A Washington Post sports columnist recently admitted he has never been to a football game. Despite having written a widely acclaimed 400-page book on the dangers of special teams play, this widely renowned advocate for changes to the sport tweeted an admission in January that he “doesn’t claim to be an expert” on the game, despite having been highly critical of certain players. Rather, he claimed, he’s just a columnist with a beat of stadium sports.
If this sounds ridiculous, you’ll be pleased to know it’s not true. The truth is much worse.
This is all true about a Washington Post columnist. But, Radley Balko actually covers criminal justice, and the “sport” he admits to having never personally observed is police work. The “players” he criticizes are actually cops who’ve made life-or-death decisions that he openly mocks.
I first noticed the gaping hole in Balko’s knowledge while reading his 400-page tome on SWAT operations, The Rise of the Warrior Cop. While it is certainly chock full of historic anecdotes, detailed legislative research, and interviews with a few retired officers who share his world view, there was not a single first-hand observation of that which he criticized.
This doesn’t mean it lacks compelling points. Veteran cops I know ponder the over-use of SWAT teams.
But Balko’s attacks on SWAT contained no reference to his observations of the decision-making of SWAT operations. Not one word was devoted to his understanding of what goes into planning such events. He offered no remedy to mitigate potential threats to officers (except, like all Libertarians, ending the drug war).
It seemed odd that someone criticizing life-or-death decisions would omit flaws he observed in the decision-making. I mean, if you wrote 400 pages on football special teams play, you’d certainly cite what you’d observed in practice sessions and coaching decisions, right? You’d not just cite statistics, but you’d recount anecdotes of the realities of the heat of the moment, if only to illustrate the numbers.
Yet, Balko offered no such insight.
Then, in the summer of 2015, Balko tweeted something that to me, having covered police work for 25 years, was simply unconscionable. After University of Cincinnati police Officer Ray Tensing shot and killed fleeing felon Sam DuBose, Balko wrote that the body-worn video camera footage of the shooting was proof that we need to stop telling cops “their lives are in perpetual jeopardy.”
That horrifying DuBose video is all fear. We have to stop constantly telling cops that their lives are in perpetual jeopardy.
— Radley Balko (@radleybalko) July 29, 2015
This is a truly unhinged statement. While there is much debatable in the video, Balko’s comments reflect stunning ignorance of the myriad of threats police officers face daily, even simply driving down the street. The underlying assumption — that it is irrational to treat a simple traffic stop as a potential jeopardy — ignores the lessons learned in the deaths of the hundreds of cops who have been murdered during simple encounters, like the one murdered under similar circumstances days before Balko’s tweet. Moreover, a jury presented with the actual facts couldn’t decide whether Tensing’s fear was unjustified.
Balko’s tweet also revealed total ignorance of the parallel messages that I’ve heard repeatedly in hundreds of hours of law enforcement training I’ve experienced and observed: Most people aren’t a threat to cops and can’t be addressed as such, but cops must be prepared to immediately react because some are.
It was as if he never saw any of the dozens of encounters on YouTube in which police officers have been attacked without warning.
So, I started asking. This past January, using one of my business Twitter accounts, I posed a simple question: “@RadleyBalko How many hours of observations of police work have you made?” After a week of ignored queries, others began to repeat them: Just how much policing has the Washington Post’s columnist on policing issues actually observed?
— Cop PRotect (@CopProtect) January 25, 2017
When he could no longer ignore the question, his answer was stunning: 1) I’m an idiot and “it’s a loaded, irrelevant question.” 2) He doesn’t claim to be an expert on policing, he’s just a columnist covering criminal justice issues. 3) He’s tried to go out with a few police departments but none agreed to have him.
@CopProtect Muted that idiot ages ago, for good reason. It's a loaded, irrelevant question. I've interviewed countless cops. /1
— Radley Balko (@radleybalko) January 26, 2017
One can only imagine why this might be.
So, a leading leftist influencer on one of the most important topics in American politics today freely admits he’s never actually bothered to observe that which he’s determined to change. Not that lives depend on the decisions he’s trying to shape.
More remarkably, he proudly touted that he also hasn’t been bothered to observe bite mark analysts, though he has devoted a significant amount of his work to attacking bite mark evidence.
To criminal justice reporters I’ve talked to, this was simply stunning. “Observing law enforcement is a critical part of quality crime reporting,” a veteran Southern California crime reporter told me, on condition he not be named to protect his job opportunities. “An understanding of the nature of law enforcement, ethics, tactics and culture is vital to well-informed reporting on criminal justice matters.”
Covering crime is often a new reporter’s first job, and almost always includes going on ride-along with cops just to get a feel for how they work. One ex-reporter I know learned so much he became an LAPD cop. Yet Balko not only ascended to the pre-eminent ranks of crime journalists without this exposure, he dismissed such a foundation as “irrelevant.”
What’s more remarkable, Balko is not alone in his ignorance. The criminal justice editor of a major left-leaning online magazine confided to me that he, too, has never had contact with any police officers, outside of being stopped for traffic violations. To his credit, he asked me to arrange some ride-alongs with officers in his region.
But the good news is that aspiring columnists everywhere now know that they can work at major national publications without even basic understanding of the field they cover.
Democracy Dies In Darkness. Indeed.