Warriors Instead of Guardians

Three Questions with Radley Balko

By Nathaniel Epstein

Interviewer: There was an article in the Times recently about the rise in crime in several major cities across America. The article attributed the rise in crime to the backlash against police. Some say that, because of protests, the police feel less inclined to get involved. What do you think about this?

Balko: First, it’s impossible to say what would be causing a rise in crime. We don’t even know what caused it to drop for the past 25 years. Second, the Times kind of cherry picked that data for the article. They picked four major cities and three medium cities. A criminologist just wrote, I don’t remember his name, an article for the Marshall Project about this. The Times only referenced 3 of the 20 major cities in America, so this criminologist looked at the other 17 cities and found that their homicide rates were either down or unchanged. And I’m sure it’s the same case for the medium sized city, where the Times referenced only 4 out of the 35 medium- sized cities in the United States. So the point is, it’s not even clear if there is a rise in crime. Now, obviously, there are several big cities that are seeing a rise in crime, but blaming people who want to reform the police, or the Black Lives Matter movement, there is just no data that supports that. Even if there was a rise in crime, there is no evidence to show that criticizing cops is the reason. You can’t just pick a reason that fits your ideology.

Interviewer: You say the drug war is a big reason for the militarization of the police, how would you change drug policy in the United States?

Balko: I mean, I’m a libertarian, so I would choose to legalize all drugs. I would probably do it in a federalist- type system. Basically, I would end the federal drug war tomorrow,. tThen leave it up to the states to decide what they want to do on an individual level. Most states, I think, would choose to focus on legalization and treatment instead of punishment and enforcement. This would probably be the model that works best. Look at Portugal, who have basically decriminalized drugs have seen a massive amount of success. They’re seen drops in drug addicted, drug arrests and drug deaths;. tThey rely on care and treatment based system. I think we also have to get away from the idea that all people who use drugs are drug addicts;, statistically speaking, that number is very small. But still, their system is a better one than we have now. The system we have now creates underground markets and turf wars. When you make something illegal, the actors in those markets are much more likely to use guns to settle disputes. You never see two liquor stores shoot it out over turf. They compete in the market place.

Interviewer: What do you think the effect of the militarization of the police has had on civil liberties?

Balko: I think it’s taken a terrible toll on civil liberties. Not only from an equipment and weapons standpoint, but also unease about the idea weapons that are supposed to be used on the battlefield are being used on American streets and in American cities. Another component of the minimization is this mindset problem. Cops are constantly told that they are at war and that it’s us versus them. They are told that the people that they are supposed to be serving and guarding are actually their enemies. They are told that every interaction could be their last. There is this police myth of ‘there is no such thing as a routine traffic stop’ because even a routine traffic stop could turn deadly or could turn into an ambush. I think the problem then is, is that those ideas of enforced by a few high-publicized incidences. These incidences get plastered all over the news, and it makes it seem like it happens much more regularly than it actually does. It happens four or five Timesa year out of 15-20 million traffic stops,. sSo the chances of it happening are infinitesimal. But it puts this fear into their minds, and it aeffects how they interact with people and the kind of relationship they have with the community. It changes the relationship the cops have with the communities and makes them warriors instead of guardians. 

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