GREENFIELD — Once known as the kid with the inquisitive mind, Eastern Hancock alumnus-turned investigative journalist Radley Balko now has a new title: author.
Balko has become known for his work in civil liberties and criminal justice reporting in the last decade. Combining his own reporting experiences with historical analysis, Balko describes the nationwide surge of SWAT teams in his book “The Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces.”
Balko, now a Nashville, Tenn., resident, will be welcomed home by friends and family Sept. 5 at a book signing in Indianapolis.
For Hancock County residents who remember Balko as the kid with plenty of questions, the new book is not surprising.
“He was very, very bright – he was the kind of bright that kept teachers on their toes, the kind of bright that teachers enjoyed,” said Dave Pfaff, the Eastern Hancock High School principal who was Balko’s U.S. history teacher in the 1990s. “He’d question things in class, participate in class; he was very politically interested. He was paying attention to the world in those days at the level that most high school juniors weren’t.”
Balko, 38, started his writing career as editor of the EHHS newspaper – which he recalls as “a bunch of pieces of copy paper stapled together.”
Graduating in 1993, Balko went on to study journalism and political science at Indiana University. After trying law school for a year, he landed a writing job at the libertarian think tank Cato Institute.
Balko became senior editor for the libertarian magazine Reason in 2007. Today, Balko is a senior writer and investigative reporter for online newspaper The Huffington Post.
Balko’s interest in investigative journalism grew when he started covering the Mississippi case of Cory Maye, who had been convicted of murder in the 2001 death of a police officer. Balko’s work is credited for helping get Maye off death row and win a new trial.
“To me, the reporting that had been done (previously) didn’t dig nearly enough,” Balko said, describing Maye’s case in which a drug raid was done at his duplex and Maye mistakenly shot the officer because he thought the SWAT team was intruders. “It seemed quite obvious from reading the press accounts that he just made a mistake.”
Maye, who said he was acting in self defense to protect his daughter, went on to plead guilty to manslaughter in 2011 and was sentenced to 10 years, which he already served.
Balko’s coverage of the Maye case and similar stories of police SWAT teams had publishers broach him about a book. Balko spent about six months accumulating pieces he’d already written and combining them with research and history dating to the 1960s.
The result: a nearly 400-page chronicle that examines the slow rise of Special Weapons and Tactics teams in communities across the country.
“We tend not to notice the things that happen gradually,” Balko said. “We gradually get accustomed to them as they change. That’s why, for the most part, we don’t notice it’s happening.”
Balko has been on a book tour and has done interviews with outlets from Glenn Beck to Democracy Now.
“I think people are concerned about the willingness to use this kind of force and how easy it is to use now,” he said.
The feedback has been mostly positive, Balko said. It’s a book not only for those interested in criminal justice, he said, but also policy-makers who could change how much force is used and for what reasons. Lawmakers in Utah, for example, are considering a bill that would restrict SWAT raids to only dangerous felonies.
That’s a far cry from what’s happening now in certain places, Balko said, where SWAT teams have raided neighborhood poker games and bars with underage drinkers.
Feedback from police officers has been mixed, Balko added.
“There’s a generational divide,” he said. “Older cops tend to agree with me and are pretty concerned about where things are headed in law enforcement. Younger police officers who haven’t known anything different, to the extent that there’s any negative reaction to the book, that’s where it comes from.”
Greenfield residents Terry and Pat Balko admire their son’s hard work and plan to be at his local book signing next month.
“I’m pretty proud; proud of his accomplishments and I don’t think we did such a bad job raising him,” Terry said.
For Pfaff, Balko’s accomplishments mark one of the many reasons he’s proud to be an educator. Pfaff was acknowledged in the book as one of Balko’s positive influences; Pfaff said for teachers, the career is about much more than just a paycheck.
“(It’s) the feeling that you’ve made a positive contribution, you’ve left things better than how you found them,” Pfaff said. “If you’re lucky to be around like I have staying in one place, you get to see these stories, visit with them as they grow up. Behind raising your own children to become successful adults, this is the next best thing.”
Balko hopes his book brings awareness to the rise of “warrior cops.”
“This is not an anti-cop book or an attack on police officers, but this is about policy,” Balko said. “Politicians are mostly at fault here. They’re the ones that pass the laws. That’s where most of the blame lies; and if there’s going to be any reform or change, that’s where it’s going to happen.”
The Libertarian Party of Marion County is hosting Balko’s book signing and speech, slated for 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 5. The event will be held at Indy Reads Books, 911 Massachusetts Ave., Indianapolis.