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The Militarization of America's Police Forces

by Radley Balko

Pub Date: July 9th, 2013
ISBN: 978-1-61039-211-2
Publisher: PublicAffairs

Huffington Post senior investigative reporter Balko combines a searing exposé focusing on a specific kind of police brutality with a contextual history of police violence from the Roman Empire through today.

The contemporary brutality forming the centerpiece of the exposé derives from Special Weapons and Tactics units—SWAT teams. At Reason magazine and, before that, at the Cato Institute, Balko was a pioneer at tracking the excessive violence of SWAT teams, especially in the context of raids on private homes suspected of harboring violators of drug laws. With SWAT teams often serving as the front line in the so-called "war on drugs," abuses have been occurring with alarming frequency since the 1960s. Balko takes pains to state that police officers face daily danger and that most of them serve honorably. However, he writes, those who volunteer for SWAT teams or are chosen by police chiefs and sheriffs frequently harbor a cowboy mentality inappropriate when raiding homes unannounced with high-velocity weapons at the ready. Balko provides copious examples of SWAT teams raiding the wrong addresses or finding nothing but decriminalized marijuana inside. Meanwhile, injuries and sometimes deaths occur, and community trust in the police is shattered. And it can happen anywhere: The author opens with an egregiously conducted SWAT raid in Columbia, Mo., a small city with few violent drug offenders. Some of the historical sections are slow going—the book is organized chronologically, which means little compelling information arrives before page 50—and the book sometimes loses focus as Balko overreaches in terms of police department operations, which are only loosely related to SWAT team conduct. Nonetheless, the vast amount of evidence is certain to give pause to even the most ardent supporters of law enforcement agencies.

An important, sometimes-groundbreaking account of police gone wild.