Radley Balko blogs about criminal justice for the Washington Post. He visited Kenyon this week to deliver the College’s annual Constitution Day address. The following interview has been lightly edited and condensed.
Collegian: You’ve said the founders could never have envisioned police as they exist today. Given that you’re here to give a Constitution Day address, what you think are the biggest incongruities between present-day American policing and what the Founders had in mind?
Balko: I don’t think the Founders could have envisioned police today because at the time laws were enforced on a community basis. You had posses and you had private individuals who would help enforce the laws. You did have attorneys general that would enforce laws at a state or national level, but for the most part there were no police departments like we know today, no centralized police departments, no uniformed police, so it’s hard to know what they would make of the whole idea of policing in general. The thing that they would, I think, be fairly appalled by is kind of the general theme of the book, which is the militarization of the police. The one thing that we see over and over again in the constitution debates was this fear of a standing army and the threat to liberty posed by a standing army. If the idea is that a soldier is an inappropriate sort of mindset to be enforcing order and rule of law domestically, it doesn’t matter if it’s an actual soldier or it’s a police officer who’s been armed and dressed and trained to think like a soldier — the threat is very similar. I think that’s where we’ve gotten. We’ve gone away from the idea of the peace officer and more to the warrior cop, the warrior mindset.
Q: This spring President Obama announced the federal government would stop supplying local police departments with certain military-grade equipment. He also announced a $20 million grant program to buy body cameras for police departments. What effect, if any, do you think these reforms have had or will have on the phenomenon of militarized police?
RB: I think it was an important symbolic gesture, because I think up until now the only thing we’ve really heard from federal officials is more guns, more power, more militarization, and so for Obama, for a president, to say publicly that perhaps the police were too militarized, that perhaps things had gone too far, I think was pretty important. Practically, I don’t think it’s going to have much of an effect at all. Even the ending of the 1033 program had a lot of loopholes that can be easily circumvented, and that program itself is dwarfed by a Department of Homeland Security program that gives grants to police departments to buy new military gear as opposed to the surplus gear in the other program. I think just generally in a lot of ways the militarization has already happened, and so the effect is already there — and as the federal government wants to address it it’s going to have to be much more proactive than just saying we’re going to, not even stop the bleeding, but slightly diminish the bleeding. So it’s important symbolically, but practically I don’t think it’s going to have much of an effect.
Q: Could you expound on your views about how the increased use of SWAT teams and military equipment by local police departments has affected their relationships with the communities they serve?
RB: We want the police to be a part of our community. We want to see ourselves in the police department. And I think what militarization has done is it’s created a very us-versus-them mentality in the police department, and it’s caused communities to see the police more as kind of an occupying force than guardians of the community, which is how you want the relationship to be. I think the ubiquitous use of SWAT teams is part of that problem. And I think the gear and the weapons themselves are part of the problem. But I also think there’s another component to militarization, which is the mindset. I think it all kind of works together, but I think the mindset problem often gets overlooked. We have police officers who think they’re at war with the people they’re supposed to be serving, who see them as kind of the other and as a potential threat instead of as fellow citizens who they’re supposed to be protecting.
Q: How much of that do you think is informed by racial prejudice on the part of police?
RB: I think there may be some of that. I think it’s more of a structural or kind of institutional racism in that it’s part of a system that was kind of created on racial injustice and racial imbalance. I don’t think it’s my position to say an individual cop was racist, but on some level I think it doesn’t matter. I think if you’re a cog in a system that has a racial or prejudicial effect in terms of who gets the blunt end of these policies — that, I think, is the important thing, much more important than trying to look into the hearts and minds of individual police officers. A good example I would give is St. Louis County, where Ferguson happened. In St. Louis County you have over 90 municipalities. Every town needs its own budget, and so the police departments for these tiny little towns, their sole function is to extract money from people to fund the town’s budget. They don’t investigate serious crimes; that’s done by the county police. Well, the poorer these towns are the more likely it is they’re going to be relying on those types of fines for revenue, which basically means that the poorer the town, which usually means the blacker the town, unfortunately, the more the police are going to be told by their city council that they need to fine people and find more ways of extracting revenue from people through fines. So on some level it doesn’t matter if the individual police officers in those towns, what they think about black people. They could all be very conscientious, racially blind public servants, but they’re functioning in a system that’s founded on racism but also that disproportionately is going to affect people of color. And I think that is the much more pertinent question than whether individual officers are racist.
Q: To what extent is the militarization of police related to civil forfeiture and other actions by law enforcement to gain greater power and authority?
RB: It’s definitely related to civil forfeiture in that civil forfeiture is used to fund SWAT teams, but also you have federal grants that are solely tied to policing. The drug war is really the prime mover, I think, in police militarization, and was for about 20 years or so. After September 11th homeland security becomes another kind of driving force. But I still think the drug war is probably the prime reason why our police departments have become more militarized. And it’s because it’s called the drug war and I think politicians who promoted the drug war used that imagery for a very specific reason, which is that in a war when you declare war on something you’re saying this is an existential threat and that this threat is so severe that we should be willing to sacrifice some of our rights in order to defeat it, and the drug war I think did exactly that. In a war you also have to dehumanize your enemy in order for people to be OK with confronting that enemy and in some cases killing that enemy and I think we’ve certainly seen that with a lot of dehumanization of drug offenders and drug dealers. So I think, yeah, asset forfeiture was directly a product of the drug war, these federal grants that are solely tied to drug policing are a factor. And if you think about how that kind of plays out, say you’re a small-town sheriff and you just got a bunch of cool military gear from the Pentagon so you start a SWAT team. You know, why not? The town next to you is doing it also, you could keep that SWAT team in reserve and wait for kind of an emergency imminent threat situation for which a SWAT team is appropriate, like an active shooter or a bank robbery or some sort of hostage-taking, or you could start sending your SWAT team out to raid low-level drug offenders. Well, if you do the latter you’ve got asset forfeiture and you’ve got these federal grants and you can actually start generating revenue for your police department, so between forfeiture and these federal grants it provided a strong financial incentive for police departments to use their SWAT teams when they probably otherwise wouldn’t have.
Q: As a journalist, how do you think the news media have shaped public consciousness and public discourse on this issue dating back to last summer and everything with Ferguson?
RB: It’s a tough question. I think it’s been a mixed bag. There have been bouts, periodic flourishings of news coverage of the militarization issue, going back to the late ’80s actually, but it’s usually a burst of stories followed by nothing for five or six years then another burst of stories. I think smaller-town media or small media tend to be deferential toward police, less skeptical, which I think is a problem. I think the national media tends to be a little more skeptical. They’re more likely to do long investigative looks at policing issues, but they are also more susceptible to sensationalism. They’re more likely to run scary pieces about the latest drug craze or just recently we saw the New York Times run a piece about the soaring homicide rates in American cities and actually when you actually looked at the data it didn’t really check out, and there were a few cities where the murder rate was going up but in most big cities it’s down or unchanged. So I think the media have to be careful about — there is a tendency to kind of go with the sensational. There’s also the problem of, it’s much easier to run a big story about the Houston deputy who was ambushed and killed at a gas station a couple weeks ago, because it’s tragic and awful and terrible and makes for a good story, but the story that’s less interesting and less sexy but puts that death into perspective is the fact that the job of police officer has been getting safer since about the mid-1990s. In fact this year, despite what happened in Houston, is on pace to be the second-safest year for police officers basically since the 1940s. So that’s a much less sensational story, but I think it’s an important story to give some context and perspective to this terrible story about the killing of a police officer.
Q: How do you think this issue ties into that of American gun culture more generally? I know you were criticized in some circles for defending the Stand Your Ground law after Trayvon Martin’s death…
RB: They were wrong, actually. I’m opposed to those laws. I did criticize the way the media covered the case, because it wasn’t a Stand Your Ground case at all, even the prosecutors admitted. But I’m actually opposed to Stand Your Ground laws. I generally support gun rights, I would say, but those laws I think are problematic for a lot of reasons, but in terms of gun culture generally, I think there’s no question that we are a violent society and a part of that is because there are such high rates of gun ownership. I don’t think the gun ownership rates are ever going to change. I don’t think we’re going to ban guns. The vast majority — the vast, vast, vast majority — of guns used in murders are small-caliber handguns, which are probably the last things that are ever going to be banned. I think our homicide rate in the U.S., even though it’s been falling pretty dramatically, again since the mid-1990s, is still tragically high, particularly when compared with the other developed countries, but it’s also kind of part of our culture, and I don’t think the proper response to that is that the police need to be hyper-militarized. Again, I think militarization makes things more dangerous for police officers and citizens. When you break into somebody’s house in the middle of the night with a SWAT team you elicit a very kind of primitive reaction. Whether it’s an actual drug dealer or an innocent rural Ohio family that has a hunting gun in the house, they’re going to think they’re being attacked and they’re going to instantly reach for a gun for protection, so I just don’t think the idea that we have high gun ownership rates is a justification for police militarization.
Q: What are you hoping the students, staff, and community members who attend your talk tonight come away from it thinking about? What’s your goal?
RB: I hope they’ll question some of their assumptions about policing and how it works and how it’s supposed to work. I don’t want people to come away from my talks hating cops. I think the most important thing they should take away from it is kind of understanding that the problem goes beyond individual police officers, that this is about a dysfunctional system. It’s a system that was primarily created by politicians and policymakers, and that’s where the change needs to come.
Q: Are you optimistic?
RB: No. I was cautiously optimistic after Ferguson, because I’ve been covering this issue for over a decade now I guess, and that was the first time I’d really seen support for reform across the ideological spectrum, and I think that was important. I think part of the problem was that it had gotten so bad it was even affecting SWAT teams, SWAT teams were being used to enforce regulatory law and white-collar laws and that was starting to affect people on the right side of the political spectrum. So you’re starting to see this pan-ideological consensus, then we entered the election season and then you had this incident in Houston; those things together, the tendency of politicians to grandstand and demagogue when you’re running for office and a couple of high-profile incidents, I really think threatens to derail this kind of promising atmosphere for reform we haven’t seen in a long time.