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In Decade Since 'Warrior Cop' Book, Police Reform Charts Two Courses


For all the criticism of "defund the police" abolitionism and a renewed sense of alarm over violent crime, a dramatic swing in public opinion sparked by the 2020 killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor provides a surprising reality at the 10th anniversary of the book that documented how the drug war and military tactics and gear transformed American policing, the book's author writes.

Radley Balko, author of 2013's "Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America's Police Forces," marked the decade milestone with an analysis at his Substack publication The Watch of where police reforms stand now compared to during the aftermath of a similar uprising after the 2014 deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and Eric Garner in New York City.

Prior to Ferguson, public support for all but the most cosmetic police reforms was pretty much nonexistent. Even after Ferguson, it remained pretty low. The 2020 protests not only spurred a massive swing in public opinion, support for reform has remained high even as crime has gone up, and even as one of the two major political parties has gone out of its way to demagogue police reform as a major contributor to violence and disorder.

The 2020 demonstrations "brought real, substantive change," Balko writes.

If you had told me in 2018 that within five years, dozens of cities and a few states would impose restrictions or outright bans on no-knock raids, I’d have rolled my eyes at you. We’ve also seen a wave of bans on chokeholds, and state restrictions on civil asset forfeiture (though many of those pre-date 2020). A few states have even stripped police of the qualified immunity that shields police officers from federal lawsuits when they’re sued in state court. We’ve seen reformist police executives take over many big city police agencies, where they’ve implemented policies like mandatory deescalation, prohibitions on shooting into moving cars, and barring high-speed chases for minor offenses. We’ve even seen some jurisdictions attempt to limit the role of police in traffic enforcement.

But nearly all of the reforms have been confined to progressive cities and states. "In red states, many legislatures have backslid," Balko writes, "passing or attempting to pass laws to restrict protest, limiting liability for violence against protesters, restricting the right to record police in public, and passing preemptory legislation to override the will of voters who opt for reform."

The gap between public opinion and public policy requires public pressure to convince politicians that they can enjoy greater support if they side with reformers, Balko writes. That seems like a tough sell in the age of Trump, whose crime rhetoric remains stuck in the crack-war era and "he's basically a stack of old New York Posts that came to life."

Now policing finds itself "on two contradictory trajectories," Balko concludes. One trajectory might duplicate marijuana reform, where the growing gap between policy and public opinion finally tilted heavily toward the latter. On the other, risk-averse politicians can easily be stampeded into tough-on-crime territory and preserving the status quo. Still, he writes, there's "room for some cautious optimism," at least in Blue America.


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