Militarization Of Police Means U.S. Protesters Face Weapons Designed For War
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. How did the U.S., a country pushed into a revolution by protest and political speech, become one where protests are met with flash grenades, pepper spray and platoons of riot teams dressed like Robocops? That's what my guest Radley Balko wrote seven years before the George Floyd protests in his book "Rise Of The Warrior Cop: The Militarization Of America's Police Forces." It's a history of how police forces started acquiring military-grade weapons, helicopters and armored personnel carriers designed for use on a battlefield and receiving training from current and former personnel from Special Forces units, like the Navy SEALs and Army Rangers.
Balko has been writing about the George Floyd protests and the police in his Washington Post column, where he covers criminal justice, civil liberties and the drug wars. He was previously an investigative reporter and senior writer for The Huffington Post.
Radley Balko, welcome to FRESH AIR.
RADLEY BALKO: Thanks for having me on.
GROSS: What weapons and vehicles did the police have during the George Floyd protests that illustrates your point about the militarization of police?
BALKO: Well, I mean, I think the riot gear in and of itself is problematic. I think the use of the various chemical irritants that we saw raises a lot of issues. You know, I will say that this time I think the response to the protests, we saw less of the kind of heavy-handed gear, particularly the guns, that we saw during the Ferguson protests, and even some of the armored vehicles I think we saw less of. But there were also, you know, other issues like the Air Force drones that were used to monitor a lot of the protests.
And as I point out in the book, I think there's - there are two problems to police militarization, or there are two sides to it, I guess. One is the stuff and the gear itself. And the other is kind of the mindset, and it's the way police view themselves, the way they view protesters and how they view their job at a protest. And, you know, I think what we saw - or what we've seen, I guess, over the last few weeks in way too many cities is this very sort of confrontational, us versus them kind of approach to protests, which, you know, is not normally the kind of approach - or shouldn't be the kind of approach that we associate with a free society.
GROSS: You know, you mentioned tear gas. Is tear gas legal in war? Because it is a chemical agent.
BALKO: Yeah, it's banned by several treaties. It's not supposed to be used on the battlefield. And that's actually kind of one of the sort of ironies, I think, I've run into since writing the book, which is that - particularly after Ferguson, you saw this a lot - I heard from a lot of people currently or formerly in the military who objected to the term police militarization because they say, you know, in the military, we have better weapons trainings. We have rules of engagement that we have to follow. We have - we do after-action reports. There's actually more accountability in some ways in the military than there are in a lot of police departments in the United States.
GROSS: So one of the weapons that police were using during the protests is flash-bangs. How are they used in war compared to how they were used in protests?
BALKO: So in war, the primary use of flash grenades or flash-bangs is during raids on, you know, suspected insurgents. So the purpose of a flash grenade is to - it emits this really bright flash and then a very loud noise, and the idea is to sort of stun, you know, people in a confined space so that, you know, the police or the military can get in and, you know, kind of take control of the area. They're primarily used in policing in drug raids, which - I've written quite a bit about - is also extremely problematic because they injure people. That's the whole point, is to temporarily sort of stun and injure someone. They also can catch fire very easily.
So how we're seeing them used at protests is sort of indiscriminately, right? When you deploy a flash grenade, it's going to explode, and it's going to deafen and blind temporarily anyone in the area, in the vicinity. So it inflicts that injury indiscriminately in a small area. So you're not going to be able to sort of target specific people at a protest who, you know, may be creating problems. You're going to affect everyone in the sort of perimeter of the flash grenade.
GROSS: So what are some of the military weapons that many police forces in big cities and small towns have - no weapons and vehicles - that we don't necessarily see but they do have?
BALKO: So some of the things we haven't seen at the protests specifically, you know, we haven't seen a lot of the armored vehicles that a lot of police departments have. Some have armored vehicles that are - basically sort of look like tanks except they don't have the tracks. So they have tires, but they do have turrets that rotate, these gun turrets. Some of them shoot up to .35-caliber ammunition, which will go through several city blocks no matter what's standing in the way. That's the kind of ammunition that's used to, you know, take out tanks, and, you know, a lot of domestic police departments have them.
You see - strangely, a lot of police departments love bayonets. They've gotten bayonets from the Pentagon through these giveaway programs. You know, I'm not sure what domestic use there is for a bayonet other than it's - you know, it kind of looks cool. One big one that we've seen since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are MRAPs, which are these large, huge vehicles that were designed with a very specific purpose. They were designed to be used on convoys to basically protect against improvised explosive devices. They're not very suitable to domestic policing. They tend to tear up the road. They tend to tip over. They're really expensive to maintain, but, you know, the Defense Department built so many of them for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that they had this massive surplus, and they started giving them away to police departments across the country, basically anybody who wanted them. Even, you know, we found some towns, you know, as small as five or six thousand people that were getting these.
And, you know, the MRAPs themselves, they don't have guns on them, but I think it goes back to what we talked about earlier, which is this mindset problem. When you're driving this massive sort of hulking vehicle through your town, it makes police officers sort of feel like soldiers or an occupying force. And for the people, you know, in the community, the police look like an occupying force. And it creates a lot of tension and I think unnecessary animosity between police and the people they're supposed to be serving.
GROSS: So you trace the militarization of the police to the 1960s, to the policing of the civil rights movement, student protests, anti-war protests, the culture wars. And specifically, you go back to 1965 and the riots - or the uprising if you prefer to use that word - in Watts, in California, five nights in August. Describe what happened during those five nights.
BALKO: The riots in Watts were the product of years and years of tension between police and the Black community in Los Angeles. It was a routine traffic stop that got a little out of hand, and, you know, the whole city sort of blew up. The thing about the Watts riots I think that made them kind of a landmark in this story of police militarization is that the riots were a little bit different than other sort of race-based riots or uprisings that we had seen in that it wasn't limited to any part of the city. It was kind of pretty widespread. And there was a, at least from the police perspective, a kind of indiscriminateness to the riots. You know, they went after firefighters when they'd go to put out fires.
And so there was an officer in the Los Angeles Police Department at the time named Daryl Gates who was partly in charge of the city's response to the riots. And this struck him as, you know, sort of a new thing, a new thing that the police department was going to have to find a response to. And to him, it seemed like a type of guerilla warfare on the part of the people participating in the uprising. And he thought that Los Angeles was going to need a sort of military response to this type of sort of, you know, pseudo-guerrilla warfare as he saw it among the people participating.
So he worked with some Marines at Camp Pendleton in California and came up with this idea of a highly trained police unit that would specialize in these kinds of emergency situations. So you would have, you know, maybe a sniper. You would have somebody who was an expert in crowd control, somebody who was an expert with, you know, battering ram. And you would put these teams together, and they would - the idea was to use overwhelming force and violence to put down an already violent situation.
And so he put this team together and took it to the LA police chief at the time, and the LA police chief at the time said no. He wanted no part of it. He said this is, you know, too close to breaching this traditional kind of wall that we have between the police and the military. That police chief would pass away, and then the new chief came. Gates pitched this idea and got the green light, and we got our first SWAT team. And that's really kind of what I would call the birth of militarization in American policing, was the LA SWAT team, which was the first in the country.
GROSS: The name itself has an interesting story that you tell in your book, which is that it was initially named the Special Weapons Attack Team, which I think is the name that Daryl Gates wanted to give it. But there was objections to the word attack, so it was renamed Special Weapons And Tactics, which is a more neutral name than attack.
BALKO: Right. And the interesting thing about that story is that the mission of the SWAT team didn't change at all; it was all about perception, and they wanted to sort of be able to sell this idea. And I think they thought with the name - I think they tried both attack and assault in the title, and both of those were rejected. And they settled on Special Weapons And Tactics, which is, generally, what the acronym stands for now.
GROSS: How did that initially change the weapons and the tactics that police had?
BALKO: Well, I think, initially, it was more about tactics than weapons. I mean, the SWAT team was probably better armed than your typical patrol officer, but we hadn't yet seen this kind of wholesale transfer of military equipment from the Pentagon to local police departments. Instead, it was about tactics. It was about having a kind of militaristic, you know, well-coordinated, well-trained team that could respond to things like active shooter situations. And so the idea was you would have this highly specialized, highly trained, highly militarized unit that could respond to these kinds of emergency situations, whether it was a riot or an active shooter or a bank robbery.
You know, there were a lot of domestic terror incidents in the '60s and '70s. Again, the idea was to use overwhelming force and violence to respond to an already violent situation in order to save lives. And, you know, I'm very critical of police militarization in the book and in my writing, but I'm not anti-SWAT team. I mean, I think there is a use for these kinds of teams when they're being used properly, which is you're using this violence to quell existing violence. Unfortunately, that's not how they're predominantly used today.
GROSS: How are they predominantly used today?
BALKO: So today, they're used overwhelmingly to serve drug warrants. And, you know, this happened - this shift happened through the '80s and '90s, as the federal government started introducing more and more incentives for the drug war and to fight the drug war more aggressively. And it was really a dramatic shift in this kind of force and how this kind of force is used. There was never any, really, sort of public discussion or debate about whether it was appropriate or not.
But, you know, if you think about what I explained earlier, which is you're using this kind of force and violence to quell an already violent situation - that's what you're using it for when they're responding to an active shooter or a bank robbery. Now you're using it to serve drug warrants, which means you're breaking down somebody's door in the middle of the night. Nobody's life is at imminent risk. This is to police, you know, people for possessing or distributing drugs.
So you're actually creating violence and confrontation and volatility where there wasn't any before. And when you think about the people who are being subjected to this kind of force and violence, where, previously, it was somebody who was in the act of committing violence against another person, now you're using it against somebody who is merely suspected of committing a nonviolent drug crime.
And it's important to note that these kinds of tactics, when they're used to serve drug warrants, they're served on people who are still under investigation. These are people who haven't even been charged yet because the idea of a search warrant, of course, is to collect incriminating evidence. So you're subjecting people to this kind of force and violence and punishment. I mean, it's - being on the receiving end of a SWAT team is extremely traumatic.
There is a very low margin for error. You know, if things go wrong, someone can and often has ended up dead or severely injured. And you're also subjecting anyone else who happens to be in the house to these same types of tactics. So it was a dramatic shift in how, you know, governments use this kind of force. And it happened, you know, kind of under the fog of the drug war, and there was never really any kind of national debate about whether this was appropriate.
GROSS: Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Radley Balko, author of "Rise Of The Warrior Cop: The Militarization Of America's Police Forces." He's a columnist for The Washington Post, where he writes about criminal justice, civil liberties and the drug wars. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Radley Balko, author of "Rise Of The Warrior Cop: The Militarization Of America's Police Forces." He's also a columnist for The Washington Post.
Breonna Taylor was not killed by a SWAT team; it was just a regular police team, but you say they used SWAT team tactics.
GROSS: So can you apply what you're saying to the Breonna Taylor case?
BALKO: Right. So what we see over the '80s, '90s and 2000s is a dramatic surge in the number of SWAT teams, the frequency of their use. But at the same time, you also see these non-SWAT teams that sort of do the same thing that SWAT teams do. Those proliferate also. And what we see is a lot of drug teams, narcotics task forces, anti-gang units and task forces. They start using the same sorts of SWAT team tactics, often without the kind of training that SWAT teams get.
And so what happened in the Breonna Taylor case, you had three, basically, narcotics officers in street clothes who, you know, kicked down the door in the middle of the night the same way a SWAT team would. Only, you know, a SWAT team is highly trained. Every person on the SWAT team has a task, you know? The idea is to secure the building, the home, as quickly as possible. And, you know, they do this. They, you know - Louisville, where Breonna Taylor was killed, has a full-time SWAT team. For whatever reason, they weren't used in this particular situation. And so it's actually - you know, I think SWAT teams are way overused. I don't think they should be used for drug warrants. I think that kind of violence is inappropriate for a drug investigation.
But if you're going to do it, you should be using a highly trained SWAT team who, you know, does that. They've trained for that specific purpose. And here, you just had three cops that were sort of playing SWAT team. And, you know, this is a big problem across the country as well. It's not the case in Louisville, of course. But particular in smaller towns in sheriff's departments that don't have a full-time SWAT team, you get either a part-time SWAT team, or you get just sort of officers who, you know, kick down doors to serve warrants because that's the way it's done now.
You know, I think it goes back to this kind of two sides of militarization. I mean, the SWAT team is very emblematic of militarization in general because they've got all the gear. They've got the ballistic stuff. They've got the guns. But then you've got the mindset problem. And that is, you know - I think that's bled over into other aspects of policing where, you know, a lot of cops sort of see themselves as soldiers now. And I think that's what we had in the Breonna Taylor case.
GROSS: Let me just back up for a second and ask you to describe what happened to Breonna Taylor. But before you do, I just want to mention - there's a really bad thunderstorm where you are in Nashville right now. So occasionally, we might hear some thunder in the background.
BALKO: So Breonna Taylor was killed during a raid on her home, a drug raid on her home. The police claimed that they knocked and announced themselves. Her boyfriend, Kenneth Walker, who was with her, did not hear them announce. And last I checked, 16 neighbors claimed that, though they heard the gunshots, they did not hear the police announce themselves. And so you have three undercover narcotics officers who were in street clothes, you know, knock but don't announce themselves. And then a few seconds later, they take down the door with a battering ram.
Kenneth Walker then fired a warning shot, thinking that, you know, according to him, that they were being robbed or these were criminals who were coming to do them harm. He later called 911, which, you know, I think, validates his story. And they respond to the warning shot with just a barrage of bullets. And Breonna Taylor is struck several times and dies of her injuries. There were bullets all over the house. There were bullets in the apartment next door where a pregnant woman lived with her son. It was, you know, a very sloppy, sort of careless raid.
Breonna Taylor was not actually under investigation. The investigation was of a man that she had dated several years earlier. And the reason why she got sort of drawn into the investigation is that she had allowed this man to receive a couple of packages at her address, which the police claimed were suspicious. They also claimed that they talked to the postal - the head of the post office in Louisville, who confirmed that the packages were suspicious. He has since said that no one from the police department ever contacted him about the packages. An attorney for Taylor's family has since told me that the packages contain shoes and clothes.
But, you know, she was - she never sold drugs to anyone. She was never suspected of possessing drugs herself. She was just sort of lumped into this investigation. And, in fact, they had - I believe they had five total search warrants. They served four of them that night, all of them in this violent, you know, what they call a dynamic entry, which basically just means, you know, kicking the door down or battering the door down. Walker, her boyfriend, was initially arrested and charged with attempted murder of a police officer. Those charges were later dropped over the vociferous objections from the police union.
But, you know, the story really, you know, encapsulates everything that's wrong with these sorts of tactics. They're used indiscriminately. I don't think they're appropriate even if you're raiding the home of the main target of your investigation. But here, it's someone who's periphery to that investigation. And, in fact, the guy that they were investigating was already in custody when they raided Breonna Taylor's home.
You have an innocent woman who ends up dead. You have a - somebody inside the house who mistakes the police for criminal intruders. It just really illustrates just how volatile these kinds of raids are, how they create this unimaginable sort of confrontation and violence, and how they put, you know, the people on the receiving end of these raids in a - really, an impossible position, where you have to determine whether the people who are trying to break into your home are police or criminals.
GROSS: Well, let's take a short break here. And then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Radley Balko, a columnist for The Washington Post and author of the book "Rise Of The Warrior Cop: The Militarization Of America's Police Forces." We'll be right back after we take a short break.
I'm Terry Gross. And this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Radley Balko, author of "Rise Of The Warrior Cop: The Militarization Of America's Police Forces." It's a history of how police forces started acquiring military-grade weapons, helicopters and armored personnel carriers designed for use on a battlefield and receiving training from current and former personnel from Special Forces, like the Navy SEALs or Army Rangers. Balko says the culture of policing has become militarized, too. He writes a column for The Washington Post focusing on criminal justice, civil liberties and the drug wars.
How did SWAT teams start being used in the war on drugs during the Reagan era? And how were they used?
BALKO: So what we get is we get a proliferation in the number of SWAT teams because the Reagan administration started blurring this line that we've had between the military and the police. And yeah, we had that line for a very good reason. These are very - two very different jobs. A soldier's job is to kill people and break things - right? - to annihilate a foreign enemy. A police officer's job is to keep the peace. It's to protect and serve. They are not equivalent, although a lot of politicians over the years have seemed to think they are. But for a long time in the United States, we've had this separation between the two, you know, going back decades. And we've done a pretty good job of preserving that separation.
This starts to change in the 1980s when the Reagan administration and Reagan himself starts talking about the war on drugs and really taking that metaphor and making it very literal. So you have now police teams start training with military units across the country. You create - Reagan creates these task forces that are part military, part local police. And then he starts sort of informally instructing the Pentagon to make surplus military equipment available to police departments to use. And this really kickstarts, I think, the militarization. I mean, Nixon talked about the war on drugs. He really pushed some tactics like the no-knock raid. But Reagan really, you know, walked the walk when it comes to militarization. He really brought the military in to domestic policing. And, in fact, during the '80s, there were multiple times when Congress actually debated the idea of having the actual military patrolling U.S. streets, having Marines do drug raids, having, you know, the Navy intercept ships and do searches. And it was the objection from the military itself, some high-ranking people at the Pentagon, that killed that idea, which is a healthy thing, I think.
So what we see, though, is with all this training, this military-type training, all this gear now that's going from the Pentagon to these local police departments, you know, they're going to do something with it. So they started their own SWAT teams. And, you know, the SWAT idea was proliferating throughout the 1970s. Most major cities had one by the 1980s, but it's in the 1980s that we see them start engaging in this sort of mission creep. And now SWAT teams are being used to fight the drug war quite literally, and not just in these kinds of emergency sorts of situations.
GROSS: There's something else that led to the militarization of the drug wars and incentives to militarize the drug wars, and that's something called forfeiture, which I'd like you to explain.
BALKO: So civil asset forfeiture, it's one of those concepts that's so absurd that if somebody already hasn't heard of it and you tried to explain it to them, it doesn't sound real. But it's based on this legal fiction that a piece of property can be guilty of a crime. And it dates back to English common law where, you know, if you killed someone with a knife, the knife would become sort of the property of the king. But it's been expanded in the United States and particularly in the drug war to these really absurd lengths, where if, you know, somebody in your house is caught with drugs or, say, your son, you know, sells drugs, sells some pot out of your house, under a civil asset forfeiture, the police could claim that your house itself is guilty of that drug crime, and they can confiscate it and sell it. And the money goes back to the police department. And so in civil asset forfeiture cases, I mean, you see these absurd court names of cases like United States of America versus $156,000 or State of California versus, you know, a 1987 Corvette.
And, you know, the really sort of absurd, twisted thing about it is that the owner of the property then has to prove their innocence. They have to show that, you know, their house wasn't used in a drug crime or that the car they have was bought legitimately and not with drug money. And so, you know, how this applies to SWAT teams and the militarization of the drug wars is that now there's this financial incentive, right? You have all this gear that you got from the Pentagon. You've got this military sort of training that you have for some of your specialized officers. Now you've got a SWAT team. But, you know, there aren't a lot of, fortunately, active shooter situations in your town or city. There aren't a lot of bank robberies. It became sort of expensive to maintain the SWAT team and continue their training. But now you have this policy that allows the SWAT teams to start actually generating revenue for the police department. You go out and you serve these drug raids, and anything you find in the house, sometimes including the house itself, can be leveraged or can be sold, and the money goes back to the police department.
And this is where we really see just an absolute explosion in the use of SWAT teams to serve drug warrants. Peter Kraska, a criminologist at Eastern Kentucky, has been writing about this his - you know, most of his academic career. And, I mean, we're talking, you know, SWAT - the number of SWAT raids in a particular town or city, you know, growing by five, six, seven hundred percent, 1,000% over five or 10 years in the '80s and '90s.
GROSS: Has the kind of cash incentive that the forfeiture laws offer been challenged?
BALKO: I mean, forfeiture has been challenged all over the country. There have been - there's actually been quite a bit of reform in civil asset forfeiture, particularly in the last five or six years. But I've never seen anyone specifically challenge how it incentivizes the use of SWAT teams. I'm not sure what legal mechanism you would use to mount that challenge. I do think it's a very persuasive - to me, at least - policy argument. I mean, the idea that we should, you know, not be encouraging the use of this kind of force and violence for low-level drug crimes and we should remove the incentives to do so, I mean, I find that very persuasive. But I have not seen any sort of legal challenge based on that.
GROSS: Let's take another short break here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Radley Balko, author of "Rise Of The Warrior Cop: The Militarization Of America's Police Forces." He's a columnist for The Washington Post. We'll be back after this break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Radley Balko, author of "Rise Of The Warrior Cop: The Militarization Of America's Police Forces." He's a columnist for The Washington Post, where he writes about criminal justice, civil liberties and the drug wars.
In telling the story of how the police became militarized, let's skip ahead from where we were to 1997. You describe this as the year that opened the door to easy access to military-grade weapons. The National Defense Authorization Security Act, the bill to fund the Pentagon, that year had a provision called the 1033 program. What was that program?
BALKO: So this was the program that formalizes and codifies into federal law what had previously been this informal practice of giving surplus military equipment to local police departments. And so the 1033 program sets up an office and a staff to facilitate these transfers. And what we'll see is over the next, you know, 20, 25 years is that, literally, millions of pieces of of military equipment are going to be transferred.
And, you know, some of it is innocuous. It's computers and office supplies. But it is also helicopters and armored vehicles and, you know, .50-caliber guns, bayonets, you know, stuff that was designed for use on a battlefield, you know, against a foreign army now being used on U.S. streets and against U.S. citizens. And so the 1033 program becomes the main driver of militarization of policing in the United States until the terrorist attacks of 2001, and then we see the Department of Homeland Security becomes a major factor.
GROSS: So let's stick with 1997 for a second. So this bill authorizes military weapons to go from the military to police. What was the process like? And what kind of money was involved?
BALKO: So for the first several years, it was - the police department would call and see what was available. They would call this office. Once the Internet started becoming faster and more efficient, there's a website that police departments can log onto. They see what equipment is available. And it's, literally, given out on a first-come, first-served basis. There's no - you don't have to provide justification for why you need this particular gun or tank or helicopter; you just claim it before anybody else does.
And so the police departments, all they have to pay for is shipping - either shipping or they have to arrange, you know, some way to pick up the equipment. But for the most part, there's no payment to the government for this. There's also no training that comes with the weapons or the vehicles. They have to sort of learn that on their own. And there's - you know, up until recently, there was very little effort to track the equipment once it went to these departments. It was basically just a - here's some stuff; come and get it.
GROSS: Are there any examples from the years of this program where police used high-grade military weapons or vehicles?
BALKO: Oh, I mean, there are countless examples. I mean, the guns, you know, were used regularly. They were used by SWAT teams. They were used sometimes by just patrol officers. There were - armored vehicles were regularly used in drug raids. You know, sometimes the stuff was used for, you know, what I would consider legitimate purposes, for - to confront, you know, an active shooter or if you have, say, a domestic violence situation where somebody, you know, fires shots at the police when they arrive, that it makes sense to have an armored vehicle show up. So yeah, I mean, it was used - the stuff was used early and often. You know, it's - the police departments really wanted it, and then they got it; they used it.
GROSS: So in talking about the history of the militarization of the police, let's go to 2001. How did the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and the creation of the Department of Homeland Security increase the militarization of the police?
BALKO: After the terrorist attacks, we get DHS created in 2003. And part of its creation - or as part of its creation, DHS starts giving out anti-terrorism grants to police departments across the country, and these are grants to buy new equipment, you know, ostensibly for the purpose of fighting terrorism. And, you know, again, there's very little discrimination in terms of how the grants go out. Basically, you know, departments that can get their requests in first get the grants. They go to, you know, unlikely terrorist targets like, you know, Boise, Idaho, and Fond Du Lac, Wis. And these local places, these small towns, cities, then use these grants to buy new military-grade equipment. So this isn't surplus stuff that was, you know, sitting around in a Pentagon warehouse.
Now you have companies that have popped up to service this demand. You have companies that, you know, are sometimes military contractors who now have spun off this division to build this stuff for police departments. You have new companies that spring up. And, you know, inevitably, when you create a new industry that's sort of reliant on government like that, that industry very quickly becomes very powerful. They then start lobbying to continue and expand these policies. And now you've created what you might call a police industrial complex, which is this sort of new subindustry that now can sort of lobby for its own continued existence.
Since DHS started giving out these grants, the sheer amount of money that they've given out really dwarfs the 1033 program. This is now, you know, the primary source of military-grade equipment that police departments across the country are getting.
GROSS: So is there a lot of marketing now to police of military-grade weapons?
BALKO: Yeah, absolutely. I - several years ago, I wrote about this company that - called Lenco that makes an armored vehicle called the Bearcat. And, you know, the Bearcat is - it's a standard armored truck that police will use to shuttle their SWAT team around, or, you know, they may show up at a volatile crime scene and officers will be inside because it offers bullet-proof protection. And, you know, I don't think anybody would object to police departments having an armored truck for those purposes. But again, we get to this sort of mentality issue or the mindset issue with militarization.
And so I wrote an article several years ago about the town of Keene, N.H., whose town council wanted to take one of these DHS grants to buy a BearCat. And I spoke to a representative from BearCat who insisted that, you know, this is a peaceful vehicle, there is no need for alarm, and if it shows up at a, you know, at a situation, there's more likely to be, you know, a psychiatrist inside than a SWAT team. Then someone sent me the video that Lenco was sending to police departments across the country to market the BearCat, and it's pretty striking. It's set to the tune of AC/DC's "Thunderstruck." And there's these sort of blaring guitars as the SWAT team, you know, pulls down a shed. And they - one SWAT officer comes out of the turret on the top with a gun, and they kind of storm out of the vehicle. And, you know, it's - I don't think there were any psychiatrists (laughter) in the video, but there was a lot of - there were a lot of guns and a lot of SWAT officers.
GROSS: And what's your take on that, of that kind of marketing to police? You know, because you say the culture of police has become militarized, as well as the weapons. Is that ad also contributing to the culture of policing as well as to the weapons?
BALKO: I mean, I think it's contributing, but I also think it's - they know their audience, right? I mean, this is a company that probably has a marketing team that knows what they're doing. You know, the culture of policing is - and again, I think this goes hand-in-hand with the gear itself, but policing has become a very sort of psychologically isolated profession. And there's a strong kind of battlefield mindset I think that's taken over. One thing - if you go to police forums online and kind of snoop a little bit, you'll see this phrase over and over again, whatever I have to do to get home at night. And that's - you know, that is not to protect and serve as sort of mantra. That's a - you know, that's a soldier's mantra. I'm just going to try to survive.
And I've written a little bit about the culture of police T-shirts. If you go to, like, Police Week in D.C., for example, you'll see a lot of really disturbing shirts about, you know, sort of glorifying police violence. There was one a couple of years ago of - with a quote from Hemingway about - I can't remember the exact wording, but sort of the greatest thrill in life is to hunt another man or, you know, that kind of glorification of violence. I've also written a lot about the culture of SWAT teams. And a lot of SWAT teams will have their own sort of emblem or patch that they wear. And inevitably, you'll see these patches will have - I just thought wrote about the one in Broward County, Fla., for example. The SWAT team there, their sort of unofficial emblem is an executioner's axe crossed with the Grim Reaper's scythe and this sort of bible verse about, you know, how agents of the state are sort of protectors and vigilantes.
It's troubling and disturbing that, you know, policing has reached this point where there's this kind of glorification of violence, this willingness to see themselves as kind of the last, you know, wall between civilization and chaos. And I think that militarization over the years as an official policy has played a big role in that.
GROSS: Do you think that becomes a cycle of that if the culture becomes more militarized, then people who see themselves in that kind of us-and-them military situation are more likely to join the police?
BALKO: Oh, absolutely. And, you know, another unfortunate trend that we've seen written about is you can go to YouTube and type in police recruiting video. And these are videos that they send to high schools and colleges to recruit new officers. And it's gotten better in the last couple of years, but you can still find a lot of them - you know, the things they highlight about policing are repelling out of helicopters and kicking down doors and siccing dogs on people. There's very - you know, it's all about sort of the, you know, kicking butt and taking names and less about sort of community service and helping people.
And that's at the very first step of the process, right? I mean, you know, I think back to people I went to high school with. And, you know, the people who had seen that video and said, yeah, that's what I want to do with my life are probably the last person I'd want to give a badge and a gun to. So, you know, even at that early a stage, we're selecting for people who might be going into policing for the wrong reasons.
GROSS: We need to take another short break here. So let's do that, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Radley Balko, author of "Rise Of The Warrior Cop: The Militarization Of America's Police Forces." He's also a columnist for The Washington Post. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Radley Balko, author of "Rise Of The Warrior Cop: The Militarization Of America's Police Forces." He's also a columnist for The Washington Post, where he writes about criminal justice, civil liberties and the drug wars.
There are calls now since the George Floyd protests to defund or disband the police. What does that mean to you when you hear it?
BALKO: It means a lot of different things. I mean. I think there are people who - activists who who are very sincere that they want to zero-out funding for police departments. And they want to find other ways of dealing with crime and violence. And I also think that there are some good policies that fall under the defund movement that should be considered on their own - for their own sake and on their own terms. You know, we could dramatically reduce the footprint of policing in the U.S. And I think what we would end up with is police departments that are more efficient. There would be a lot fewer police officers. But the ones that remain, you could be more selective about. You could pay them more.
But there are - you know, policing has become our kind of go-to resource for every other area in which we've sort of failed to, you know, take care of people or to address certain social ills. My sort of pet issue is, you know, there's no reason why our traffic laws need to be enforced by police officers. You could use cameras with the right policies. You could use sort of the equivalent of parking meter enforcers, unarmed people who could just - you know, if you committed a traffic violation, they could write your plate number down and send it in. You get a ticket in the mail.
We could also just have fewer traffic laws. I mean, I think a lot of - we've seen - particular since Ferguson, we've seen that a lot of the traffic laws are more about generating revenue for local governments than they are about actual highway safety. And if you think about sort of all the incidents we've seen over the last 10 years or so that have escalated and led to kind of some of these viral videos we've seen, a large, large percentage of them originated in traffic stops that escalated. Traffic stops are, you know, the primary use of racial profiling. Traffic searches, you know, create a lot of tension and animus. You think about somebody like Philando Castile, who had been pulled over I think it was 17 times for low-level traffic violations before he was finally shot and killed by a police officer. That would go a long way.
So you know, I think there's a lot of - from kind of moderates and people on the right, there's a lot of focus on that word defund as if that's a reason to not take the protesters and activists seriously. I think that there are a lot of good ideas sort of behind that word. And we should get beyond it and sort of find, you know, areas where we can start actually thinking creatively and imaginatively about policing and look for less aggressive, less confrontational ways to address issues like mental health crises, roadway safety, school safety, you know, ways that don't involve having an armed, you know, officer present to enforce those areas - in those areas.
GROSS: Have you ever had any incidents where you felt you were treated unfairly by police or where you were injured by police in any way?
BALKO: No, but I'm white. And, you know, I've actually had incidents where I was pulled over. And I argued with police about whether I should have to take a roadside sobriety test. In that case, I mean, I was sober. But I also knew that those tests could be manipulated. And I had a debate with the officer about it. I don't imagine that I would have been able to do that if I weren't white. And my wife is actually Latina. And both she and her family - several members of her family - have had bad experiences with police.
She had one in particular where she was, you know, searched on the side of the road. And, you know, first - when she told me about it, the first thing she said is she apologized to me because she gave the cop permission to search the car. But she also said I just didn't feel like I could argue about it, you know, because I didn't want to escalate the situation. So I think, you know - I think this is one of the areas with these protests, I think, where we're seeing a mass shift in public consciousness. And that is that white people are starting to sort of finally see and, if not appreciate, at least educate themselves about what it means to be a person of color when it comes to interactions with police officers.
GROSS: Radley Balko, thank you so much for talking with us.
BALKO: My pleasure. Thanks for having me on.
GROSS: Radley Balko is a columnist for The Washington Post and author of "Rise Of The Warrior Cop: The Militarization Of America's Police Forces." Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, our guest will be Patrick Stewart. This year, he returned to the role he's most famous for, Jean-Luc Picard, in the series "Star Trek: Picard." He played Picard in several "Star Trek" films and seven seasons of "The Next Generation." Before that, he was a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company. I hope you'll join us.
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GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering from Charlie Kaier. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Joel Wolfram. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.
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