Home / General / Land of the Free II: Police As Military Edition

Land of the Free II: Police As Military Edition


I’ll have more to say about Radley Balko’s excellent new book imminently, but this excerpt is must-reading:

Several months earlier at a local bar, Fairfax County, Virginia, detective David Baucum overheard the thirty-eight-year-old optometrist and some friends wagering on a college football game. “To Sal, betting a few bills on the Redskins was a stress reliever, done among friends,” a friend of Culosi’s told me shortly after his death. “None of us single, successful professionals ever thought that betting fifty bucks or so on the Virginia–Virginia Tech football game was a crime worthy of investigation.” Baucum apparently did. After overhearing the men wagering, Baucum befriended Culosi as a cover to begin investigating him. During the next several months, he talked Culosi into raising the stakes of what Culosi thought were just more fun wagers between friends to make watching sports more interesting. Eventually Culosi and Baucum bet more than $2,000 in a single day. Under Virginia law, that was enough for police to charge Culosi with running a gambling operation. And that’s when they brought in the SWAT team.

On the night of January 24, 2006, Baucum called Culosi and arranged a time to drop by to collect his winnings. When Culosi, barefoot and clad in a T-shirt and jeans, stepped out of his house to meet the man he thought was a friend, the SWAT team began to move in. Seconds later, Det. Deval Bullock, who had been on duty since 4:00 AM and hadn’t slept in seventeen hours, fired a bullet that pierced Culosi’s heart.

Sal Culosi’s last words were to Baucum, the cop he thought was a friend: “Dude, what are you doing?”

In addition to the problems of excessive force, the story is also an excellent illustration of why keeping crimes for minor, consensual crimes like small-stakes gambling and drug possession on the books is a terrible idea. Sure, if you’re a middle class white person a SWAT team is unlikely to raid your poker game or bust you for smoking pot in your home, but 1)not everyone is so lucky, and 2)having rarely enforced laws lying around for authorities who want to make a splash or have a grudge is inviting abuse. In theory, arbitrary prosecution violates the 5th and/or 14th Amendments, but good luck actually making the case.

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  • He did seem to have an Italian surname, I think that’s probable cause right there.

  • Murc

    During the next several months, he talked Culosi into raising the stakes of what Culosi thought were just more fun wagers between friends to make watching sports more interesting.

    How is this not entrapment? I mean, isn’t this the precise equivalent of a cop selling dime bags on the corner?

    • rea

      It’s not entrapment udner present law, and they do similar things to drug suspects all the time. Present law says that it’s not entrapment if you can be shown to have the propensity to commit such crimes, and the suspect was making bets before the police agent got involved.

      • Manny Kant

        Doesn’t this make it more or less impossible to prove entrapment under almost any circumstance? Why even bother having it on the books?

        • witless chum

          Shhh! Scalito may be listening.

        • rea

          Well, yes.

          • rea

            Or, to put it another way, if you’ve never dealt drugs, and the cops kidnap your wife and threaten to start mailing you body parts unless you get them some crack, that’s entrapment. But not much else is, under present law.

            • David M. Nieporent

              Well, actually, that’s duress, not entrapment. Entrapment is when they convince you to do it.

        • David M. Nieporent

          It’s not “on the books”; it’s a judge-made exception to the criminal law. It’s intended to be exceedingly rare.

          It’s not that entrapment is hard to prove (though it is), but that it is hard to meet the criteria for entrapment. Pro tip: when someone says, “They can’t do that; that’s entrapment,” it never is.

          Simply providing you with the opportunity to commit a crime, or working with you, or encouraging you, isn’t enough.

      • David Hunt

        Related story that I heard. If you’re a member of some dissident group, especially a Muslim group, and some one in the group says that he can get C4 if you want to blow something up–that’s the FBI informant.

  • JMP

    “How is this not entrapment? I mean, isn’t this the precise equivalent of a cop selling dime bags on the corner?”

    Well that doesn’t stop FBI “informants” from befriending vaguely angry young Muslim men, then egging them on to concoct implausible “terrorist” schemes like literally cutting down the Brooklyn Bridge, then arresting them and announcing it as a high-profile terrorist arrest, so doing the same with gambling isn’t really that surprising.

    • mere mortal

      Only an impossibly foolish person would compare collapsing an occupied bridge to, well, gambling on a game of bridge.


  • cpinva

    his evisceration of Rachel maddow was interesting. she’s been held up as some sort of “progressive” media hero. nice for her bank account, bad for progressives, since she’s consistently too goddamned lazy to do any actual real homework, on most of the issues she covers and guests she has on her show. I guess she gave it all at oxford, and has nothing left for real life.

    somerby has, over the years, highlighted some of ms. maddow’s more egregious failures.

    • Murc

      My gold standard (and yes, I realize he’s not too popular around here, but) is Jon Stewart.

      More specifically: anyone with their own show should be asking themselves “Am I as a prepared for my guests, and my other materiel, as a non-journalist comedian is for his? If the answer is no, maybe I’d better sit down and do the fucking reading.”

      • And Colbert adds an extra layer of difficulty when he interviews people, because he’s got to put everything he asks, and responds with, through an O’Reilly filter of stupidity.

      • DivGuy

        I think it’s crazy to say that Jon Stewart is the gold standard for interview preparation in comparison to Rachel Maddow.

        They’re both flawed, but Stewart is a far lazier interviewer and researcher than Maddow.

        • Marek

          Harrumph. Maddow >> Stewart on her bad days.

          • ChrisTS

            Really. I’m astonished to hear that anyone thinks Stewart (whom I love) is more careful or better informed than Maddow.

      • I would certainly hope that an actual journalist is setting a much higher bar for being prepared than Jon “oh aren’t you so informed Betsy McCaughey” Stewart.

        Maybe Bill Maher.

        • Brian Lamb was the best – on Book Notes/C-Span.

          He even read Willard Scott’s book before interviewing Willard – and Willard hadn’t even read it.

    • DivGuy

      The “eviscerating” paragraph in question:

      After the December 2012 shooting massacre in Newtown, Connecticut put the issue of gun control back into the political discourse, some progressives again dredged up the right’s criticism of the ATF in the early 1990s. In one lengthy segment, MSNBC host Rachel Maddow aired old footage from Waco and Ruby Ridge while making some tenuous connections between gun rights politicians and activists and Weaver, McVeigh, and Koresh. She referred to a “conspiracy-driven corner of the gun world’s paranoia about federal agents,” without paying much heed to the fact that the ATF was inflicting the same sort of abuse on suspected gun offenders that Maddow herself has decried when used against suspected undocumented immigrants or Occupy protesters. More tellingly, Maddow added that there’s nothing wrong with wanting to give more power to the ATF based only on the politics of the people opposed to doing so. “Sometimes the character of the opposition defines why something ought to be the most politically viable thing in the world,” she said.

      This is a pretty big stretch, and really doesn’t sound like a fair summary of the piece. Balko’s object of criticism is militarized police action, and none of his quotes from Maddow talk about militarized police action. She’s talking about the reasonability of considering whether people are violent white nationalists in determining whether they ought to be investigated.

      Balko’s sleight-of-hand here is that he mentions some militarized actions, while Maddow apparently showed footage of, and then condemns her for talking about a distinctly different subject

      • witless chum

        Well, even so, showing footage of Ruby Ridge and Waco and complaining about people’s paranoia about the government seems rather counterintuitive.

        • DivGuy

          It does. Which makes me skeptical of how fairly Balko is summarizing the piece.

    • Eh, really?

      I went and looked and at least the first article was a big ole nothing burger.

      • Scott Lemieux

        I like Somerby, have no problem attacking liberals when they’re earned it, and almost never watch MSNBC so have no dog in this fight, but the scale of the invective he uses against Maddow rarely matches the alleged offense in my experience.

    • The Dark Avenger

      That’s the same Somersby who once chided Maddow for her self-confident pants?

  • I had no idea Fairfax was such a crime-free utopia that the police have the resources and time to launch lengthy investigations into private betting pools.

    • sparks

      I’m trying to think of a place I worked that didn’t have a private betting pool going, and I can think of only one.

    • Cody

      I can forgive the investigation and obvious stupid conduct of basically entrapping a guy for small-scale betting.

      However, who the fuck uses a SWAT team to arrest someone? I sure hope all of them were fired. Every member of the SWAT team should have asked… “Is this person armed and dangerous?”, “Have we served them a warrant?”, and many other things that scream not needing a SWAT team to bust down doors.

      • Especially if the asshole detective had befriended the guy. You’d think he’d have a pretty reasonable idea that the damn swat team wasn’t necessary to go arrest the guy.

        • JoyfulA

          At least the swat team had the right house this time.

      • I think you’re overlooking the almost universally accepted principle of “I did it because it gave me a boner.”

        Cop boners are very important to the functioning of our society.

      • witless chum

        Balko’s book will no doubt have many other examples, though, as his blog has had. I think it’s a combination of “better safe than sorry” in cops’ minds, which tends to equal more=good, and the proliferation of SWAT teams to jurisdictions that have only very rarely a need for one. At least in my area, a lot of toys involved in police militarization were paid for by the department of Homeland Security, back before Republicans remembered they were supposed to be fiscal conservatives/sought to wreck the economy to hurt Obama.

      • I am not sure what SWATs do in these cases once there’s a warrant. Not that far across the river from FFX, a SWAT team raided a mayor’s house and shot his two labs because it was suspected he was receiving shipments of pot.

        Which is why I say this all rests on the cop’s head. There was no need for any of it, unless some dickhead with a badge decided to make this a huge bust.

        • Lee Rudolph

          and shot his two labs

          An eminently reasonable precaution. Everyone knows how dangerous meth labs can be.

        • TribalistMeathead

          The most galling thing about that case was the fact that the chief of police refused to admit any wrongdoing. When the chief of police won’t apologize to the mayor for one of his officers shooting and killing his two dogs because they mistook his house for a drug kingpin’s house, we have real problems.

      • TBP

        The thing is, SWAT teams really like to break down doors and swarm in. It’s why they do it for a living. I’m actually glad there are people like that for when it’s really necessary, but there needs to be someone above them on the food chain making rational decisions about when such tactics are needed. Clearly that was not the case here. It’s not the SWAT team members who should be fired; they just charge in when and where they are told to. It’s whoever made this decision in the first place.

        And I disagree with your first statement. I can’t forgive this stupidity. It’s pure entrapment for a victimless crime, and waste of public resources, even if the result hadn’t been so tragic.

        • Scott Lemieux

          And I disagree with your first statement. I can’t forgive this stupidity. It’s pure entrapment for a victimless crime, and waste of public resources, even if the result hadn’t been so tragic.


        • grouchomarxist

          [T]here needs to be someone above them on the food chain making rational decisions about when such tactics are needed.

          But that’s the problem, isn’t it? Most if not all the institutional incentives favor more frequent use of SWAT teams. And more of them, too. Nobody in the food chain, above or below, is going to apply the brakes.

          Regrettable incidents like this fade from the public memory pretty quickly, while the SWAT teams provide great optics and — usually, anyway — dynamite PR, plus lots of bucks and great new toys from Homeland Security.

          And it gives them major chubbies.

      • FridayNext

        You are not a regular, long time reader of Balko I take it. IIRC the shooter in this instance was not charged of anything or even suspended or put on desk duty. The local DA, again, IIRC named Ebert, has NEVER found against the police in ANY shooting EVER. In fact I think the shooter got a commendation, but that seems to be pro forma in questionable police shootings in order to be able to claim at any subsequent hearing “but he is a decorated officer!”

        • rea

          I doubt very much the shooter got a commendation, as it was his story that his gun discharged accidently when the closing door of his police car struck him. Neither state or federal authorities thought this was prosecutable, but (as I link below) the police and their insurers wound up paying $2 million. As I read the linked article, the shooter got some mild discipline–thrown off the SWAT team, for example.

      • rea

        Well, the basic problem is, if the police department spends a lot of money to form, equip and train a SWAT team, the department has to use it, or it will look like a waste of money.

        • Ann Outhouse

          The basic problem is the mentality of the sort of person who is attracted to police work in the first place. SWAT gear just allows them to be even bigger, meaner, badge-heavier authoritarian bullies.

      • Another Anonymous

        Cities and towns spend $$$ (much of it grants from state/feds, I believe) on these SWAT forces, and then they have this expensive tool sitting around, and gosh, what’re they going to do, not use it? I mean, how would they qualify for more grants?

    • TribalistMeathead

      Hell, I live in DC, in a still-gentrifying neighborhood, and a year and a half ago, a cop had time to pull me over and write me a ticket for failing to signal before changing lanes.

      • ajay

        I live in DC, in a still-gentrifying neighborhood, and a year and a half ago, a cop had time to pull me over and write me a ticket for failing to signal before changing lanes.

        This is a particularly dopey example. It’s not like he would otherwise have spent the five minutes it took to give you a ticket on solving a violent crime.

        • You fail to grasp the point: the cop has some nerve expecting him to follow basic traffic laws.

          • TribalistMeathead

            Your snark is adorable.

          • witless chum

            It’s an asshole move not to signal. I’d like to know what you’re to expect that big piece of fast-moving metal to do, thanks. I’m a curious monkey, what can I say.

            And you were on an empty street (apparently except for a cop) but you’re not omnipotent and you might sometimes me wrong and not see a car, bicyclist or person.

            • Cheap Wino


              Not signaling is the height of lazy.

            • djw

              Yeah, policing traffic violations is almost always one of the best imaginable uses of police resources.

              1) With the exception of drunk driving, no ruined lives through jail time, massive legal costs, felony records, etc. No use for swat teams and most other absurd militarization trends.

              2) Driving cars is, at least compared to other things people do every day, an incredibly dangerous activity that kills/injures huge amounts of people. Aggressive policing of behavior that targets behavior that makes driving more dangerous does, in fact, seem to lead to a reduction in that behavior.

              Policing traffic is the precise opposite of a waste of police resources.

      • OMG, it’s MattY!

        • Hmmm…as I recall Yglesias is very much a proponent of vigorous enforcement of traffic laws, especially in cities where people are trying to walk and bike and stuff.

          • JL

            Yeah, can we limit the Yglesias-bashing to things Yglesias actually believes/has said? It’s not like there’s a shortage of material there.

            • I assume it was a reference to his cartoonish view of DC.

              • TribalistMeathead

                cartoonish view of DC = expectation that the police use their limited resources in better ways than writing tickets for failing to signal on an empty street, apparently.

                • That DC is in such bad shape that it’s silly for a police officer to ticket someone for failing to signal. Yes, that seems cartoonish to me.

                • TribalistMeathead

                  You should come here for a visit sometime. Stray away from the well-trod tourist paths. Then tell me DC is in such fine shape, the cops don’t need to waste their time on broken-windows crap like this.

                • Yeah, the fact that there are BLACK PEOPLE IN THE CITY means that we shouldn’t have traffic cops wasting their time enforcing traffic laws, because God knows cars never have accidents that cause massive disruptions in people’s lives or, ya know, kill people.

                  And as someone who lives in the DC/Baltimore area and has to deal with these tremendous disruptions from people driving like assholes on every major highway in the area on a far too frequent basis: a hearty “Fuck you” to you, you self-entitled prick.

                • Uhh…yeah, I’ve lived in DC all my life, thanks. And some things, like the murder rate, are considerably better than they were in the 90’s. There seems to be a tendency among some people who have recently moved into the city to play up how dangerous it is; not sure if you’re one of those, but I haven’t seen many locals do it.

                  No, DC is not so bad, and no, the police shouldn’t ignore how people drive in the city.

                • witless chum

                  Also, it took what ten minutes to pull you over, run your plates and write you ticket? You can’t solve many murder sprees in ten minutes.

                • TribalistMeathead

                  I’ve lived here for 12 years, and I’m willing to concede it’s better than it was, but it’s certainly not crime-free.

                  And a hearty fuck-you to the smug, self-righteous prick Brien Jackson who screams RAAAACISM! in response to “crime in DC is a problem.”

            • “Yeah, can we limit the Yglesias-bashing to things Yglesias actually believes/has said?”

              You must be new to this.

    • Halloween Jack

      Because solving real crimes would involve real police work: cultivating contacts, investigating leads, getting to know people, etc., all with no guarantee of there being an arrest. It’s better for their personnel jacket and promotion process if they go with low-risk, high-profile arrests. Thus, the popularity of vice arrests, and the better if you can pump it up with a reality-and-news-show-friendly SWAT raid. They have to justify getting all that sexy mil-spec gear somehow…

  • JustAnotherLawGuy

    “In theory, arbitrary prosecution violates the 5th and/or 14th Amendments, but good luck actually making the case.”

    In theory, possibly correct. But in reality, a complete falsehood. The decision whether or not to prosecute is entirely within the prosecutor’s discretion.

    Also, the local prosecutors may not have even known that this was going on. Most of the time, prosecutors don’t even get knowledge of the crimes or investigations until after they have been arrested and then the prosecutor gets the paperwork/reports (which I must say was a big disappointment because I thought going to law school and becoming a prosecutor would allow me to be in charge of investigations… you know, like on law and order and what not).

    • Scott Lemieux

      In theory, possibly correct. But in reality, a complete falsehood. The decision whether or not to prosecute is entirely within the prosecutor’s discretion.

      That doesn’t actually address the question. Obviously, prosecutors have discretion but the exercise of this discretion must conform to the due process and equal protection clauses, which forbid abusive or wholly arbitrary prosecutions. Alas, the law in practice sees things the way you do, but this doesn’t actually make it less wrong.

  • cs

    I had to scroll back through the old posts to remember what was LotF part 1. Is this going to be an ongoing series, like This Day in Labor History?

    • Anna in PDX

      Good idea! I second this if it is an actual motion.

  • cpinva

    the proliferation of SWAT units can be directly traced back to the “War on Some Drugs and Some Users/Dealers”, with connecting links to 9/11 and “Terrorism”. local police depts. get a cut of all assets seized from arrested parties. drug dealers tend to have more cash/cash equivalents, that can’t be traced back to stolen funds. they’ve used those monies to arm & train there very own SWAT teams, whether their locality can really justify having one or not. further, after 9/11, DHS showered funds on local police agencies, monies used to buy cop toys, and additional arms/training for rarely needed SWAT teams.

    if you have a SWAT team, it must be used, to justify its existence, and the monies spent on it. so now, pretty much everyone is a potentially “dangerous” drug cartel member, arsenals bristling against the brave, Sgt. Rock wannabes that populate many SWAT units. and here we are.

    • DocAmazing

      There were articles decrying the proliferation of SWAT teams in places that clearly didn’t need them back in the early 1980s. The militarization of the police–and the recognition of it–has deep roots.

      • ChrisTS

        Here in Nowheresville, one local officer stood up at a public meeting and suggested the force needed an armored vehicle. Fallowing a stunned pause, everyone in the room burst out laughing.

        On the other hand, apparently they have recently gotten some of the military garb just in case…. oh, I dunno, maybe crazed meth addicts from Philly finding their way up here (even though no one looking for us can find us).

        • ChrisTS

          Bah: Following.

        • ChrisTS

          Damn. I feel I really missed out on something.

          • ChrisTS

            Uh: aimed at the spambot thread. Jeesh.

    • John Protevi

      AFAICT they also get a deep discount on used military gear. Or even have them given to them after the military is done with them. The ACLU is trying to find out the extent of this: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/03/06/aclu-police-militarization-swat_n_2813334.html

  • rea

    More details of the Culosi killing, inclduing the families $2 million settlement with the police.


    • Another Anonymous

      Bullock told police investigators in 2006, “my finger rolled and somehow got on the trigger and pulled the trigger,” an internal affairs interview transcript shows.

      Oh please. Only someone who has never held a gun could believe that.

  • Scott Lemieux

    I am impressed that not a troll but a literal, immediately obvious spambot attracted like 10 comments almost immediately. Again, I can’t blame our trolls for not putting in any effort.

    • daveNYC

      Kinda makes the whole idea of the Turing test seem moot.

    • rea
    • Keaaukane

      i’m kinda bummed you removed the Spambot, but left the comments, floating, contextless, meaningless. Future historians, seeing the orphan comments, might point to July 9, 2013 as the beginning of when LGM Stopped Making Sense.

      • Hogan

        Nah, it’s practically an internet tradition here.

    • Anonymous37

      Hmm … that’s an interesting point. Have you considered buying cheap generic Viagra as a potential solution?

      • firefall

        I hear there is a simple trick to make your blog larger

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