UMN Holds Lecture on Militarized Police at Mondale Hall

Police officer with a German shepherd police dog

Police officer with a German shepherd police dog

Mitch Bendis

“Militarized police are not safe for communities.”

The preceding quote was the central message from Radley Balko as he gave a presentation at Mondale Law School on September 18. Balko, an opinion journalist for the Washington Post, is well-known for his expertise regarding criminal justice and the drug war. After publishing his book “Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces” four years ago, Balko became a hot commodity in the debate over police brutality. Resultantly, the University of Minnesota’s chapter of the Federalist Society invited him to speak. The Federalist Society, centered at Mondale Law School, is an organization of graduate law students interested in individual rights and limited government. These values played perfectly into Balko’s message, as his hour-long presentation flipped through dozens of slides describing police power run amok.

Early in his presentation, Balko asked those in attendance to play a game with him that he called “Cop or Soldier.” The premise was simple: Balko showed a photograph of a man in military-type gear and polled the room as to whether they believed the agent was a police officer or a military soldier. As the game played out, image after image of agents in camouflage combat gear and highly-customized assault weapons bathed the screen. The attendees consistently voted in favor of these images showing the military, but soon, it became obvious that every single one was a police officer.

At one point, Balko commented, “Why do these cops need camo when the point of police is to be seen?”

Seemingly answering his own question minutes later when describing an image of officers wearing balaclavas, Balko said, “Masked cops escape accountability for their actions.”

During the second half of his lecture, Balko spoke extensively about what he deemed to be the main cause of widespread police brutality in this country: the training of police forces. He stated that for police academies nationwide, the average cadet receives only one hour of de-escalation training for every nine hours of weapon and use of force training.

Balko declared,“[Conflict resolution] is not what police departments want to teach their cops.”

He blames this reality on what he calls a “psychology of killing” institutionalized in today’s police force. Balko cited Law Enforcement Targets, Inc., a company that sells paper targets to be used in police firearm practice. Some of LET’s products include targets of pregnant women and small children, which are used to “get over hesitation and pull the trigger,” according to Balko.

One student in attendance of the event was a military veteran, who commented on the trend of militarizing the police forces as “disturbing.” However, he explained how the term of “militarization” was a misnomer; in the student’s eyes, members of the military are trained to be responsible and accountable for their actions: he saw militarized police as less accountable than regular police.

Balko agreed with the student, quipping that “police nowadays are more militarized than the military” and the accountability factor resulted from cops acting like “wannabe soldiers” without any of the responsibility of one.

To close his presentation, Balko remarked, “The term ‘police state’ is overused… but this is a lot like it.”

Specifically, he called on the attendees to be voices for the voiceless: to use their status as students and citizens to speak up for disadvantaged people who cannot get help when police abuse their power.