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How our police became Storm-troopers
Rick Searle   Aug 30, 2014   Utopia or Dystopia  

The police response to protests and riots in Ferguson, Missouri were filled with images that have become commonplace all over the world in the last decade. Police dressed in once futuristic military gear confronting civilian protesters as if they were a rival army. The uniforms themselves put me in mind of nothing so much as the storm-troopers from Star Wars. I guess that would make the rest of us the rebels.

A democracy has entered a highly unstable state when its executive elements, the police and security services it pays for through its taxes, that exist for the sole purpose of protecting and preserving that very community, are turned against it. I would have had only a small clue as to how this came about were it not for a rare library accident.   

I was trying to get out a book on robots in warfare for a project I am working on, but had grabbed the book next to it by mistake. Radley Balko’s The Rise of the Warrior Cop has been all over the news since Ferguson broke, and I wasn’t the first to notice it because within a day or two of the crisis the book was recalled. The reason is that Ferguson has focused public attention on an issue we should have been grappling with for quite some time – the militarization of America’s police forces. How that came about is the story The Rise of the Warrior Cop lays out cogently and with power.

As Balko explains much of what we now take as normal police functions would have likely been viewed by the Founders as “a standing army”, something they were keen to prevent. In addition to the fact that Americans were incensed by the British use of soldiers to exercise police functions, the American Revolution had been inspired in part by the use by the British of “General Warrants” that allowed them to bust into American and search homes in their battle against smuggling. From its beginning the United States has had a tradition of separation between military and police power along with a tradition of limiting police power, indeed, this the reason our constitutional government exists in the first place.

Balko points out how the U.S. as it developed its own police forces, something that became necessary with the country’s urbanization and modernization, maintained these traditions which only fairly recently started to become eroded largely beginning with the Nixon administration’s “law and order” policy and especially the “war on drugs” launched under Reagan.

In framing the problem of drug use as a war rather than a public health concern we started down the path of using the police to enforce military style solutions. If drug use is a public health concern then efforts will go into providing rehabilitation services for addicts, addressing systemic causes and underlying perceptions, and legalization as a matter of personal liberty where doing so does not pose inordinate risk to the public. If the problem of drug use is framed as a war then this means using kinetic action to disrupt and disable “enemy” forces. It means adhering as close to the limits of what is legally allowable when using force to protect one’s own “troops”. It mean mass incarceration of captured enemy forces. Fighting a war means that training and equipment needs focus on the effective use of force and not “social work”.

The militarization of America’s police forces that began in earnest with the war on drugs, Balko reminds us, is not an issue that can easily be reduced to Conservative vs Liberal, Republican vs Democrat. In the 1990’s conservatives were incensed at police brutality and misuse of military style tactics at Waco and Ruby Ridge. Yet conservatives largely turned a blind eye to the same brutality turned against anarchists and anti-globalization protestors in The Battle of Seattle in 1999. Conservatives have largely supported the militarized effort to stomp out drug abuse and the use of swat teams to enforce laws against non-violent offenders, especially illegal immigrants.

The fact that police were increasingly turning to military tactics and equipment was not, however, all an over-reaction. It was inspired by high profile events such as the Columbine massacre, and a dramatic robbery in North Hollywood in 1997. In the latter the two robbers Larry Phillips, Jr. and Emil Mătăsăreanu wore body armor police with light weapons could not penetrate. The 2008 attacks in Mumbai in which a small group of heavily armed and well trained terrorists were able to kill 164 people and temporarily cripple large parts of the city should serve as a warning of what happens when police can not rapidly deploy lethal force as should a whole series of high profile “lone wolf” style shootings. Police can thus rationally argue that they need access to heavy weapons when needed and swat teams and training for military style contingencies as well. It is important to remember that the police daily put their lives at risk in the name of public safety.

Yet militarization has gone too far and is being influenced more by security corporations and their lobbyists than conditions in actual communities. If the drug war and attention grabbing acts of violence was where the militarization of America’s police forces began, 9-11 and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq acted as an accelerant on the trend. These events launched a militarized-police-industrial complex, the country was flooded with grants from the Department of Homeland Security which funded even small communities to set up swat teams and purchase military grade equipment. Veterans from wars which were largely wars of occupation and counter-insurgency were naturally attracted to using these hard won skill sets in civilian life- which largely meant either becoming police or entering the burgeoning sector of private security.

So that’s the problem as laid out by Balko, what is his solution? For Balko, the biggest step we could take to rolling back militarization is to end the drug war and stop using military style methods to enforce immigration law. He would like to see a return to community policing, if not quite Mayberry, then at least something like the innovative program launched in San Antonio which uses police as social workers rather than commandos in to respond to mental health related crime.

Balko also wants us to end our militarized response to protests. There is no reason why protesters in a democratic society should be met by police wielding automatic weapons or dispersed through the use of tear gas. We can also stop the flood of federal funding being used by local police departments to buy surplus military equipment. Something that the Obama administration prompted by Ferguson seems keen to review.

A positive trend that Balko sees is the ubiquity of photography and film permitted by smart phones which allows protesters to capture brutality as it occurs a right which everyone has, despite the insistence of some police in protest situations to the contrary, and has been consistently upheld by U.S. courts. Indeed the other potentially positive legacy of Ferguson other than bringing the problem of police militarization into the public spotlight, for there is no wind so ill it does not blow some good, might be that it has helped launch true citizen based and crowd-sourced media.

My criticism of The Rise of the Warrior Cop to the extent I have any is that Balko only tells the American version of this tale, but it is a story that is playing out globally. The inequality of late capitalism certainly plays a role in this. Wars between states has at least temporarily been replaced by wars within states. Global elites who are more connected to their rich analogs in other countries than they are to their own nationals find themselves turning to a large number of the middle class who find themselves located in one form or another in the security services of the state. Elites pursue equally internationalized rivals, such as drug cartels and terrorist networks like one would a cancerous tumor- wishing to rip it out by force- not realizing this form of treatment is not getting to the root of the problem and might even end up killing the patient.

More troublingly they use these security services to choke off mass protests by the poor and other members of the middle class now enabled by mobile technologies because they find themselves incapable of responding to the problems that initiated these protests with long-term political solutions. This relates to another aspect of the police militarization issue Balko doesn’t really explore, namely the privatization of police services as those who can afford them retreat behind the fortress of private security while the conditions of the society around them erode.

Maybe there was a good reason that The Rise of the Warrior Cop was placed on the library shelf next to books on robot weapons after all. It may sound crazy, but perhaps in the not so far off future elites will automate policing as they are automating everything else. Mass protests, violent or not, will be met not with flesh and blood policemen but military style robots and drones. And perhaps only then will once middle class policemen made poor by the automation of their calling realize that all this time they have been fighting on the wrong side of the rebellion.


Rick Searle, an Affiliate Scholar of the IEET, is a writer and educator living the very non-technological Amish country of central Pennsylvania along with his two young daughters. He is an adjunct professor of political science and history for Delaware Valley College and works for the PA Distance Learning Project.


This is a fair review of recent police militarization, but ignores how the police have long (probably always) been - to channel George Orwell - the natural enemies of workers, the poor, and the colonized.

And that is a fair criticism of my piece. Thanks for reading.

Police, courts, prisons, demonstrate it is not correct to call America greatest country on earth—and calling it God’s country (still very common) is even worse. God is a nationalist?
Prisons are probably the worst feature of America; not so much the
2 -3 million in prisons. If those millions were being rehabilitated it would be a positive. But the prisoners are treated like cattle. Having 2.5 (say) million in prison limbo is truly coldblooded of America. Coldblooded. Visit any ‘conservative’ blog—commenters invariably respond that prisoners deserve what they get.
One big reason I’m not as optimistic as I should be. Hear it all the time when the subject comes up:

Prisoners committed crime.. they must do Time.

Even though a substantial number are innocent/ their crimes are minor. It is also counter-productive (recidivism rate) and demonstrates critics of America aren’t always hypercritical malcontents. After all, they can see and hear crime in their communities; they can sense the system is revolving-door.
At any rate, to digress somewhat- yet for good reason. To really change all the above and much more, we’d need to change the Constitution: not a popular idea!
Madison was a hardboiled person; the Constitution is a modified 1789 document that reflects more Then than Now. Whatever it is, it isn’t transhumanist—not even humanist.

[Good piece, btw, and good lead-off comment from Summerspeaker].

If we’re not willing to change the Constitution, and make whatever other changes need to made, then we go nowhere fast. That’s why observers who said Occupy were brats protesting inchoately were largely mistaken: how could they know what to think if so much was (is) being withheld from them? How could (can) they know what to do if their ‘betters’ are hardhearted to the degree—for instance—that their courts are substandard and prisons are hideous?


Agreed, the ruined human lives behind our incarceration rate is a tragedy. I think when historians in the future look back at our era this will have been our great crime as other eras in American history have had great crimes - slavery, segregation.

I am not sure that changing the Constitution is the best course given how hard Madison designed it to do. I am actually somewhat hopeful here that people are waking up to these issues and that we’re finally moving in the right direction - programs such as that in San Antonio that I mentioned, drug legalization where appropriate.

It sounds creepy and is dangerous to freedom in many other ways but the technologies of monitoring and tracking and a better understanding of the neuro-chemistry of violence may permit us to actually deconstruct the prison, which as used now is new in history, and return those convicted of crimes to human communities.

doesn’t sound creepy at all next to our revolting revolving-door system. You have to admire the gall of America calling itself Christian. (It does read ‘In God We Trust’ on our currency- does it not?).
Am not going to write police brutality is too narrow a focus for some. Obviously for the injured by police, such brutality is infuriating. Plus justified anger of the families, friends of the victims injured, killed. But for me police brutality is ludicrously narrow a focus. Like examining the fleas on a mad dog, yet not the dog. Don’t want to so much as think about police brutality without thinking of the whole dog. The dog of police, courts, judges, attorneys, paralegals, prison and jail officials. The media that profits off bringing the gore in color on TV.
And then there are ‘progressives’ who merely want to get all worked up and pump their fists in the air. Afterwards they forget about it, to move to the next thrill. Things are so commercialized now, we’ll see cottage industries selling Police Brutality T-Shirts + coffee mugs on sale for only $7.99 plus applicable tax. Wont write this opportunism is *wrong*—only that it is of no interest to me. Also, if prisoners such as Mumia are guilty as charged, does celebrating them do any good for those who are innocent?: want to know if there’s an answer to that question.

What I want, again, is to examine the entire dog: police, courts, judges, attorneys, paralegals, prison and jail officials, hacks, medias. If it were “only” a racket, it would be bad. However it is worse than a racket, it’s a meatgrinder.
The system is attorney/paralegal fees, probation officers, community service—which is modern-day slavery.
But it is also beatings, cages, substandard food (ketchup is not a vegetable). And the false consciousness that permeates the *underclass*, underclass being a sanitized way of saying Human Garbage.
The poor, believe it or not, more or less tolerate the system- for a variety of reasons. The system doles out just enough to keep the revolving-door people satisfied. In between court appearances, meetings with probation officers, attorney huddles, picking up garbage (etc) on roads for community service, there’s enough goodies. In prison/jail there are just enough sandwiches and Kool Aid eaten and drunk to keep the inmates satisfied.

In between meals (meals being the center of incarcerated life) prisoners can read the Bible or watch TV—so the smarter inmates can see the larger world’s concerns are almost as sordid as their own.


“Things are so commercialized now, we’ll see cottage industries selling Police Brutality T-Shirts + coffee mugs; on sale for only $7.99 plus applicable tax.”

Your gallows humor is unfortunately too close to reality. There’s a scene in Rise of the Warrior cops where police at the Democratic convention is 1968 are seen wearing t-shirts that read:

“We get up early to beat the crowds.”


“We kicked your father’s ass in 1968. Imagine what we’ll do to you.”

The reform of our legal system and the roll-back of the prison-industrial-complex is perhaps the biggest question of morality and justice of our era. 

Would write an article on it, but Summerspeaker and or you could do better.
What continually prods my interest in this is how it’s become routinized in choice communities.
Let’s start with when it began. Naturally, we could think way back in time—we could go back to Puritan penal systems after 1620. (We could return in our minds to Europe before then, as well, for clues).

At any rate, start with the late ‘70s and the increase in crime throughout the entire ‘80s and early ‘90s. Today the operating description is self-perpetuating: it’s so rote the poor take it for granted as being part of life- as weather is. In my bubble-community college town, the poor complain about the oppression albeit oppression is perceived as being regrettable-yet-necessary.
Animals eat each other, goes the ‘underclass’ reasoning; therefore people devouring each other in the abstract is only to be expected. Big shark eat little shark, little shark eat other little shark. They know dogs and cats are placed in kennels; why shouldn’t people be placed in jail/prison? Some do think of being incarcerated, for brief periods, as vacations.

“I spent 60 days in Salina, but the food was okay, and the gym was good.”

Exploits are bragged about day in day out. What has stimulated my interest is how it is accepted really.. more than tolerated. It might come down to the poor not liking, of course, the inconveniences of the system, but the goodies doled are enough to retain the sense if it weren’t like this, then what would it be? Now, there’s no clear answer to that question however it can be written with confidence we’re not civilized—it’s safe to term it controlled barbarism. What it all does is mock our notions of sincere religiosity; fair play.

Was it always so? in different forms, yes. Today, though, we look towards a trajectory of 21st century progress. The Web we are communicating with on these matters is a manifestation of this. Living in a bubble-community college town, witnessing how the revolving-door system has become routine, the first thing coming to mind is how much worse it is in un-bubble, un-Choice communities where the poor are not living, only surviving—except by pre-21st century lights.

This story from last year might be helpful:


Read your link. Informative, esp re black support of Rockefeller drug laws way back when. Too long ago! Has improved so little in all those decades. If situation has not improved at all? Bad News.

Anyway: everyone at IEET knows tweaking drug laws here, serving more nutritious prison meals there (“only organic vegetables for our encaged people”); HDTV in cellblocks; and a few less beatings outside, are 20th century—not 21st.

“Has improved so little in all those decades. If situation has not improved at all? Bad News.”

I read it more optimistically. Perceptions are starting to change. It’s a long road, but at least we’re on it.

In the span of a human life, 50 yrs appears lengthy; in the timeframe of recorded history—50 centuries—a half century is merely 1/100.

Thus we uncaged persons can be optimistic. What I’m tired of is being told the US is God’s country; when it worships Adam Smith, James Madison. An insult to all our intelligence.

Embarrassing to technoprogressivism is how we are interested in transhumanism and Space exploration yet we can’t even have good law enforcement, rehabilitate criminals.

Non-linear indeed.

“Embarrassing to technoprogressivism is how we are interested in transhumanism and Space exploration yet we can’t even have good law enforcement, rehabilitate criminals.”

Right on!

Time to put it to bed- one more comment: again, it’s not the numbers; when all the various jails and halfway houses, plus other transitional (e.g. house arrest) are added up the figure may be three millions or so.
Problem is there’s negligible interest in rehabilitating, almost zero interest in cognitive enhancement of inmates. The US is incredibly callous for a nation billing itself the greatest country in the world.

However if it takes until the 22nd century to change, then what else of substance can be done? Little prospect at this time authorities will listen to requests for rehab/cog. enhancement. They have virtually no sympathy for inmates: “you did the crime, do the time” is embedded in their minds. This is a nation used to having its way domestically as well as internationally.

Authorities of various sorts are surprised when they are so much as challenged. How dare you gainsay me, they reply. This is my world, it belongs to me, they strongly imply. Always comes back to ‘do as I say don’t do as I do’—no answer to that.

Libertarians might be all who will listen. We can explain to them how police brutality isn’t usually on the outside: the brutality is in courts, jails/prisons; the soft brutality in attorneys’ offices. The following is an example of the muddled thinking in Mid-American courts:

The judge announces he doesn’t approve of marijuana being illegal—yet as a judge sworn to the Law his hands are tied. Sounds reasonable but on closer examination it’s convoluted reasoning. I’m sworn to justice, is his inference, albeit though the statutes in the case of marijuana are unfair, the amounts the defendant was arrested for, Quote, “scream maximum sentence.” Marijuana laws are archaic but I’m going to toss you in the Clink for three yrs. A judge is a bystander, not a participant?

In other words because the judge is clueless as to what to do, he goes with the flow the status quo. Libertarians also say they don’t know what to do but that in the future better justice will evolve.
It’s all escapism.
Everyone is more or less clueless so they let it slide, anticipating evolution.

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