How Cops Became Soldiers: An Interview with Police Militarization Expert Radley Balko

By Michael Arria

What happened to friendly neighborhood cops? The drug and terror wars happened. Via Oregon DOT/Flickr

In 2007, journalist Radley Balko told a House subcommittee that one criminologist detected a 1,500% increase in the use of SWAT teams over the last two decades. That's reflective of a larger trend, fueled by the wars on drugs and terror, of police forces becoming heavily militarized.

Balko, an investigative reporter for the Huffington Post and author of the definitive report on paramilitary policing in the United States, has a forthcoming book on the topic, Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America's Police Forces. He was kind enough to answer some questions about how our police turned into soldiers as well as the challenges of large-scale reform.

Motherboard: When did the shift towards militarized police forces begin in America? Is it as simple as saying it began with the War on Drugs or can we detect gradual signs of change when we look back at previous policies?

There's certainly a lot of overlap between the war on drugs and police militarization. But if we go back to the late 1960s and early 1970s, there were two trends developing simultaneously. The first was the development and spread of SWAT teams. Darryl Gates started the first SWAT team in L.A. in 1969. By 1975, there were 500 of them across the country. They were largely a reaction to riots, violent protest groups like the Black Panthers and Symbionese Liberation Army, and a couple mass shooting incidents, like the Texas clock tower massacre in 1966.

At the same time, Nixon was declaring an "all-out war on drugs." He was pushing policies like the no-knock raid, dehumanizing drug users and dealers, and sending federal agents to storm private homes on raids that were really more about headlines and photo-ops than diminishing the supply of illicit drugs.

But for the first decade or so after Gates invented them, SWAT teams were largely only used in emergency situations. There usually needed to be an immediate, deadly threat to send the SWAT guys. It wasn't until the early 1980s under Reagan that the two trends converged, and we started to see SWAT teams used on an almost daily basis -- mostly to serve drug warrants.

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Tags: DHS, Police-State, SWAT-teams, cops, militarization, police, robocops, soldiers

Comment by Sweettina2 on March 4, 2013 at 11:56pm

Great post Tara....we have watched it happen! And all those foreign soldiers they've brought in during all the NLE exercises, yep, they've never left. And after we have slaughtered so many (and doing it still), everyone hates us now. Our troops may not fire on us, they will. Thanks Tara!

Comment by apeman2502 on March 5, 2013 at 11:08am

 Shameless mother fuckers. Those bullets hurt. The Aurora area of Denver shootings may have been carried out by a team of these foreign soldiers as a tool for disarming American citizens. Stolen police dispatch recordings locked down to prohibit distribution prove more than one shooter was present and less than 7minutes after the first 911 call, the James Holmes character was passed out in the back of his car (and for the next few days stayed that way)such that he received no dispatch mention the rest of the evening past his initial discovery. Another gas mask and knife were immediately discovered a hundred feet past James Holmesand his car and were photographed by police.This is war against the U.S., and our Commander in Chief is a willing and complicit accessory . The CIA and the British owned and controlled CFRtv and Associated Press media put him in power. Thus, they also are willing and complicit accessories after the fact.

Comment by apeman2502 on March 5, 2013 at 11:18am

  The importation of drugs has been carried on by the same individuals who coordinate 'The War on Drugs'. President Reagan had Bush41 forced on him and loathed his presence. As controller of the CIA, Bush41 was a creator of the militarized illicit narcotics enterprise. Not complicated or difficult to understand when you remind yourselves how prissy and self serving most of congress is. Many innocent people have paid for this ineffective brown nosing effeminate degeneracy with their lives, and the situation is getting worse.

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