Radley Balko book points to Utah for examples of drug war problems

Nonfiction • "Rise of the Warrior Cop" examines changing American police.
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Not much crime occurs in Logan and Spanish Fork, which is why journalist Radley Balko names the two Utah towns as examples of what's wrong with modern policing.

In his new book, "Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America's Police Forces," Balko contends, the Logan SWAT team "creates violence out of nonviolent crime" by kicking down doors belonging to suspected drug dealers.

Balko also describes a 2005 episode in Spanish Fork in which multiple SWAT teams and uniformed officers busted a rave. Video captured police in body armor carrying assault rifles, pinning suspects to the ground and swearing at partygoers as a helicopter circled.

Logan and Spanish Fork are discussed only in one paragraph each in the book and get off easy compared with other cities. After all, police in those two towns have never stormed the wrong house and shot its law-abiding occupant.

Police raids are a vehicle through which Balko, a senior writer and investigative reporter for The Huffington Post, chronicles the history of policing in the United States, the rise of SWAT teams, the drug war and how the Bill of Rights doesn't go as far as it once did. It's a well-researched book that piques the reader's intellect as much as it does his or her emotions.

Balko doesn't lament the dissipation of the Fourth Amendment as much as he does the Third, which prohibits quartering soldiers without the owner's consent. He argues the Third Amendment is a symbol againstusing armies to police civilians, as the British did before the American Revolution.

He describes the line blurring as the U.S. Navy patrols the coasts for drug smugglers, the National Guard raids marijuana-growing operations and the Pentagon gives billions of dollars worth of guns, grenade launchers, armored vehicles and other equipment to local police.

Balko contends in the introduction he did not write an anti-cop book. Instead, he says, this is an anti-politician book. One of the people who come under the most scrutiny is Vice President Joe Biden, who as a U.S. senator pushed anti-crime legislation and funding that armed local police better than some militaries and rewarded them for pursuing drug offenders over violent criminals.

Balko faults local judges, too. He cites data that show judges seldom question police officers about the evidence before signing search warrants that allow entry into homes, whether with a knock or a surprise battering ram.

The long list of botched raids by SWAT teams is Balko's own flash-bang grenade, shocking the reader so he or she wonders what is going on. "Rise of the Warrior Cop" doesn't purport to be a balanced examination of policies, which is why Balko doesn't give much credence to police officers' claims they need body armor and bigger guns to stay safe. Nevertheless, omitting discussion of those concerns dehumanizes U.S. police officers, which is what Balko accuses muscled police of doing to drug suspects and other citizens.

For those who think SWAT teams and an atrophied Bill of Rights are problems, Balko offers some remedies. The federal government should stop funding local drug task forces that conduct so many raids, he says. State legislatures and city councils should pass laws restricting the use of SWAT teams to true emergencies and force police departments to publish statistics on search and seizures, including errant raids.

"Rise of the Warrior Cop" is really about the drug war, and Balko has no optimism that policy makers are willing to end that. Even if you think American police are doing a great job, the book is worth reading to learn how the police and the citizens crept to where they are today and their choices of where to go next.


Twitter: @natecarlisle —

Author visits Salt Lake City

Radley Balko will discuss his new book "Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America's Police Forces." A question-and-answer session follows the presentation.

When • Thursday, Aug. 29, at 7 p.m.

Where • Salt Lake City Main Library, 210 E. 400 South

Cost • Free; books will be available for purchase and Balko will sign them after his presentation.