Western World reign in their police and security machinery, the future will resemble the country in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil.

#3 Comment By Adam On January 6, 2014 @ 4:22 pm

John Payne,

I, too, am not a pot-smoker. I have never even tried the stuff, as the smell was more effective than any Reefer Madness propaganda for me. (I have never tried Limburger cheese, either, for the same reason.) But it’s time to be sensible and admit that marijuana prohibition has been a costly failure that is utterly unenforceable, and diminished respect for the law. It is also wasting valuable law enforcement resources, that could be used for other things. It will be interesting to see how the Colorado experiment plays out.

#4 Comment By Elder Sign On January 7, 2014 @ 1:56 pm

In essence conservatives discovered what any progressive could have told you back in the late 1980s if not earlier – the issue became salient because property rights of the middle class have become the target of policies whose original victims were the non-white, poor and/or marginalized.

#5 Comment By Brian A. Cobb On January 7, 2014 @ 7:41 pm

The 1985 firebombing of MOVE (Philadelphia), the takedown of the SLA in Los Angeles (1974)…don’t think things were so great a generation ago (or two).

#6 Comment By Jaylib On January 8, 2014 @ 1:08 am

Elder Sign: yes.

America has much to repent for, and much of it can be laid at the doorstep of “Christian”-morality-gone-bad — or rather, not Christian but Pharisee morality. I hope we have turned the page on that chapter of American history forever.

#7 Comment By The ghost who never lies On January 11, 2014 @ 4:36 pm

Brian Cobb: Wow, you really want to hold these two groups up as poster children for the over militarization of the police? The SLA was instrumental in starting the first SWAT teams; for good reason. They were an ultra-violent well armed revolutionary group in the heart of a city who basically dared the cops to do what they did. MOVE was a months long example of liberal political dithering by a diffident administration as a middle class neighborhood was occupied and harassed by a millenialist group who also was interested in a showdown with police, even at the cost of their own lives. Also, as far as I know, SWAT was not involved in Philly-most of the destruction was caused by the refusal of the fire department to go into the fray when fired upon. After that it was the Mayor that decided to let it burn out.
Maybe you might want to argue against American militarism by using the example of how badly we treated Hitler and Tojo.

#8 Comment By wts On January 13, 2014 @ 3:58 pm

Proximity is one big reason why more patrol officers have rifles and shotguns (as well as nonlethal options) in their cars or on their person. Most needs for rifles, shotgun and nonlethal options arise very quickly. It’s also why there are SWAT teams and armored trucks in small municipalities. If a serious barricade, hostage or active shooter incident occurs the police can’t wait hours for state or national teams to travel and deploy. These types of incidents occur about as often in small towns and rural areas as they do in large cities proportionate to population. Warrant service is also a challenge for police when the subject is known to be armed, have a violent history and/or has made threats to police. Suicide by cop is another big challenge for poorly equipped officers. These militarization criticisms have some merit and are worth discussing, but the article is very one sided about they benefits and “why” of police tactics and equipment. I think much of the responsibility for heavy handed raids should be placed on police leaders and judges, rather than the tactical teams and patrol cops who double as swat team members.

#9 Comment By Leslie Garrett On January 15, 2014 @ 1:25 pm

This belief in alcohol and democracy is part of the West’s barbarian, northern forest heritage, like their queens and tattoos. Hundreds of millions of Hindus and Muslims do not drink alcohol at all; they regard it as much more dangerous than pot, and they have held these positions, made them a part of written laws since long before Europeans learned to read. People have actually been arrested for stealing pot plants in parts of Nova Scotia. The mounties have gotten tired in rural areas of spending their time on pot cases, when alcohol is at the heart of so much of the violence they see.

#10 Comment By Micah On February 19, 2014 @ 6:43 am

The Ghost writer who never lies, the national guard was placed under the direct control of the governors for domestic military operations, the suppression of riots and the like. Even back in the sixties, this was the case but in modern times with instant communication, the governor can deploy assets as fast or faster than a mayor. These revolutionary groups should have been dealt with by the FBI or via the state government with National guard assets, not local police. Study history, uprisings and seditious activities off much larger scale have happened in our past, the whisky rebellion for example and we didn’t form wet teams in our towns then. A part time mayor in a small town having a hit squad? That is nuts. Imagine, “boss hog” with a private army

#11 Comment By Richard Parker On August 14, 2014 @ 1:20 am

“Why would any one call the cops on delusional old man at a nursing home? Just restrain him and put him in his room.”

Staff are probably trained that only the police are legally allowed to forcibly restrain someone. May be legally true and certainly reduces the chance of lawsuits from ‘Old Crazy Pants’ family.

#12 Comment By Douglas Self On June 18, 2018 @ 3:18 pm

Suggest watching the 1987 film “Robocop”, and take note of what the corrupt CEO of the outfit running the Detroit PD under contract sez to his ‘associate’ (a hoodlum pursued by the cyborg cop)…”Hell…We practically ARE the MILITARY!”.