What Makes A Police State?

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I have long tried to convince people that the United States is well on its way to being a full-fledged police state. I’ve even written on “How Police States Are Born.” Despite the signs, people who I usually think of as intelligent still think I’m being — at best — eccentric. At worst, they just write me off as a nut job.

The truth is, the United States actually already is a police state. We just haven’t all been put on lockdown yet.

But we’re getting there. This past week, we’ve taken a major step forward, and the process has kicked into a higher gear.

If you ask me, the hunt for Chris Dorner has laid bare the fact that we are no longer “on the way” to being a police state: we’ve arrived. It’s just that nothing significant has been cause for a roll-out until now. Now, with Dorner, the police show their true colors. As another attorney noted on my Facebook page, they aren’t even pretending anymore:

“The chief said there had been a ‘night of extreme tragedy in the Los Angeles area’ and that the department was taking measures to ensure the safety of officers.” My favorite quote…….What about ensuring others’ safety from innocent-victim-shooting officers? Three innocent people shot at in two separate incidents? I guess we are all just necessary collateral damage in their quest to protect the Brotherhood….How many innocents will be shot in their not so professional manhunt?1

Good question. They shoot indiscriminately at innocent people because they happen to be driving — and Dorner, they believe, was driving at some point — so you can see that there’s a similarity. In an excessive display of fairness, I’ll say that the cops believed those people were driving vehicles that matched the description of that driven by Dorner. However, if you follow the links and read the stories, you’ll see something like this:

His [the citizen in the second shooting based on “mistaken identity”] pickup, police later explained, matched the description of the one belonging to Christopher Jordan Dorner — the ex-cop who has evaded authorities after allegedly killing three and wounding two more. But the pickups were different makes and colors. And Perdue looks nothing like Dorner: He’s several inches shorter and about a hundred pounds lighter. And Perdue is white; Dorner is black.

The two Hispanic women shot by seven police officers earlier were not black, either. And the vehicle they were driving was a different model and color than that Dorner drove.

This isn’t the first time the police have fired on citizens without good cause. But getting back to Dorner, police have surrounded the homes of ordinary citizens with snipers and conducted door-to-door searches without warrants. They’ve shut down freeways with Homeland Security doing vehicle-to-vehicle searches.

Oh, and now they’re talking about using drones to go after Dorner.

The police state of which we are getting a glimpse did not develop overnight. Nor did it necessarily — for those of my friends who think I’m just anti-cop — develop for nefarious reasons.

What’s happening is just part-and-parcel of the growing transformation of police agencies throughout the United States over at least the last couple of decades. You can’t transform public servants into warriors and then not expect them to go to war.

As Brian Mockenhaupt wrote back in 2007 concerning his experience in Iraq:

I’m glad to be home, to have put away my uniforms, to wake up next to my wife each morning. I worry about my friends who are in Iraq now, and I wish they weren’t. Often I hated being there, when the frustrations and lack of control over my life were complete and mind-bending. I questioned my role in the occupation and whether good could come of it. I wondered if it was worth dying or killing for. The suffering and ugliness I saw disgusted me. But war twists and shifts the landmarks by which we navigate our lives, casting light on darkened areas that for many people remain forever unexplored. And once those darkened spaces are lit, they become part of us. At a party several years ago, long before the Army, I listened to a friend who had served several years in the Marines tell a woman that if she carried a pistol for a day, just tucked in her waistband and out of sight, she would feel different. She would see the world differently, for better or worse. Guns empower. She disagreed and he shrugged. No use arguing the point; he was just offering a little piece of truth. He was right, of course. And that’s just the beginning.

Over the last two or so decades, we’ve given more power than ever before to local police forces. We’ve armed them with assault weapons.

(That last link, by the way, takes you to a story from TechDirt, of all places, discussing a police chief who allegedly stated that in 2013, he will be sending SWAT teams armed with officers into so-called “high crime areas” to stop and request identification from anyone they encounter. I wonder how much longer my friends will tell me I’m crazy for calling the United States a “police state.”)

We’ve given them armored personnel carriers. That last linked story is about “tanks,” but shows a picture of what is actually an armored personnel carrier. (Here are more.) But some police departments do have actual tanks.

And they post snipers at football games, ready to take out anyone in the crowd “as necessary.”

And drones. We really can’t forget about the drones — especially when police “weaponize” them.

Despite how often it appears so, this is no joke.

But Mockenhaupt is right. This sort of thing changes the police.

You don’t have to “blame the police” to recognize this. Talking about it — doing something about it — does not have to mean that you are “anti-cop,” as I am so often accused of being. Because I’m not actually anti-cop. I’m anti-dishonest cop. I’m anti-cop-as-overlord cop. I’m anti-you-will-lie-prostrate-before-me cop.

The problem is, folks, Andy Griffith has left the building.

“If we’re training cops as soldiers, giving them equipment like soldiers, dressing them up as soldiers, when are they going to pick up the mentality of soldiers? If you look at the police department, their creed is to protect and to serve. A soldier’s mission is to engage his enemy in close combat and kill him. Do we want police officers to have that mentality? Of course not.” — Arthur Rizer, former civilian police officer and member of the military

Yeah, that’s right. That was a cop who said that. And he’s not the only one.

Are we a police state? Of course we are. You just didn’t — maybe still don’t, if you won’t pull your head out of…the sand — know it. Even PBS talks about it. (NPR is content to document steps in that direction without naming it what it is.)

What is it going to take to turn this back around? I’m not sure it can be turned back around. But, for starters, people have to wake up. They need to start talking. To each other. To their state representatives. To their federal representatives. Complain. And complain loudly. If you see cops mishandling citizens, or are mishandled yourself: file a complaint. You don’t have to do it on the spot. You don’t have to risk your own life. You can go to the police station where they will give you a form to fill out. Sure, they will ignore your form…for now. But if everyone who witnessed police misconduct would file a complaint, something would get done about it — believe me, there’s enough misconduct that the police department would be flooded with forms if people would just complain.

If you don’t want to complain about out-of-control militarized police-with-attitude-problems, then just help do something to stop the failed war on drugs — because that’s what started this mess. Prohibition. Just as the prohibition of alcohol lead to the birth of organized crime, so has the prohibition on marijuana and other drugs lead directly to the police state.

And it’s only going to get worse, unless you do something. Hell, if you can’t do anything else, at least click one of the buttons at the end of this post to spread it on Google+, Facebook, and to others who might do more.

Because at the moment — and with the ongoing calls of idiot liberals to disarm us all it’s only going to get worse — they have us outgunned.

They aren’t afraid to show us.

And that, my friends, is what makes a police state.

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  1. I’ve corrected some typographical elements, but otherwise, this is her quote. []

About Rick

Rick Horowitz is a criminal defense attorney with an extreme dislike of the criminal "justice" system which routinely ignores the Constitution, the Law, and the lives it ruins.

In addition to this blog, Rick also owns Fresno Criminal Defense.


  1. Pretty much totally agree.

    I don’t quite buy the Rizer quote, though, because equipping cops like soldiers isn’t corrupting the police. The police are corrupt because the job naturally attracts the kind of people who want to bully and rob others with impunity. If that can be changed, we’ve got to start by taking away that impunity. The oath they swear to defend the Constitution must be given teeth, because it is the only way we, the people, can be able to trust them with the power to use force. That means stripping cops, prosecutors, and even judges of their immunity to the law, and of their monopoly on the right to prosecute bad guys.

    The notion of a popular revolution has romantic appeal but is both extremely unlikely to happen, and to improve things if it does happen. Unlike the founders’ generation, you and I do not have the police outgunned. Even if we did, history shows that people who aren’t starving won’t risk fighting a revolt.

    What we do have, for now, is the ballot, the soapbox, and the jury. Let’s use them to the fullest until they are taken away from us. After that, I don’t know about you but I’ll look for a place of exile, if there’s any better one.

  2. Brenda A. Linder says:

    I think what is different this time is that this time the spotlight was shone on LAPD, well, by LAPD. When they sought to rile the citizenry against a “cop killer,” they forgot that such intentional attention would have the unplanned consequence of placing their actions in the same bright light. Whoops. They forgot one of the main Rules of the Street: 1) If you get victimized and you yourself are committing a crime, do not draw attention to it!

    LAPD’s fellow “criminals” have long understood this precept. If your house is burglarized and you have a marijuana grow inside, do not report the burglary. If you get robbed after you’ve just stolen a vehicle…let it go. Here, one of “their own” goes on a rampage, purportedly because of his termination after reporting brutality by his supervisor, and they call for the entire country to come watch. My mom was from the old school – make sure you have clean underwear on when you leave the house, just in case. LAPD forgot they still had dirty underwear on.

  3. I think there is validity to what you say about the state of things, but I think this is a superficial assessment of the cause/solution. Is the problem really an overzealous police force? Are they not working toward what we have asked them to do? I think there is a problem deeper than the apathy and ignorance you cite. I think there is a false assumption at the root of the entire society: the belief that laws work. We have continued to empower the police and governments because we believe in “the law”. So isn’t this police state an extension of us? An extension of our philosophy that behavior, morality, and human relationship can be abstracted and controlled by these silly words on a page?

    Do not get me wrong, social order is a noble goal, but are authoritarian legal systems the only way, or even valid at all? If you step back and look at law (and money and property and so many other societal structures), dont they exist so that people don’t really have to deal with other people, and by extension with societies problems? I don’t have to know my neighbor at all so long as he doesn’t mess with ‘my’ property. I don’t have to know the checkout clerk, here is my money. Aren’t we ducking the real relationships which are full of problems? What are we so afraid of? Wouldn’t it be better to have a real relationship with those that do us harm? To understand them and help them and have them understand us and help us? Or do we just punish them, incarcerate them? Can you ever hope to have anything but a police state when you have an idea, an abstraction, a relationship-numbing philosophy, that drives the whole thing? I’m not telling you either way, I am asking you to ask yourself.

  4. Rick: Thank you for this article and the site. Thank you for your work; I hope to never need to hire you.

    To jdgalt: I disagree. While there is likely some truth to the ‘the job attracts the corrupt’ I also think the job attracts those who think they can better society. As such, I think we, by way of our legislatures passing bad laws, have increased the risks associated with the job. This forced escalation also creates forced escalation of black market prices which allows for much more readily available means with which to corrupt the police (bribery is ‘cheaper’ per scale). So, our wars on drugs and terror and many other well intentioned laws have escalated what it means to be a ‘criminal’. This escalation has caused police to need to defend themselves in places where that hasn’t been needed in many years (since prohibition). Standard uniformed traffic police, for example, needfully wear vests all the time now (and sure, some of this is because vests are less expensive than they were formerly – but only partly… rocket launchers are similarly less expensive yet police cannot justify these yet). This heightened security mindset does bad things to people: see returning soldiers and PTSD (formely many names including shell shock). One of these is the need to be in control of the situation causing an authoritian methodology that brooks no questioning. So I disagree.

    Also, while I wholly agree that more judges should allow specific removal of immunity and try more such cases, I *believe* the immunity clauses exist to prevent a flooding of courts with bad cases. I’ll let an actual lawyer correct me here but I’d be willing to bet that many in prison now would wrongfully try to discredit anyone to try to get out. I do agree, however, that those with standing who are caught should be punished disproportionate to those without such shields.

    To Mrs (Miss? sorry if wrong) Linder: I believe the point made is that this particular case, made with dirty underwear, shows how brazen the police can be. If we were not in a police state, more people would point out said brown spot as ridicule and have said spot(s) removed. Here we simply went on with our lives. Which is sad but proves the point all the more imo.

    To M Splain: Nice philiosphy but I do not agree. Police do what ‘we’ tell them – but that includes “we”s from many years past. Police also help us get along collectively when we do disagree fundamentally. Law is not morality (and, in my opinion, shouldn’t be). Police ideally follow basic tenents that fundamentally disagreeing people can still abide by for the betterment of all of us as defined by the representatives of the majority of us. So, while I may or may not know my neighbor (and I think anyone would be hard pressed to know all the millions within even 10 miles of each other within NY or LA etc), we both know what is acceptable. When bad laws exist and people break them regularly, it undermines the meaning of all laws as it allows a mindset of ‘I’m already a felon if caught so who cares’. This undermines ‘social order’ which is the goal of what you describe without that being possible at scale. As for ‘is this the only way’ the argument that won me over is ‘no, but it is the best we’ve found so far’. For other alternatives which have yet to be tried, check out TED talks about GIT and government


  1. […] the Dorner affair provided a preview, the lockdown was — so far as I know — unprecedented in U.S. […]