Whose War Is It, Anyway?

One afternoon two years ago, thirteen men brandishing automatic weapons and wearing black combat fatigues burst through the apartment door of Acelynne Williams, a retired Methodist minister living in Boston. Williams fled to a back room, but his attackers caught him and dragged his frail body to the ground. Williams vomited on the floor, then suffered a massive heart attack. He was dead within minutes.Why didn't the neighbors call the police?The answer is simple: The men who assaulted the 75- year-old Williams that day were the police, and they were raiding his apartment by mistake. The suspected crack dealers they intended to arrest were on the next floor of the apartment building. It is unclear, however, if any drug activity was occurring in the building at all, as the search warrant the police were executing was nearly six months old.Williams was an African American living in the predominantly minority neighborhood of Dorchester and, for many African Americans, his death is a clear indication of why they believe America's War On Drugs is in reality a war on their community.THE INCARCERATED AMERICAA 1994 study conducted by The Sentencing Project provides statistical proof for what many in the African American community had suspected for years: while minority neighborhoods suffer most from the violence that follows the drug trade, they also suffer most from legal attempts to create and enforce drug laws.The Sentencing Project showed that on any given day, more than 800,000 young black males -- nearly a third of the total number of male black Americans between the ages of 20-29 -- are either in jail, on probation, or on parole. Statistically, a young black male in America is more likely to go to prison time than to graduate from college. Even more alarming, however, is the inequity of the impact which enforcement of the nation's drug laws has on different segments of our society.According to figures from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, African Americans make up only about 13 percent of monthly drug users, a figure which is about equal to their population numbers as a whole. Yet, in 1993, African Americans accounted for 35 percent of all drug arrests and 74 percent of all prison sentences on drug charges. And the situation is growing steadily worse. During the last five years, the rate of imprisonment for white offenders increased by 8 percent, while the rate for black offenders soared by 31 percent."The set of policies and practices contained within the phrase 'war on drugs' has been an unmitigated disaster for young blacks and other minorities," the report's authors wrote. According to their findings, one of the hardest-hit segments of the African American community was the middle class. During the past decade, arrest rates for middle class blacks have increased sixfold, and are now roughly equal to the rates for those living in poverty.THE "PROFILE"Ken Lawson is a Cincinnati, Ohio attorney who has often represented African American clients charged with drug possession. He says the War on Drugs unfairly makes criminals out of his clients."African Americans are being targeted by the police as being drug users and drug dealers," Lawson says. "They are stopped by the police at a higher rate on the basis of the car they drive or the neighborhood they live in."It is an experience which Lawson, who is black, can speak about first-hand.Though he is a well known local attorney, Lawson says he has been stopped several times and temporarily detained by narcotics officers. On one such occasion, Lawson was driving in his car with his five-year-old daughter when he was pulled over. Several other officers quickly arrived at the scene and Lawson and his young daughter suddenly found themselves staring down the barrels of at least five guns."It makes you feel like shit," Lawson says. "It leaves a nasty taste in your mouth about the promises that were made but weren't kept. They tell you 'don't use race to get ahead. Study hard, work hard, and become a productive member of society,' and then things like this happen. How do you explain this to my daughter?"Lawson's experiences with the local police are not an isolated phenomenon. Another Cincinnati black man, Clarence D. Williams, III, also can relate incidents of having been stopped by police or private security guards as happened to him recently at a local department store. What is perhaps surprising about Williams' experiences, however, is the fact that his day job just happens to be with the Cincinnati Police Department. Lieutenant Clarence Williams is a twenty-year CPD veteran and president of the Sentinels, an association of black police officers."The older you get, the less angry you get," Lt. Williams says regarding those occasions when he has been detained by white fellow police officers. "I try to rationalize that he's just doing his job and that my skin color doesn't have anything to do with it. But sometimes I think to myself that my skin color does have something to do with it." Lt. Williams adds that his oldest son, a graduate of the University of Dayton and now training to be a Marine Corps officer, has had similar experiences.Lt. Williams says that he has developed what he calls "survival skills" that help him in these situations. He controls his temper and doesn't exacerbate the situation. He has cautioned his sons, in the event of an incident, to identify themselves as the children of a police officer as quickly as possible in hopes that they won't be roughed up. But, as Lawson knows only too well, the use of such "survival skills" can't change the police policy of making random stops.Lawson says that a common tactic used by police officers is to pull over a black motorist on "suspicion" of speeding or weaving in traffic, and then to search the suspect's car. Such a search is illegal without the driver's permission, but that fact doesn't always stop officers from conducting one. If and when the matter gets to court, it's the officer's word against that of a suspected drug dealer."Judges are under real pressure to allow these searches," Lawson says. He cited a recent example in New York, where a federal judge threw out the results of a warrantless search, even though the officers at the scene found a significant cache of drugs. Public outcry over the judge's adherence to Fourth Amendment guarantees of protection against "unreasonable search and seizure" became so heated, the issue reached the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives, where some resourceful congressmen began talking about impeaching the offending judge apparently unimpressed by the fact that a federal judges are appointed for life by the president and can only be impeached for committing "high crimes and misdemeanors" while in office. After a week of escalating pressure, the judge relented and allowed the seized drugs to be used as evidence. His ruling, to the extent that it was influenced by the threats from elected officials, sends an ominous message to lawyers like Ken Lawson. It suggests that evidence from more and more illegal searches may be introduced in court."We're seeing a sacrifice of our constitutional rights in the name of the War on Drugs," Lawson says. "It's not just a technicality. It's something our founding fathers thought important enough to die for."Lt. Williams counters that while the Cincinnati Police Department tries to protect individual rights, what happens out on the street can he difficult to enforce. "We don't condone that type of thing, but does it happen? Sure it does. Do officers push the envelope on traffic stops? Sure they do.""I believe that the African American community is disproportionately impacted by the war on drugs," Lt. Williams says. However, he does not believe that inequity stems from an intentional policy of targeting African Americans. Rather, he believes, arrest rates for minorities are higher because they constitute the bulk of drug distribution at the street level, "They're easier targets for arrest," Williams says. "Getting to the major dealers takes a more extensive law enforcement effort."Lt. Williams does confirm that minority neighborhood are targeted for aggressive law enforcement efforts, but says that's only because the bulk of "street level" drug dealing can be found there. The drug dealers, many of them in their late teens and early twenties, are easy marks for undercover narcotics officers."In fairness to the police officers," Williams says, "they're often responding to complaints from people within the African American community. If they [community residents] make the request, we have to respond to it."But these "search and destroy" missions by the police in Cincinnati and other urban areas across the country are taking a terrible toll. According to figures published recently in the Journal of the American Medical Association, state and federal governments poured nearly $30 billion into drug enforcement in 1995. The U.S. prison population is now 250 percent higher than when Nancy Reagan first urged the American public to "just say no," and an already overcrowded penal system now strains to add a thousand beds a week to keep up with "get tough" sentencing laws being passed across the country.And there is more bad news. In addition to being hideously expensive and unfair to blacks, there is mounting evidence that the War on Drugs is simply a waste of time. The American Bar Association's Ad Hoc Committee on Drugs reported last year that "there is no proof that incarcerating large numbers of drug offenders with stiffer prison sentences is reducing criminal behavior." The ABA report also warned that "warehousing more and more prisoners is preventing correctional facilities from providing drug offenders with drug treatment, education, and job training programs that might benefit them."Some (the Clinton administration's newly appointed Drug Czar Barry McCaffrey among them) have suggested taking a more holistic approach to the drug problem, one that involves more than just the police, the courts and the prisons. Lt. Williams agrees that using law enforcement as the only approach is not likely to be successful."Most experts would say that in order to win the War on Drugs, it's got to be a multi-prong attack: enforcement, treatment, and education " Williams adds that police efforts ideally should be "partnered" by community-based service organizations that can help people beat their drug habits and, better still, to help kids avoid drugs in the first place. He points to things like the DARE program as an example of a promising first step, one indicative of the fundamental change taking place in police-community relations. Police officers now can be hard using phrases like "customer friendly" when describing their interactions with the public and are being trained to think of law enforcement as an extension of the service industry. In Cincinnati, each District Commander has a "resource committee," which includes citizens from the local community and is designed to help the police set enforcement priorities."[Cincinnati Police] Chief Snowden has made significant strides to open the door to the Community," Lt. Williams says "but because of past history, people haven't been quick to rush through that door." Like many other cities, Cincinnati is still feeling the effects of mistrust between the minority community and the police force. The situation is improving, but as the Pharon Crosby incident illustrated last year, the old problems will probably not disappear soon.Ken Lawson believes that the ultimate solution to the drug problem, particularly as it effects the African American community, can only come from the people who live there."More people in the community have to be active," Lawson says. "You know, I don't mean to minimize the things that Marge Schott says, but we're pretty quick to picket Marge, and Marge Schott isn't killing our kids. We know who's doing that, so why aren't we going after them?"SIDEBAR ONECALLS TO END THE WAR ON DRUGS MOUNTINGBlack males are not the only Americans who believe that the War on Drugs has become a war on the African American community. Diane Thompson, an administrator with Cincinnati Public Schools says individuals have to take it upon themselves to put an end to racial stereotyping where it starts:"And that's at home. Not all blacks are drug users, not all African American women are prostitutes, and not all black men are in prison," says Thompson, who adds, "I don't agree with legalization, but the way the attack on drugs is waged, there is an adverse effect on the African American community, particularly African American males."One Cincinnatian says that he has been deeply affected for some time over the findings of the Sentencing Project and exasperated by what he thinks is a lack of concern by the very community most effected by the issue. Dave Gallaher, a local Libertarian activist, says, "As a white man, I don't see how the African American community can look at the results of the Sentencing Project and conclude that the government is innocent of genocide."Thompson and Gallaher can hardly be called radical for expressing such opinions. Not when high-ranking federal judges and other jurists are speaking out about their own serious misgivings about the War on Drugs. In late April, John Torruella, Chief Judge of the 1st U.S. District Court of Appeals, told a Colgate College audience the drug war was a "losing battle," and says legitimate debate on the issue of legalization and other alternatives to enforcement policies is being clouded by "hysteria." Harsh sentences for drug convictions have had limited effects, according to Judge Torruella. "We simply cannot put everybody in jail."Other judges have gone even further, saying the time for legalization has come. In March, Richard E. Neville, a Criminal Court judge in Chicago, says drugs aren't the problem, it's the money illegal drugs generate. "Putting people in jail only creates a whole underculture of criminals who cannot get jobs, who get out and go back to the drug trade because that's where the money is at. It's a revolving door that has continued for 30 years and will continue until we change the policy," says Neville.

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