When I was growing up in a small town on the coast of California in the 1970s, I had a very benign view of the police. This view was heavily shaped, no doubt, by living in a small town in which the crime rate was low and the police few and local. But it was also shaped by the many police procedural dramas on TV at the time: Adam-12 (1968-75), Hawaii Five-O (1968-1980), The Streets of San Francisco (1972-77), Baretta (1975-78), Starsky and Hutch (1975-79), Charlie’s Angels (1976-81) and CHiPs (1977-83). In all of these shows – at least as I recall them – the cops were the good guys, the heroes, at the end of the day.
By the 1980s, my view of the police became more complex. This did not result from personal experience, however. It was entirely a product of the media, though this time it was music not television that shaped my understanding. I remember sitting in my tract house in my small hometown watching a newish cable network, USA Network, and their music video program, “Night Flights.” The video for the rap group Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s 1982 song “The Message” came on, and it was a revelation to me. The verbal and visual images the song painted of the economic desolation of the South Bronx, and its related psychological desperation, opened up a new world to me.
“Don’t push me ‘cause I’m close to the edge. I’m tryin’ not to lose my head. It’s like a jungle, sometimes it makes me wonder how I keep from going under.” The words will probably always be with me. So too will a vignette at the end of the song in which members of the rap group are hanging out on a street corner talking when, tires screeching, they are rolled up on by the police. The following dialogue ensues:
Officer: Freeze! Don’t nobody move nothin’! You know what this is. Get ‘em up. Get ‘em up.
Group: We down with Grandmaster Flash and Furious Five.
Officer: What is that, a gang?
Group: Na, man.
Officer: Shut up. I don’t want to hear your mouth.
Group: Excuse me officer, officer, what’s the problem?
Officer: You tha problem.
Group: Yo, you ain’t got to push me, man.
Officer: Get in the car. I said get in the car!
Although I personally was never distrustful or afraid of the police, the experience represented in the song helped me to understand why some people would be. That people could be victims of the police was a revelation.
It was only a matter of time, it seems, before the experience portrayed at the end of “The Message” moved to the front and center. In some cases, as with rapper KRS-One, this was presented in a thoughtful way. I think of songs like “Illegal Business,” in which KRS-One talks about corrupt police shaking down drug dealers to allow them to stay in business. In other, more high profile cases, the perspective was deliberately provocative and blunt. I think immediately of the emergence of gangsta rap, especially the Compton-based group N.W.A.’s 1988 song “F&%@ Tha Police.” In the song, members of the group each take the stand to testify against the police before the judge, group member Dr. Dre. They cite a litany of police violations and suggest violent action against the police in return.
A few years later, rapper Ice-T’s 1992 song “Cop Killer” (released by his band Body Count) gained national attention and earned the scorn of President George H.W. Bush, Vice President Dan Quayle, Tipper Gore, and many others. The song’s repeated refrain of “F&%@ tha police” connects it back to N.W.A.’s pioneering song, as does its criticism of the L.A.P.D. and specifically Captain Daryl Gates, whose officers were infamously caught on tape in 1991 beating Rodney King.
Fast forward 20+ years. I am reading Radley Balko’s The Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces (PublicAffairs, 2013). Balko is a senior writer for the Huffington Post, and formerly a policy analyst for the Cato Institute and senior editor for Reason magazine. His book is a critique of the indirect militarization of America’s civilian law enforcement agencies, which he defines as “when police agencies and police officers take on more and more characteristics of an army” (p. 35). This movement began in late 1960s with the riots and social unrest of the time and accelerated in the 1980s with the war on drugs. It is during this time that the idea of special quasi-military police units, Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT), were born and dramatically expanded.
Early in Balko’s book, I was interested to read the name of the person who “did more to bring about today’s militarized American police force than another other single person. His name was Daryl Gates” (p. 35). So, the gangsta rapper Ice-T and a guy from the Cato Institute have a common enemy. Very interesting.
Indeed, in the same way “The Message” was a revelation, so too was Balko’s expose. Beyond the examples Balko gives of police militarization and its negative consequences, and there are many in this book, is the more general idea that criticism and distrust of the police cuts across the political spectrum. From Richard Nixon to Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush, I always saw “conservatives” as being for “law and order” and so always looking for opportunities to expand and fight a “war on crime” or a “war on drugs.” But Balko demonstrates that this doesn’t always sit well with libertarian conservatives, like those associated with the Cato Institute. (Who may not even consider themselves “conservatives,” I suppose.)
Indeed, I was interested to learn that the Cato Institute has a National Police Misconduct Reporting Project, which chronicles instances of police misconduct such as a Raleigh County, West Virginia sheriff’s deputy pleading guilty to a charge of domestic battery, a Jennings, Louisiana police chief pleading guilty to two counts of malfeasance in office, and a Niceville, Florida police officer’s being given a criminal citation after he allowed his girlfriend to drive to the police station to pick him up even though her driver license has been suspended (all quotes from events reported on the website for November 15, 2013).
One of my favorite shows growing up was SWAT (1975-76). The theme song easily comes to mind even today, as does the scene in the show’s opening of the team grabbing their rifles off the rack and jumping into the back of their plain black truck. Back then, Hondo, Street, Luca, McCabe, and Deacon were the good guys, using special weapons and tactics to fight the bad guys, and win. Radley Balko’s The Rise of the Warrior Cop makes me long for the simpler days of my youth.