CHICAGO — If Radley Balko is right, it may be the dog lovers of America who touched off a movement to rein in the strong-arm tactics that have accompanied the militarization of the country’s police forces.
Balko, who writes The Washington Post’s “The Watch” blog on criminal justice issues, says that police these days too frequently shoot people’s pets when making a raid, and people are becoming fed up.
I recently read Balko’s book, “Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces,” after spending some time in a firearms class. In that class was a retired policeman who firmly subscribed to the “us vs. them” mentality Balko so vividly illustrates.
Starting with a history of law enforcement, Balko follows its tenuous flirtation with the norms and practices of the armed forces to today’s proliferation of S.W.A.T.-like local police departments. He provides a painful history of the progression from President Richard Nixon’s War on Drugs through the decades-long erosion of private citizens’ rights to have their homes treated as sanctuary from violence to the all-too-common “collateral damage” incidents that dot our news feeds.
No one, and no political party, is spared from a scathing critique of the wisdom of soldiering-up local police officers and making violent, highly militarized raids everyday occurrences. Notably, Balko’s sources are less often the innocent victims of botched raids, accidental shootings, wrong-address nighttime blitzes and flash-bomb takedowns — or their advocates — though their stories come through clearly.
Mostly, the voices of those speaking out about the dangers of invade-and-conquer law enforcement are of professionals in the field who either carried out militarization programs themselves or tried, in vain, to keep brute force — and its accompanying mindset — from encroaching on their beloved profession.
Balko provides seemingly endless examples of state-sanctioned violence and paramilitary-style policing even as he fairly portrays the danger that law enforcement officials have to deal with in their demanding jobs. It cannot be said enough that “Rise of the Warrior Cop” is in no way a partisan, overly emotional or pacifist anti-police screed — but learning how calloused we’ve all become to this type of enforcement stopped me cold.
Balko cites anecdotal evidence among his network of law enforcement researchers and educators showing that too often people calmly accept that unwarranted violations of privacy and violent tactics are appropriate for “bad guys,” murderers and drug dealers, even their wives and children. But they get very angry when they hear about pets being harmed and routinely killed.
“At first, that may seem to indicate that people callously value the lives of pets more than the lives of people,” Balko writes. “But the fact that killing the dog during these raids has become nearly routine in many police agencies demonstrates just how casually those agencies have come to accept drug war collateral damage. When I started logging cop-shoots-dog incidents on my blog (under the probably sensational term ‘puppycide’), people began sending me new stories as they happened. Cops are now shooting dogs at the slightest provocation. As of this writing, I’m sent accounts of a few incidents each week.”
The public outcry about pets as collateral damage has actually gotten a handful of police departments to mandate training, Balko writes. He quotes Russ Jones, a former narcotics officer with the San Jose Police Department and the Drug Enforcement Agency: “I don’t understand it at all. I guess somewhere along the line a cop shot a dog under questionable circumstances and got away with it. Word got out, and now it seems like some cops are just looking for reasons to take a shot at a dog. Maybe it just comes down to that — we can get away with it, therefore we do it.”
If Balko gets one point across, it’s that the days of law enforcement getting away with strong-arm and often deadly tactics in the name of maintaining safety and order are coming to an end.
The proliferation of mobile phones with cameras, video that can be remotely streamed directly to the Internet and the instantaneous sharing of both through social media are making it so that evidence of law enforcement overreach can be preserved as proof.
But first, we have to be aware that these instances of overly harsh tactics affect innocent, law-abiding citizens — not just the canine kind — and we can no longer afford to accept our civil rights getting so blithely trampled.