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Rise of the Warrior Cop, 10 years on
Looking back on Ferguson, George Floyd, and the decade in American policing since my first book was published
Ten years ago this week, my first book, Rise of the Warrior Cop, was published. The book itself was the culmination of about a decade of work on the issue of police militarization. So here's a look back at the book itself, and what’s happened in policing since it came out.
I’ll start with an anecdote I haven’t told many people: When I finished a first draft of the manuscript, I sent it out to a few people for feedback. The very first person to send back comments was . . . not impressed. I won’t name him because his criticism seemed well-intended and sincere. But it was a pretty prominent criminal justice scholar. He opened with “this was not the book I was expecting,” then explained why he disliked my framing and why he thought the book would flop. I was terrified.
Fortunately, he also turned out to be wrong. The book was very well reviewed, and while it wasn’t an instant bestseller, it has consistently sold well since. It earned back my advance within a few months, and I’ve continued to receive a nice royalty check twice a year. It isn’t retire early and move to Tuscany money. But it’s nice weekend getaway money.
I’m told the book is regularly assigned in college criminal justice classes around the country, as well as in a few police academies and law enforcement management courses. A couple years ago, I published a revised edition, updating the narrative through the end of the Trump administration.
Warrior Cop was actually my third book proposal. I had previously sent around two proposals in the mid-2000s. Both were shot down by every major publisher. The main feedback from editors was that while they personally loved the proposals, their bosses didn’t think books about the criminal justice system would sell. It wasn’t until the violent police crackdowns on the Occupy encampments that publishers started to think a book about policing could do well.
Warrior Cop did well enough that one of those first two failed proposals eventually became my second book, which I co-wrote with Tucker Carrington. That book, too, was very well reviewed and quickly earned back our advance.
I bring all of this up just to point out that for most authors, failure is part of the process. If you’re an aspiring writer, know that you’re probably going to get rejected quite a bit before you get the opportunity write a book. It isn’t necessarily a reflection of the quality of what you’re proposing. Publishers can be wrong.
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Warrior Cop occupies an interesting, at times uncomfortable niche — it gets a bump in sales when there’s a major police abuse story in the news. Sales took off after Ferguson, for example, and then again after George Floyd was killed. This a weird space to occupy — to essentially benefit from other people’s trauma. So when the book surged after Floyd’s death and the ensuing protests in 2020, I donated half the royalties to charities that work with the children of incarcerated people (Project Aviary and Children of Promise NYC — I recommend both!).
The book has also accelerated my career. It provided a platform in and of itself, and helped me get a job at the Washington Post. And that opened up a lot of other opportunities.So I’m grateful to my agent Howard Yoon and the editors and publishers at PublicAffairs for taking a chance on it. If you think you have a book in you, I recommend it. I even enjoyed the actual process of writing, especially the research.
One final amusing anecdote: I never thought there would be much interest in optioning Warrior Cop for a movie or TV series. (As opposed to our Cadaver King book, which someone really needs to turned into an “Anti-CSI” TV series.) But we did get one offer — from someone who had once been associated with the Ice Capades. I don’t recall if it was an owner or investor, but I thought it was very funny, and I’ve since been obsessed with the idea that someone — Trey Parker and Matt Stone, are you reading this? — ought to make a “SWAT on ICE” musical. Or just a SWAT musical. I recently asked an AI generator to imagine how it might look.
That’s the personal stuff.
Here’s what’s happened in policing over the last decade . . .
There has definitely been some positive change. The Obama administration was the first in my lifetime to actually advocate for police reform, or really to even admit that policing needs reform. Many of the administration’s actual policies were more symbolic than substantive, though to be fair that’s probably in part a function of the federal government’s limited role in state and local criminal justice policy.
But after a generation of administrations escalating the war on drugs and pushing policies to further empower and militarize the police, Obama was the first U.S. president was willing to say that perhaps things had gone too far. That isn’t nothing.
Most of the Obama reforms came after Ferguson. I think the public reaction to the protests there gave the administration some political cover. Two now-iconic images — one of a police sniper pointing his weapon at peaceful protesters, the other of a cop decked out in full commando garb pointing his gun at an unarmed black man with his hands in the air — stoked public outrage and brought new scrutiny for police militarization.
Some of the most compelling criticism came from veterans of the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Bosnia who were floored that 1) police in Ferguson appeared to be better equipped than many U.S. troops had been in those wars, and 2) the callous, almost casual displays of force. Some veterans pointed out that the military had stricter rules of engagement and showed better gun discipline when engaging with foreign combatants than police did with protesters in Ferguson. They also pointed out the police officials’ bumbling attempts at crowd control — that protests in Ferguson began peacefully, and that violence in the city nearly always followed a police escalation. All of which is to say that the police in Ferguson seemed more militarized than the military.
In the end, while there were some substantive changes to the municipal courts system in St. Louis County, Ferguson didn’t bring much in the way of national reform. The Obama administration made some changes to the 1033 program (the process by which the Pentagon gives surplus military equipment to police agencies around the country), but by that point, most police departments were getting their militarized gear from other sources, like DHS, forfeiture proceeds, and even private donations.
The administration also deployed the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division to conduct more investigations of systemic problems in policing, and published a series of recommendations for broader reform. But again, unless the civil rights reports came with a consent degree, this was all voluntary, and all largely symbolic.
The George Floyd protests have been a different story. Three years later, it seems safe to say that the 2020 demonstrations brought real, substantive change. Not enough, but more than in any of my 20 years on this beat. If you had told me in 2018 that within five years, dozens of cities and a few states would impose restrictions or outright bans on no-knock raids, I’d have rolled my eyes at you. We’ve also seen a wave of bans on chokeholds, and state restrictions on civil asset forfeiture (though many of those pre-date 2020). A few states have even stripped police of the qualified immunity that shields police officers from federal lawsuits when they’re sued in state court. We’ve seen reformist police executives take over many big city police agencies, where they’ve implemented policies like mandatory deescalation, prohibitions on shooting into moving cars, and barring high-speed chases for minor offenses. We’ve even seen some jurisdictions attempt to limit the role of police in traffic enforcement.
Many of these reforms were only possible because of the protests that followed the killing of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. For all the criticism of “defund” and police abolitionists, the protests dramatically shifted public opinion in a way we haven’t seen since the civil rights era. There’d been some movement in polling after Ferguson, the death of Eric Garner, and other high-profile incidents of police violence, but within months public opinion tended to regress back to the mean.
That hasn’t been the case since the George Floyd protests. Recent polling still shows a strong majority support for a broad range of reform policies, with most losing just a few points since the summer of 2020. A YouGov poll from early this year showed huge majorities still favor significant reforms like ending qualified immunity (+25 percent), creating a national database of police misconduct (+60 percent), prohibiting no-knock raids (+20 percent), and prohibiting police from using military-grade equipment (+15 percent).
It’s hard to overstate the significance of this shift. Prior to Ferguson, public support for all but the most cosmetic police reforms was pretty much nonexistent. Even after Ferguson, it remained pretty low. The 2020 protests not only spurred a massive swing in public opinion, support for reform has remained high even as crime has gone up, and even as one of the two major political parties has gone out of its way to demagogue police reform as a major contributor to violence and disorder. It’s notable that in that YouGov poll, a plurality of Republicans still favor every reform polled but two — banning no-knock raids and prohibiting military gear.
The country clearly wants change. The main barrier right now is politicians.
This brings us to less positive developments. We can start at the federal level. Congress doesn’t have a whole lot of power to affect policing policy, but a federal bill after George Floyd would at least have set a good example for the states. That never happened. With a split Congress, the Democrats jettisoned the Republicans’ (extremely paltry) bill, and the Republicans disposed of the Democrats’ (less paltry, but only just) bill.
And while the reforms I mentioned above are encouraging, nearly all of them have come from progressive cities and states. In red states, many legislatures have backslid, passing or attempting to pass laws to restrict protest, limiting liability for violence against protesters, restricting the right to record police in public, and passing preemptory legislation to override the will of voters who opt for reform.
The problem is that though a healthy majority of the country thinks policing is in need of change, there’s a loud, well-funded, and politically powerful constituency that feels otherwise — groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, older voters, and police and prison guard unions. (I suppose we can also now add “middle aged tech bros” to the mix.)
Successful reform means overcoming political inertia, and to do that you need to convince politicians of one of two things:
1) The support they’ll get from backing reform is greater than what the support they’ll lose for abandoning the status quo.
2) Reformers are capable of imposing a political cost for failing to support their policies.
But for offices like governor, mayor, or Congress, elections are rarely decided on one issue, or even a set of related issues. While a majority of voters might support criminal justice reform, only a very small percentage of them will vote exclusively on those issues.
Reformers have had more success in district attorney races because those races isolate these issues. A DA race is about as close as it gets to a referendum on criminal justice policy.
Because of this, there’s a big gap right now between public opinion and public policy. Qualified immunity is a good example. Polls since 2020 have consistently shown that about 60 percent of the public supports ending qualified immunity. But almost none of that 60 percent is likely to vote on the issue. A politician who publicly entertains the idea of reforming qualified immunity might get some positive feedback from a small part of that 60 percent, but there just isn’t a constituency whose vote will ride on that issue. But those same politicians will hear from angry police unions, prison guard unions, and police officials. They’ll probably also hear from city government officials who don’t want to pay out more in awards and settlements.
The other major impediment to reform has emerged over the last 6-7 years, and it’s been particularly disappointing. It’s Trumpism, which has enveloped policing issues into the culture war.
One of the most encouraging developments when Warrior Cop was first published was the pan-partisan response. The book received positive reviews from The New Yorker, Salon, and the New York Journal of Books, but also from National Review, the American Conservative, and the Wall Street Journal. It was well received by both activists and former law enforcement officers. I did radio interviews with both Michael Graham and the Pacifica Network, with Fox News and Chris Hayes. I talked to the Blaze and with Democracy Now! on the same day.
This was heartening, because a running theme throughout the book is how police militarization was able to flourish because people only tended to speak up when the trend threatened them or their perceived allies. In the 1990s, for example, conservative pundits and politicians railed against the excessive police tactics at Waco and Ruby Ridge, and then against the Clinton administration’s aggressive enforcement of federal gun laws more generally. Progressives were mostly dismissive of these complaints, or occasionally defended the ATF.
But when the same Clinton administration began sending federal SWAT teams to raid clinics after California legalized medical marijuana, it was progressives who spoke out, while the right largely remained silent.
When the book came out, those positions seemed to be softening. Partisans seemed more capable of empathizing with victims of police violence on the other side. Conservatives had been alarmed at the proliferation of armed police forces inside bureaucracies like the IRS and the Department of Education, and some began to see the connection between the arming of the bureaucratic state and the militarization of day-to-day policing, from the enforcement of drug laws, to the aggressive fines-and-fees regimes in places like Ferguson, to the aggressive police response to protest.
Then Trump happened. Because of the crime surge during the pandemic, it’s easy to overlook the absurdity of Trump’s crime demagoguery in the 2016 campaign — that he tried to play up fear of violence and disorder while crime was at a historic low. Violent crime had ticked up slightly in 2016, Obama’s last year in office, but that came after a year with the lowest crime rates in modern U.S. history. Despite dire predictions from law-and-order pundits that police reform would usher in a new era of violence, crime continued to fall when cities like New York ended policies like stop and frisk.
And Trump’s rhetoric worked. The absurdity of all came to a head at Trump’s inauguration, when he delivered that apocalyptic “American Carnage” address — just as he had just inherited the lowest homicide rate of any U.S. President in 50 years. Four years later, he’d become the first president in 30 years to leave the White House with a higher homicide rate than when he entered.
For most of the time I’ve covered this beat, crime has been in decline, which obviously makes a friendlier environment to argue for reform. In that time, I’d often wondered how the debate would change when crime inevitably swung up again — if we’d give in to fear and repeat the same mistakes of the past. I generally assumed we would. What I didn’t expect was for the backlash to begin before crime had even stopped falling.
Stoking fear of crime is nothing new, of course. Nixon, Reagan, and the first Bush all cynically appealed to (white) fear of (black) crime to get elected. But they were at least responding to actual increases in violence.
Trump is a 76-year-old Manhattan real estate mogul who became a public figure in the 1980s and 1990s. That’s the perspective through which he sees the world — it’s a perspective perpetually lodged in the crack era. On crime, he’s basically a stack of old New York Posts that came to life, took human form, and got itself elected president.
Trump and his surrogates ignored the good data, and argued instead that police reforms had prevented cops from doing their jobs, and given criminals free rein to prey on the public. He celebrated police brutality. He talked about “unleashing” police officers, and made a big deal of reversing Obama’s relatively modest, mostly symbolic reforms.
So even as the George Floyd protests significantly moved the needle on public opinion, Trumpism drew a firm line in the sand for Republicans — you were with cops, order, and decency, or you were with Marxists, Black Lives Matter, and criminals.
I think I first noticed just how successful Trump’s police culture warring had been after the killing of Breonna Taylor. Right-wing groups had engaged in online campaigns to justify Taylor’s death, typically by smearing her. This too was nothing new, and none of the information those groups put out about her — accurate or fictional — justified the reckless and wholly disproportionate violence police used to raid her home. The police had lied on a search warrant (a warrant that would have been illegal anyway), then kicked down the door to the apartment of a woman who, at best, was tangentially connected to a man suspected of selling drugs. When Taylor’s boyfriend Kenneth Walker then used lethal force to defend the two of them — as every law-and-order conservative believes he had the right to do — the officers indiscriminately sprayed two homes with gunfire.
But the goal of spreading disinformation about Taylor was never to win on the facts. It was to muddy the waters, to sow distrust by suggesting there was more to the story than the media and racial justice activists wanted you to know. This set the stage for the infamous press conference by Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron, one in which he disgorged a firehose of misinformation. The right-wing disnfo machines then went to work.
Cameron characterized Taylor’s death as a tragedy, but then chastised what he claimed was a false narrative in the media. Contradicting claims that the raid was a “no-knock” raid, he cited a neighbor who said he’d heard police knock and announce themselves prior to the shooting. Cameron failed to point out that 11 other neighbors heard no announcement — a good indication that Walker and Taylor probably didn’t hear one either. Even the witness cited by Cameron had previously told investigators he heard no announcement — twice. It was only during a third interview with police that he said he heard an announcement, and he only heard one.
Cameron also failed to point out that the same narcotics team had mistakenly battered their way into other homes. He never mentioned a report from a criminologist who had embedded with police department and found that Louisville police routinely conducted illegal no-knock raids. A thorough investigation should have uncovered all of this. And indeed, the subsequent DOJ investigation did.
We would later learn that Cameron not only misled the public at his press conference, he also withheld critical information from the grand jury investigating Taylor’s death. Cameron would ride the right-wing renown he gained to a prime speaking slot at the 2020 RNC. He is now the GOP nominee for Kentucky governor.
As with Trump’s photo-op at St. John’s Church, Cameron used his position and authority to set in motion an alternate reality, one in which the media and protesters had badly botched the facts of Taylor’s death, and were too quick to blame police. It’s the narrative that has dominated MAGA world ever since.
The response to Taylor’s death was the culmination of a shift I’d started to notice in how formerly sympathetic limited government conservatives and right-leaning libertarians had begun to respond to these sorts of stories. I saw it most often in my Facebook timeline, the social media account I’ve had longest, and where where my followers and readers tend to be more conservative. The skepticism some right-leaning people had shown about police narratives in the past was gradually overtaken by a deep skepticism and contempt for racial justice activists and what they saw as those activists’ enablers in the media.
Skepticism of media reports isn’t bad in and of itself, of course. Activists and the media have gotten some of these stories wrong (I’m not immune from blame here — I can think of a couple incidents in which I was too credulous of initial reports of police abuse, though I’ve tried to conspicuously correct my mistakes once I’m aware of them.)
Unfortunately, that skepticism came by way of deference to narratives pushed by law enforcement authorities like Cameron.
At about the same time, there was also an uptick in my feed of people sharing stories about white victims of police brutality, such as the chilling and outrageous murder of Daniel Shaver, and the unjustified killing of Duncan Lemp. But the purpose of sharing these stories was more racial grievance than a critique of police tactics. It was to disprove allegations of systemic racism in law enforcement, or to call out BLM for not protesting these deaths, too. (The irony here is that these folks’ interest in Shaver typically didn’t go beyond accusatory posts about BLM’s “conspicuous silence,” as evidenced by their apparent ignorance of the fact that BLM groups actually did hold a protest for Shaver.)
However, the right’s skepticism of authority and law enforcement didn’t go away. It just turned almost laughably partisan. As conservatives and Fox News personalities defended no-knock raids for low level drug crimes, they were furious about the no-knock raid on Paul Manafort (which wasn’t actually a no-knock raid). Newt Gingrich, for example, compared it to the Gestapo.
As they argued that Breonna Taylor was a legitimate threat to police who merited overwhelming force because she’d once dated a drug dealer, they decried the no-knock raid on Roger Stone (which also was not a no-knock raid) — a man who once posted a video from gun range threatening civil war, and was seen in documentary footage taken prior to the 2020 election declaring “Fuck the voting, let’s get right to the violence . . . Shoot to kill. See an antifa? Shoot to kill. Fuck ’em. Done with this bullshit” — as the worst sort of jack-booted, storm-trooper thuggery.
The woman gunned down in her own home in her pajamas during a midnight raid probably had it coming, but when federal agents refused to take off their shoes while searching Mar-a-Lago for the nuclear secrets Trump had stolen — after notifying his security detail that they were coming, after politely asking him to return the documents for months, and after making sure he wasn’t home at the time to avoid embarrassing him — well, few could recall such an arrogant and egregious abuse of power.
The Trump era basically reset the police reform political alignment back to where it was in the 1990s, when conservatives railed against those federal law enforcement interventions at Waco and Ruby Ridge, but excused or even made light of abuses by local police, like the sexual assault of Abner Louima, the killing of Amadou Diallo, or the beating of Rodney King. Democrats, meanwhile, had little to say about ATF or FBI abuses, mostly because they found the people on the receiving end of those abuses to be politically unsavory.
Last year, the Biden administration nominated a new director for the ATF, a position that had been vacant for years. Conservatives and Congressional Republicans used the nomination as an opportunity to attack the agency and defend their proposed cuts to its funding.
There’s certainly good reason for Congress to look askance at the ATF. For years, the agency has been conducting absurd, reverse sting operations on vulnerable people. They send informants into low-income areas to lure people into drug and gun crimes they wouldn’t otherwise commit. In some cases, targets have been intellectually disabled. Predictably, these stings have disproportionately targeted black people. And the ATF refuses to say if it’s still conducting them.
But this isn’t why the Republicans went after the ATF. They were angry about the agency’s new rules on silencers and pistol braces. And because Republicans don’t like the agency, Democrats and progressives have felt compelled to defend it.
Consequently, when Biden nominated Steve Dettelbach to head up the ATF —a former U.S. attorney who prosecuted some of those sting operations — no one from either party questioned him about them. Republicans got to posture for NRA supporters. Democrats got to posture for law and order. Nobody spoke up for the vulnerable people the agency has been exploiting.
So yes, factions of the MAGA right still occasionally raise their hackles at the arming of federal bureaucracies, the aggressive enforcement of white collar crimes, or the investigation and prosecution of January 6th rioters. They still have no love for the ATF, and they’re all now angry at the FBI. But any hope that they might appreciate that the aggressive tactics, opaque operations, and shirking of accountability they so loathe when deployed against their ideological cohorts are all used far more often against marginalized communities is long gone — as is any compunction to empathize with those people.
Policing in America seems to be on two contradictory trajectories. Broadly speaking, law enforcement and political leadership in many (but certainly not all) large cities have been moving toward reform, embracing policies on deescalation, accountability, crisis intervention, and a “guardians, not warriors” philosophy. But inside some of the unions, the departments of far-right sheriffs, and smaller city and town departments, there’s still a lot of toxic police culture — Punisher imagery, “sheepdog” philosophy, racism, and glorification of violence.
So where does that leave us? I think an optimistic scenario is that police reform follows the trajectory of marijuana reform. Beginning in the late 1990s, the public slowly began to appreciate the destruction wrought by marijuana prohibition. Soon, a gap emerged between marijuana policy favored by most of the country and what policies elected officials were willing to support. The reasons for that gap were similar to those driving the aforementioned gap in police reform — the minority of people who still support the prohibition of marijuana tend to be loud, politically powerful, and/or financially invested in the status quo. So even as the pro-legalization position has grown into a clear majority, few people vote exclusively on the issue.
Today that gap is a chasm. Nearly 60 percent of the public now supports full legalization. If you add in support for medicinal use, the figure is just under 90 percent. Yet last year, just 16 percent of candidates for Congress openly supported legalization.
Ballot initiatives broke it all open. Once voters could vote on marijuana policy in isolation, the solid majority for ending prohibition made itself heard. After a couple early defeats in the mid-2000s, voters began approving legalization and decriminalization by increasingly large majorities. Recreational marijuana is now legal in 21 states, while just 10 states still prohibit the drug outright.
Similarly, since the summer of 2020, when voters have been given the chance to vote on police reform in isolation, they’ve overwhelmingly embraced it. (There was one notable exception in Minneapolis, though that initiative was so confusing and poorly written that even some reformers opposed it.) This is why red state legislatures have been scrambling to override reform initiatives passed in blue cities.
Politicians are risk averse. They tend to listen to the loudest faction of voters who present the most credible threat of imposing political cost for failing to adopt their position. And for a generation, it’s been drummed into politicians that there’s no cost to giving police more powers, and a considerable cost for attempting to impose some sort of accountability, especially in an era with ascendant crime.
These are difficult obstacles to overcome. The political system is designed to preserve the status quo. But when voters have had the chance to clearly express their intent in these issues — in ballot measures, in district attorney races, and in local races for positions where officials have the most say over policing policy and are most directly accountable to their constituents, they’ve opted for change.
So for progressive states, cities, and the people who live in them, I think there’s room for some cautious optimism. For blue cities in red states, the prospect for reform is less clear. And in the red areas of red states, police agencies seem likely to get more powerful, less accountable, and less transparent — and victims will have fewer means to hold them accountable.