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Washington Post Journalist Radley Balko on Civil Rights, Militarized Policing, and the Power of Video

Radley Balko is a Washington Post opinion columnist and former Reason reporter who covers police abuse, the drug war, and criminal justice reform. His Reason coverage of Cory Maye—a black man who was put on Mississippi's death row for supposedly killing a police officer during a no-knock raid in 2001—helped bring about Maye's acquittal. His 2013 book Rise of the Warrior Cop (PublicAffairs) was ahead of its time in documenting the dramatic increase in the militarization of local law enforcement and the dangerous incentives and confrontations that creates between police and citizens.

His latest book—The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist (PublicAffairs), co-authored with Tucker Carrington—documents widespread problems with law enforcement, forensic evidence, expert testimony, and media coverage of crime. In June, Nick Gillespie spoke with Balko about how to dial back the militarized police tactics that have become commonplace and whether lasting reform might be possible.

Reason: You've been covering the intersecting topics of the war on drugs, police abuse, and race issues in America for going on 20 years now. Why did the George Floyd killing explode into public consciousness the way it did?

I think [it's] the power of video. If you go back to the civil rights movement, obviously there were abuses going on for a long time in our country's history. The organizers of the civil rights movement in the 1960s really recognized the power of images. They knew there was going to be violence; they knew that the other side was going to be provoked and that was a strategy to win over the middle and white America.

The George Floyd video is indisputable. There have been attacks on Floyd's character, his decisions in life. But there is no excuse for having your knee on a guy's neck for nine minutes.

In the trials of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) cops accused of beating Rodney King, the defense broke the video down, claiming it showed that actually they weren't beating him, and some people thought "Oh, maybe what LAPD was doing was OK." With Floyd, nobody is defending the police action. Is that a sign of progress?

I think it is. There's been a widespread embrace of the idea that police are systematically abusive. The idea of racism in policing in America has crept into white America, into the suburbs. Four years ago, the Democratic nominee for president couldn't say the phrase black lives matter without qualifying it. A lot of people were like that. Now you have [GOP Sen.] Mitt Romney saying it unsolicited. You have people [who] probably haven't protested ever in their lives joining this protest.

Read entire article at Reason