We have a problem with policing in this country. Hopefully this isn’t a surprise, although many people have only started to notice this since the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson last month. People in many communities, for years, have been more fearful of the police than of the criminals in their communities; this is especially true for black people, who can be shot for having a BB gun, a toy sword, or nothing at all.
Mr. Balko has written a book that unfortunately is all too relevant these days. The book focuses on the problems with the militarization of the police and the culture that sees officers acting as though everyone is the enemy, and it specifically focuses on the drug war and SWAT teams. It has taken me over a month to read (I’ve started and finished two books and about 20 magazines in that time) because it is infuriating. It is well written and well-researched. It is ‘easy’ to read, in that the sentences and paragraphs flow logically, and the book itself is broken down by decade to clearly demonstrate how things have changed. But it is infuriating. I wrote a variation of ‘fuck’ or ‘ew’ on every other page, because each section made me angrier and angrier. Mr. Balko wrote a great, infuriating book, and I wish everyone would read it.
The drug war is ridiculous, but seeing it really spelled out in print, and reading how it is so tied into a culture that seeks bigger and deadlier toys to ‘enforce the law’ made me, and makes me, sick to my stomach. My blood pressure would rise, my pulse would race, and it would take a whole lot of self-control to not just fling the book at a window every couple of pages. Much of this comes from the illustrating stories that point out the times when SWAT teams utterly fuck up. The botched raids are not rare; they are examples of what happens when a group of people gets all the power but has none of the self-awareness to recognize that they are doing something wrong. Shooting dogs in the head, breaking down doors, holding people at gun point without ever announcing who they are. Can you IMAGINE being awoken at midnight by a bunch of people in dark clothes pointing guns and yelling at you? I assume I would pee myself and consider that I was about to be sexually assaulted and then murdered. There is rarely, if ever a need for this kind of use of force, and yet here we are, openly supporting it with federal grants, surplus Pentagon equipment and broken policies.
I live in Seattle, and was here during the WTO riots. Norm Stamper was police chief then, and he wrote a book saying that what the Seattle PD did during those protests – throwing tear gas into crowds, blocking people in – was right. But after his book tour he realized he was so very wrong, and now he realizes that his actions are partly responsible for the devolution of rights of civilians in the face of power-hunger cops. The way the police handled Occupy protests throughout the country was so disappointing; the way some handle the day-to-day operations with quasi-military force to recover a few ounces of marijuana or heroin from non-violent drug offenders should scare the crap out of you.
Are all cops bad? Obviously not. There are some amazing officers doing great work. That isn’t the point of this book. The point is that we’ve passed laws, set policy and created grants that make it easier for police to believe that the law doesn’t apply to them as they seek to enforce the law. That is unacceptable, and we need to speak out and demand some change. Now.