The ‘Militarization of Mayberry’


Radley Balko’s “Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces” is must reading for those interested in police reform. Balko is careful to say that his book is not anti-cop — but rather, anti-policy and anti-politician. When politicians pass policies that create strong incentives, you can blame individuals, but you should start with the system.

Balko discusses “no-knock” warrants — like the one used in the Breonna Taylor case. (They started in New York in 1964 and spread to 25 states by 1969.) But his chief focus is SWAT teams — with their armored personnel, military-grade weapons and military training. More broadly, he is concerned about the militarization of the police and the over-use of massive force. One irony is that all of this often makes encounters less safe.

Some of this is probably a bias toward using spectacular force. Balko also argues that police departments felt an intense peer pressure to go along with the trend to militarize. “Soon, 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.” Along those lines, Peter Kraska has documented a “two-decade insurgence of militarism into just about every city and county in America” — what he calls “the militarization of Mayberry.”

None of this is particularly surprising given the underlying federal policy incentives. For example, “civil asset forfeiture” debuted in the 1970s as a powerful motivator to prioritize drug offenses, since law enforcement agencies could keep assets connected to the crimes. These incentives also created perverse outcomes. More focus on drugs meant less emphasis on rape, murder and other crimes. Law enforcement had an incentive to “find” a connection between property and crime. It was better to arrest people in their homes, so that the house could more easily be seized. It was preferable to wait until drugs had been sold, so the confiscated booty was cash rather than drugs.

Other policies also contributed. The military began to sell surplus equipment to the police. The National Guard’s presence was increased and its roles were expanded into standard police activities. Homeland Security introduced more funding and more rationales to militarize. The conflation of border security and the drug war led to more federal military activity in police matters. The drug war also led to the marriage of police and multiple military branches: the Navy intercepted boats that the Coast Guard could search and seize.

The War on Drugs is obviously a significant piece of the puzzle. Nixon and Reagan were the most aggressive in this realm. But Balko notes that this has been thoroughly bipartisan — from LBJ through Obama (except Ford and Carter). Those who wanted a lighter approach had high hopes for Clinton (especially as a former pot smoker). His rhetoric was less inflammatory, but he was still heavy-handed on policy. Obama criticized Bush II for cutting federal police programs and then increased spending by $2 billion in 2009. This served to boost militarization, SWAT teams and multi-jurisdictional anti-drug task forces.

Balko’s book was written before Donald Trump emerged, but Joe Biden is one of its “stars” — easily its most prominent legislator. He commissioned a report that led to increased civil asset forfeiture in the 1980s and authored the resulting bill. He coined the term “drug czar” in 1982. He said Bush I’s drug plan was “not tough enough, bold enough or imaginative enough.” He authored the famous crime bill in 1994 that funded more militarization and drastically increased mandatory sentencing. In 2002, he wrote the RAVE Act, making businesses liable for selling “paraphernalia” used at rave parties (e.g., bottled water and glow sticks). And he was the chief catalyst for Obama’s push on federal police funding.

The public’s fear of criminals has been a key driver in motivating public officials to take action. The GOP has the stronger reputation on crime. Often, however, Democrats felt pressure to go along. Other times, they seemed content to go along — or even to lead the charge. But these beliefs were so prevalent that it’s difficult to aggressively assign blame. If you were opposed to the consensus, you would have been dismissed out of hand.

A pattern of abuses and mistakes has led thoughtful people — especially those responsible for enforcing the system — to reconsider their approaches. And many police leaders have worked to re-emphasize community policing. Balko concludes with a call to reform, laying out policy proposals — from ending the War on Drugs to more modest ideas such as transparency, community policing and accountability.

But unfortunately, high-profile incidents — like George Floyd and Breonna Taylor — are probably necessary to get the public’s attention. Without persistent passion against vested interests such as police unions and the bureaucratic inertia of the status quo, little can be expected to change.

Eric Schansberg, Ph.D., is professor of economics at Indiana University Southeast, adjunct scholar for the Indiana Policy Review Foundation and author of “Poor Policy: How Government Harms the Poor.” Send comments to [email protected].

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