Saturday, August 24, 2013

It's Not Militarization, It's Piraticization

Radley Balko's book Rise of the Warrior Cop outlines how, in only a few decades, the Fourth Amendment's been gutted, and the military-industrial complex has expanded into the criminal justice system. Between the so-called "wars" on "terror" and "drugs," police departments are buying so much military hardware that the Pentagon set up a special office to funnel materiel from the military to police agencies across the country. This office processes hundreds of millions of dollars in business per year.

The practical upshot is that practically every city of 25,000 people or more, anywhere in the United States, commands at least a small paramilitary police force, and larger cities like Los Angeles and New York control paramilitary forces equivalent in size to small armies, and structured like small armies as well. (By the way, "small" by the standards of a top international superpower like the United States is actually still kind of a lot of people.)

Rise of the Warrior Cop is a terrific book. I think everybody should read it, but that isn't the same as thinking it's correct in everything it says. If you saw the title of this blog post, you already know the big issue I have with Rise of the Warrior Cop: it says that it's about the militarization of the police, but that isn't strictly accurate, in my opinion.

Towards the end of the book, Balko interviews a senior military officer who objects to the term, because police tend to be less well-trained and less disciplined than the military. He also points out that when the American military conducted house-to-house searches in Iraq, as part of the recent war there, the military searches met a higher standard of Fourth Amendment compliance than most police actions in the United States do today.

Last but not least, there's the issue of asset forfeiture. Asset forfeiture gives cops incredible financial incentives to drum up false charges against anyone with valuable property.

You needn’t be found guilty to have your assets claimed by law enforcement; in some states, suspicion on a par with “probable cause” is sufficient. Nor must you be charged with a crime, or even be accused of one. Unlike criminal forfeiture, which requires that a person be convicted of an offense before his or her property is confiscated, civil forfeiture amounts to a lawsuit filed directly against a possession, regardless of its owner’s guilt or innocence.

One result is the rise of improbable case names such as United States v. One Pearl Necklace and United States v. Approximately 64,695 Pounds of Shark Fins. (Jennifer Boatright and Ron Henderson’s forfeiture was slugged State of Texas v. $6,037.) “The protections our Constitution usually affords are out the window,” Louis Rulli, a clinical law professor at the University of Pennsylvania and a leading forfeiture expert, observes. A piece of property does not share the rights of a person. There’s no right to an attorney and, in most states, no presumption of innocence. Owners who wish to contest often find that the cost of hiring a lawyer far exceeds the value of their seized goods.


There's an urban legend that, during the 1980s, trains would pass through Compton in the middle of the night and leave huge crates of assault rifles, pistols, and ammunition. Lurid and provocative though such a story may seem, there's enough research out there to make a serious person wonder. Nonetheless, my personal hope is that it proves an exaggeration.

Either way, however, there's no disputing the evidence raised in Rise of the Warrior Cop that the Federal government's been not just selling military-grade armaments and equipment to police forces throughout the country, but also giving these police forces the cash with which to buy that materiel. The good news is that the Federal government shows a near-total lack of followup, oversight, results, or concern with the lack of results in this matter, and Rise of the Warrior Cop assiduously documents it. That's right: that's the good news. It indicates that this massive, nationwide, systematic weapons-dumping is probably less a totalitarian conspiracy than a confluence of irresponsible, fearmongering politicking with ruthless and equally irresponsible domestic arms dealing.

However, the bad news is that the American criminal justice system has developed a near-total disregard for the Fourth Amendment, and a ridiculously unconstitutional legal framework, called asset forfeiture, which enables cops to simply take things from people with very little restraint. There are rarely any consequences for a police officer who abuses these privileges. Consequently, the criminal justice systems of entire towns -- police, judges, and mayors -- have been implicated in what is essentially highway robbery, not in the idiomatic sense but in the ancient, literal sense.

Rise of the Warrior Cop starts out with the Founding Fathers' historic distaste for, and grudging acceptance of, standing armies. The dangers of standing armies are a very well-known element of classical and European history, and the Founding Fathers were very aware of these dangers and very cautious of them. But what happens when you have both a standing army for the nation as a whole and a motley assortment of standing "armies," one for every city? The so-called "War on Drugs" created a large number of "task forces" which do not even have sufficient oversight that anyone in government can say for sure what they do on a day-to-day basis. These task forces are peppered indiscriminately throughout the country. Some police forces have rejected their new, unconstitutional powers, while most have embraced them, and many have seen serious increases in both corruption and recklessness.

This is not militarization; this is piraticization. It's true that police culture now fetishizes the military, and police departments now use military vocabulary, organizational structures, tactics, vehicles, and weapons. It's true that this is a very surprisingly recent and rapid development. But Rise of the Warrior Cop documents in detail the legal moves which made this possible, and those legal moves are not coherent or well-organized.

America is a very big country, so big that it's probably more honest to describe it as an empire. If you spend time in both Texas and California, for example, it's very hard to believe that the two places are not each distinct countries. Both states have been independent countries in their own right, in the past, and probably will become such again, whether it be in fifty years or five hundred. To me, personally, both states feel like different countries today. The difference between meeting a Texan and meeting a Californian is not as intense as the difference between meeting a French person vs. meeting a German, but it's easily more intense than the contrast between meeting an American vs. meeting a Canadian, or meeting an Australian vs. meeting a New Zealander.

Militarization would, to me, imply that the newly and excessively empowered police departments throughout the nation would be capable of unified military action. It would also imply a unity of purpose. But when you have a whole bunch of people who do have weapons, but don't have cohesion or any real strategic thinking, and the training they receive is shallow, that doesn't sound military to me. Most military action involves attacking people who intend to fight back; most "militarized" police action involves large numbers of heavily armed police using extraordinary violence against small numbers of unarmed people. That's less warrior and more thug.

Add in the asset forfeiture factor and what you have is a huge number of piratical "police" forces. I don't think they're a military, and I don't think they could ever become a military, at least not on a national scale. I could see a future Texan Caesar rallying Texan police/pirates around some warlike impulse -- I think anyone who's been to Texas understands this -- but it's hard to imagine their Californian counterparts joining the cause.

I also favor the term piraticization over militarization because militarizing the police implies order, and the changes Blako documents in his book are more chaotic. For instance, one major risk of standing armies is the military coup. An antidrug task force which answers to just about no-one and gets its budget from drug arrests is not going to be qualified to take over a government. That requires organization. But it would be ridiculous to say that there are no risks in having people running around with guns, no oversight, and strong financial incentives to arrest or harass innocent people.

Ever since the fall of the Soviet Union, which seemed too big to fail, I've wondered if America might fall apart too. I'm sorry to say that after reading this book, I'm certain it can, and if it happens, I think it'll be the piraticization of the police which does it. It's easy to imagine that there might one day turn out to be some significant downside in distributing massive amounts of military hardware throughout the country, so that each city has its own little heavily-armed pirate squad.

That's the bad news. The good news is that I highly recommend Rise of the Warrior Cop. It's well-written, well-researched, and even-tempered. It's also the kind of book which can tell you incredibly frightening, infuriating, and sad things without over-inflaming these emotions or callously disregarding them. Considering the provocative, serious, and deeply fucked-up nature of the topic that Rise of the Warrior Cop covers, that's a pretty impressive accomplishment.