Militarization of the United States Police

Author Radley Balko goes in depth when discussing the militarization of the United States police forces in the book titled, Rise of the Warrior Cop. Throughout this book, the central theme could not be any more explicit – there is a growing problem of police officers driven by government officials that are threatening and diminishing traditional liberties and equalities that civilians in our country have. Balko states how our country has turned into a battleground and police officers have turned into a military entity that looks at the public as the enemy.

This theme is incredibly evident through the multitude of examples given related to the war on drugs, and how many lives have been lost over marijuana (Balko 2013).

Balko begins the book by questioning the constitutionality of policing. He references that there has not been any sort of challenge to policing and that he believes there may never be (Balko 2013). While making clear that this book is not an anti-police book, Balko begins by also stating that bad policing is a product of bad policy (Balko 2013:xv).

He continues with this until the very last pages of his book when he suggests “bad systems will continue to turn out bad results” (Balko 2013:332).

From class discussions, and reviewing of the bill of rights, we learned that our county’s core values and liberties are constructed through limited government and individual freedom. These two rights that our bill of rights and the constitution were written around are precisely what is being questioned and taken away during the militarization of our police forces.

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As Balko describes, there are two forms of militarization; direct and indirect, both of which have been seen in our country (Balko 2013). Direct militarization refers to “using a standing army for domestic policing” while indirect militarization refers to instances when “policing takes an army-like characteristics” (Balko 2013:35).

We see direct policing around 1903 when the Militia Act was put into effect, which more recently can be recognized as the National Guard. The act of having a domestic standing army that could be called upon by the government at any point is already extremely terrifying, but once the field manual was released to the public it became even scarier. The “Basic Field Manual” had a section on domestic disturbances which included firing into the crowd, using chemical warfare, machine guns, grenades, tanks, planes and more destructive-tendencies against our own people (Balko 2013:39). As scary as direct militarization was, the next type to arise is still happening and growing every day. Starting around 1960, indirect militarization began taking over society, and this remains the case today. Importantly, Balko argues that indirect militarization is the biggest threat to what he describes as the “symbolic third amendment” which in plain terms is the “resistance to armies patrolling American streets and policing American communities” (Balko 2013:13).


Balko provides ample evidence to support his theme, beginning with the historical context of policing, and concluding with suggested solutions that he believes would help our society return to recognizing limited government and individual freedom as our core. To begin with Balko’s reasoning in support of his central theme, he puts policing and its evolution to what we have now in a historical perspective. One of Balko’s first points describes the Castle Doctrine in England around mid-1500s which states that any officials must knock and ask permission before entering. Additionally, they were required to allow the house occupants time to let them in – what a reasonable concept (Balko 2013).

This concept is almost nonexistent nowadays, especially with the examples in this book alone describing all the Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) raids that usually harm and even kill innocent victims. Another example Balko gives in a similar timeframe relates to general warrants and writs of assistance. General warrants were not specific and thus gave governmental authority very much power (Balko 2013). Writs of assistance were a form of a warrant that gave officials the right to enter private places and search for smuggled goods, yet these were still “less intrusive than today’s drug warrants” (Balko 2013:9). Writs still gave the police a large amount of leverage as they allowed officials to take what they had found and they remained permanent after being issues. Aside from these few factors, writs still called for suspects to have a chance to grant the officers entrance, and they could not be issued at night, which highly contrasts with the horrendous entrances swat raids make nowadays.

Shifting forward in time, Balko’s next example discusses southern slave patrols. Slave patrols were a product of fear – fear that the slaves would revolt and go against the whites controlling them. Therefore, slave patrols were set up to monitor and regulate the lives of the slaves and halt any threat of rebellion. This is similar to what officers are taught nowadays. They are taught to always live in fear that the public could rebel against them. The south was not the only region adopting new forms of policing; as the northeast used night watch patrols which were mainly successful in helping petty crime, but did not stand well to bigger riots and serious crime due to the low amount of pay (Balko 2013). In the western frontier, containing a smaller population, but more land than the north and the south, private police agents known as “vigilantes” were frequent (Balko 2013:29). These vigilantes did not operate under legal systems and were therefore sometimes worse than a formal justice system. In the above, a variety of examples showcase policing beginning and evolving that were consistently unbeneficial and unjust.

Balko discusses the first British police force in 1829 led by Sir Robert Peel who believed that a successful police force knew that they worked for the citizens, not against the citizens (Balko 2013). This British model of policing led to many imitations in America. Sadly, America was not able to keep the same model that Peel had made so honorable and humble in London. From being known for corruption and brutality, policing hit a low, but some looked to correct these flaws, which led to the militarization we now have. Officials began setting up a hierarchy and so our country, led by lawmakers and politicians, and regulated by police officers, working against the public, turned into a public service job into a military structure.

As policing began to adapt military techniques, the war on drugs, terror, and lesser crimes began to take over. Specifically focusing on the war on drugs as evidence from the text that Balko uses to support the theme of policing threatening equal rights and freedom. Balko gives a detailed report of Nixon and Reagan’s presidencies and every piece of evidence leading up to Reagan’s 1981 policy that allowed for the military to have a big role in the drug war (Balko 2013). In essence, the military was able to “work with drug cops on all aspects of drug interdiction”, and the only few regulations were that military personnel could not arrest or conduct searches …. yet (Balko 2013:145). As Reagan kept going for stricter drug policies, more military control, and complete discrepancy to the bill of rights, he eventually was successful in allowing military techniques and personnel to fight drugs and other lower crime. Policing does not get more militarized than that – granting the military police powers. This type of lawlessness unfortunately did not end with the Reagan administration and continues on.


Balko’s view on whether reforms will happen is neither optimistic nor pessimistic, but rather realistic. Balko does not approach these reforms with an exhilarating attitude, but he also does not approach them with a negative close-minded attitude. Instead, he states what each will take to succeed, and how probable he believes that succession will be. Balko begins his view with the reform which classifies as the least likely to happen – ending the drug war. The federal government calling an end to this over-sensationalized war on drugs would inevitably make these hardened and dangerous task forces dry up leaving them without funding and incentives (Balko 2013). Continuing with doing away with drug raids and military-style task forces, Balko states that regulatory agencies should in reality not even have these at all.

Another reform labeled by Balko is described as transparency, which refers to allowing technology and tamper-proof recording to be used at all times with law enforcement that the public may use and access. This can range from recordings of SWAT raids to records on judges, warrants, and even prosecutors so that the public can use the same information that officials could use against them.

Community policing and changing police culture are two important reforms that can lead police officers to become intertwined in the communities they serve and realize not everyone is out to get them. Community policing refers to getting police officers acquainted with their community and becoming an important part of it; more importantly, a part of it that people are not afraid of. This reform is also tied to ending the drug war. Many police officers use informants and gain distrust due to the fact of meeting quotas and silencing any internal critique of lacking arrests. Changing police culture refers to ridding academies and police departments of the “Us. Vs. The Public” mentality and teach officers the proper techniques their job requires. Instead of telling officers ‘it’s you first, the public second’, teach them counseling techniques to handle disputes, or core elements of psychology to handle dealing with those who may be unstable; if nothing else, teach them anything other than excessively using force to handle all types of situations.

Accountability, yet another reform suggested, is far from where it should be in our sector of modern day policing. Police men and women should be held accountable to the same degree when they commit an unjustifiable act. Police are actually discouraged from keeping track of their cases due to liability issues (Balko 2013).

Balko provides us with all these effective reforms that could change our society for the better, but in his concluding remarks he states that in order for these to happen we the people need to care. Once caring begins, our focus should be shifted to getting at the root of the problem which is policy. As beneficial as exposing police misconduct may be for showing all the wrong doing happening in our country, exposing the policies for allowing such acts is where we will receive the best results.


In response to the question of whether or not police forces today are consistent with the principles of a free society, I remain on the side that believes they are not. Policing today has reached an extreme to which I believe is deemed dangerous. Through this book, class discussions, news reports, and case studies we have learned of the many innocent lives lost due to the excessive use of force. This force stems out of the pure fear that is drilled into officers every single day from their first day at the academy to every shift they ever have (Stoughton 2014). Not only is the excessive force unnecessary and unjustifiable in situations where police do have a suspect, but in SWAT raids when there are so many mess ups and mistakes, this force is especially disturbing and it does not mirror what a free society should look like.

An example that truly spoke to me was Cheye Calvo’s story in one of Balko’s concluding chapters of the book. Calvo happened to be the mayor of a small town in Maryland who had just finished walking his dogs when a SWAT team invades his house frightening and almost killing his mother in law, shooting and killing his dogs, and treating him inhumanely. Not only was Calvo completely innocent given the team had clearly made an enormous mistake, but they also insisted on denying the fair treatment of even seeing a search warrant that the SWAT team claimed was “en route” (Balko 2013:311). This entire story is so far from limited government and individual freedom which we claim to hold at the very core of our bill of rights and constitution. Stories such as Calvo’s happen all too often in modern day policing and are extremely inconsistent with principles of a free society.

In continuing my critique of why policing is inconsistent with the principles of a free society, the very stem of our previously mentioned dangerous SWAT teams come from war techniques and tactics. Daryl Gates, the chief of LAPD is credited with creating the first SWAT team and used guidance from military tactics being used against Vietnam on our own people. Using war tactics we made to fight our enemies on our own people just furthers the disconnect from police to the public. Not only did this training insist officers use a preposterous amount of force at the time of its creation, but it is what made our police culture what it is today and has been since the 1960s which is far from consistent with a free society (Balko 2013).

Although I believe that today’s policing is inconsistent with a free society, I do agree with Balko in his statement that “bad policing is a product of bad policy” (Balko 2013: xv). I also agree with Balko in his statement that there are many good police officers out there. From my personal experience in internships, and in life in general, I have encountered many amazing officers who care for their community, desire to protect and help their people, and recognize that some of their fellow officers do not do the same. Unfortunately, the officials and politicians who are dictating policing will continue to encourage military like behavior and techniques. I believe change at this time in our society is inevitable. It will happen for the better or for the worst depending on who stands up and decides to attack this problem at its source which would mean going against politicians and policy makers. Change needs to happen because too many lives have already been threatened and lost in unjust unfair circumstances.

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Militarization of the United States Police. (2022, Apr 27). Retrieved from

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