Balko has written a factual catalog of the ‘standing armies’ that have developed out of our local police forces. These forces are by nature badly-trained, over-armed, legally immune and backed by the most powerful class in society. Balko is something of a left libertarian and while not a working-class radical, even he thinks that this development might be irreversible.
Yeah, not pretty. Balko describes dozens of botched SWAT raids on innocent people that included shot dogs, broken-down front doors, guns pointed at the heads of children and old people, and, no surprise, police killing some of those innocent people. The most well-known was a raid in Maryland's Prince Georges County on the home of a mayor, Cheye Calvo. The SWAT team bashed the door in without notification, killed his dogs and tracked their blood all over the home, held guns to everyone’s head, ransacked the home, only later to say that the mayor wasn’t the intended recipient of a package of marijuana that the SWAT team had delivered itself. They never apologized and no cop was held personally responsible. Only the taxpayers of the county, who had to pay the large settlement.
Balko traces the history of the obliteration of the 4th Amendment against ‘unreasonable search and seizure,” the 3rd Amendment against quartering troops in citizen homes, the ‘Castle doctrine” and the Posse Comitatus laws, among others. The “Castle” doctrine comes from English common law, which says that a home is a family’s ‘castle,’ the most private sphere, and hence has special protections from unwarranted invasion. Posse Comitatus laws say the ‘army’ cannot be used against civilians by police authorization, only on authorization of Congress. It limited the use of a standing army on American soil but not the conversion of police into soldiers. The 3rd Amendment also limited the use of a standing army. It was included in the Bill of Rights because of the British Army’s ignoring of this practice in regard to colonists’ homes.
The police did not always exist. Early sheriffs used to deputize neighbors to deal with crimes in post-colonial America. Similar to the present Cuban neighborhood committees, instead of incarceration, forms of ‘equitable justice’ were meted out by male citizens. The first real 8-man police department was set up 175 years ago in Boston, 62 years after independence.
However, the national political language of the ‘war on crime’ revved up in the late 1960s as a response to black uprisings in the ghettos. So really underlying this 'war' is a war on minorities. This war then also became the ‘war on drugs’ and later after 9/11, the ‘war on terror.’ All of these combined with the never-ending ‘culture war’ against hippiedom, black and Latino culture and modernity. Balko clearly shows that these legal developments were thoroughly bi-partisan on the part of both capitalist U.S. parties. Johnson, Nixon, Carter, Reagan, Clinton, the Bushs and now Obama each had a hand in furthering militarization of the police. They have gone from being an ostensible ‘part of society’ into a force ‘over society.’ Marxists have always understood that the armed wing of the state – which includes the police – has never represented the working-class majority in this country. Yet this development in the last 45 years is a large step in the direction of a more oppressive state. Combine this with NSA spying on the U.S. population, a constant stream of racist cop shootings, the militarized wall along the southern border, the largest prison system on the planet and the development of a privatized, non-citizen U.S. military. In all this, we are seeing the structural outlines of a complete police state already in place.
The pieces of this state have been assembled bit by bit, as the ruling class chipped away at legal protections and introduced financial incentives for the police to become more like an occupation army. Balko cites the introduction of the SWAT squad (“Special Weapons and Tactics”) by LA’s Chief of Police Darryl Gates in the late ‘60s as the forerunner of militarization. Now nearly every town of any size has a SWAT squad, even tiny ones of several thousand people. They have been mostly used for serving ordinary drug warrants but also regulatory inspections re liquor, breaking up parties, raiding medical marijuana dispensaries and grow areas, poker games, football pools, medical doctors, music concerts, raves, high schools, massage parlors, strip clubs and whole neighborhoods and towns. As an example, a federal version of the SWAT squad, ODALE, set up under Nixon, made a notorious 1972 raid on an alleged ‘drug lab’ in Humboldt County, California, as described by Joe Esterhaus in Rolling Stone. It found nothing, but cops ended up shooting the resident in the back as he ran from descending military helicopters and police bashing in his door. He was just ‘collateral damage.’ The cops later set up a fake ‘drug lab’ on the property to try to cover their tracks.
The Supreme Court has been key in promoting police militarization. No-knock raids were first authorized under Nixon, and even the knock or announce in ‘knock and announce’ raids were so brief as to be useless. Judicial oversight is nil, and police requests are nearly always rubber-stamped. Exclusionary rules (excluding evidence obtained by cops breaking a law) have been undermined. The National Guard is now allowed to pursue drug arrests, as it has a drug war unit itself. The Guard is not subject to the Posse Comitatus act. Routine forced-entry raids, even police tanks ramming homes with battering rams, were allowed. Use of loud and dangerous ‘flash bang’ grenades were routinely acceptable – notably resulting in a death of a 57-year-old black woman in New York, Alberta Spruill, in a mistaken raid. Warrantless raids are more and more allowed, under more circumstances. Cops in raids gone bad are reviewed by their own supervisors, not an independent entity. As a result, they almost never face consequences of any kind. Clinton had a “Troops to Cops” program, bringing veterans of our various wars into the police departments. Clinton’s ‘one strike and you’re out’ rule - banned those with drug convictions from public housing. Essentially all this has created a ‘drug war’ exception to the 4th Amendment, instead encouraging a militarized response by police.
There is big public and private money in all this. Balko tracks laws or federal entities like Johnson’s LEAA or Reagan’s “Military Cooperation with Law Enforcement” act (enthusiastically backed by Joe Biden) or his “Byrne Grants” or Clinton’s COPS program. They provide federal dollars based on drug arrests to buy military guns, tanks, gear, vehicles, training or receive free, older military equipment from the U.S. military. Or the RICO laws that allowed civil asset forfeiture of any property belonging to a drug suspect. No drug arrests, no moola, which prioritized this kind of ‘crime fighting’ over every other kind. In 2008, Obama/Biden increased the funding for COPS by 250%, to $1.55B. Biden has been one of the long-standing proponents of this policy towards the police. The Department of Homeland Security has increased grants to $34B in ‘anti-terror’ monies, which are further bulking up the police in tiny towns in Idaho destined to fight Al Quaeda. 2011 was the biggest year in Pentagon giveaways to police in history. Military vendors now target police departments.
Balko mentions some of the barriers to this process – the Warren Court, Chief Justice William Brennan, Congressman Sam Ervin and an occasional police chief in San Diego and a few other cities who preferred ‘community policing’ to community attacking. Key has been public outrage when exposed to the crimes and idiocies of these Robo-cops. Yet none of this has swayed the leadership of the Democrats or Republicans to veer away from their various ‘wars.’ Except the ‘war on poverty,’ of course. That was easy for the Congress of Millionaires.
Balko has a list of suggested reforms, starting with ‘opening the books’ of the police regarding SWAT raids. They also include ‘community policing,’ changing police culture, ending the ‘blue code of silence’ where officers cover for each other, ending the drug war, ending the financial incentives to militarize, imposing more civil liability on police officers and ultimately removing politicians who promote these ‘war’ policies. The recent victory in Colorado and Washington State legalizing marijuana is the first break in this massive attempt to criminalize the U.S. population, especially minorities. It is a warning shot over the bow of the centrists and rightists and their kept media who think that the American population is the real enemy. But it came from a civilian movement, not from the Democratic or Republican Party.
Whether burning to death the SLA, Philadelphia’s MOVE or the Branch Davidians in Waco, or assassinating suspected Black Panthers or rightists at Ruby Ridge, the police have made it clear that no one will survive their wrath. The police response to public protests at the 1999 Seattle WTO meetings became a template for ‘protest cages,’ pre-emptive and mass arrests, ‘terror’ charges, journalist detention, rubber bullets, tear gas, flash-bang grenades, sound cannons and Darth Vader gear at every public protest since, including the 2008 RNC here in St. Paul. Law or no law, good tactics or bad, innocent or not, the paramilitary policy is prevailing. The only bar to this is mass resistance and a fundamental change in society. Otherwise, we are heading in the direction of a ‘democratic’ police state. Some even maintain that we are already there.
Other reviews on these topics - “Bad Boys, Bad Boys;” “The New Jim Crow,” “The Wire,” and “Are Prisons Obsolete?” all reviewed below.
P.S. - Salon.com recently had a story on the increasing number of police shootings, which no national database tracks, though it has been mandated by national law in the 1970s. So the killings go on, partially hidden.
And I bought it at May Day Books!
January 23, 2014