For the past several years the month of May has borne witness to The Purple Hatter’s Ball, a music festival at Suwanee River State Park, FL, that celebrates the life of Rachel Hoffman. Rachel is a relatively well known victim of the USA’s “war on drugs.” She was murdered in May, 2008 on a rural road in Tallahassee, FL by two young men who were not drug dealers, but had nonetheless been approached by Rachel because a friend had told her they could sell her $13,000 worth of drugs and guns. The Tallahassee Police Department (TPD) had used a minor marijuana possession charge to pressure Rachel–who used, but did not sell drugs–to participate in this “sting” operation, and on that night in May she had $13,000 of U.S. taxpayer money in her possession. Her communication with the TPD’s officers running the sting failed, and the teenagers who had made no attempt to obtain either the drugs or guns they told Rachel they could provide her ended up shooting her, taking the money, and escaping (they were eventually arrested, several days later, as they began spending the cash). In short, the TPD created a drug buyer who did not exist, allowed her to locate drug dealers who weren’t, botched the electronics, and one person died while two petty teenage criminals became murderers, generating grieving and loss across three families, along with hundreds of friends.
In Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces by Radley Balko puts events like Rachel Hoffman’s into the historical and political context of American public life. The book is remarkably well researched as Balko has not only taken the time to read about the formation of police units in England and the United States, but also read voluminously media coverage of the politics involved; the memoirs of policy makers, cops, and victims; scholarly research; and also conducted interviews with decision makers and police officers from the late 1960s forward. Those interested in a summary of his arguments can find useful ones here, here, and here.
If the literature on protest policing interests you, so will Balko’s book. It provides a valuable histori-politcal context that helps explain how and why the complex system of paramilitary policing has developed in the U.S. over the past four decades. That the context is valuable is true regardless of whether your own interests lie in the US or beyond. Balko focuses exclusively on the US, but those of us familiar with the international diffusion of police tactics (and equipment) can readily make those connections on our own.
As the story of Rachel Hoffman illustrates, Balko’s book will not make for “light, summer” reading. Be prepared to have an emotional response, not because Balko trades in so-called yellow journalism–far from it. He avoids the Manichaen narrative so often used by journalists and historians, and instead depicts the many and varied moving parts and principals who, over decades, have constructed a complex system that has grown so slowly that few of us notice. By providing us that view Balko’s book does important work.
 Purchase the Kindle edition here. The paperback version will be released in August, 2014, and the hardcover is available at your favorite vendor. You can read an excerpt here, and listen to / watch a discussion of the book featuring Balko, Mark Lomax (National Tactical Officers Assoc) and Laura Odata (Cato Institution) here. The Cato Institute published an earlier version of his research on the topic, Overkill: The Rise of Paramilitary Police Raid in America, and has an interactive map you may want to examine.