Lessons Not Learned Since Tragic Drug Raid in Atlanta

It's been almost four years since Atlanta narcotics officers shot and killed 92-year-old Kathryn Johnston and planted evidence in a failed attempt to frame her - and her family is just now receiving justice in the form of a $4.9 million settlement. That of course won't bring Ms. Johnston back. And despite some cosmetic changes to how drug law enforcement works, very little has changed. City officials will continue to pressure police officers to meet informal arrest quotas, police will continue to violently raid the homes of people suspected of only nonviolent offenses, and taxpayers will continue to foot the bill of a failed drug policy. Real reform is needed.

Leaving aside the need to reconsider drug prohibition, which like alcohol Prohibition is empowering organized crime and putting police officers and citizens in harm's way, a major problem with the war on drugs is bad performance measures. It is far too common for law enforcement agencies to be graded on such "body count" statistics as the amount of drugs seized and the number of people arrested. Yet arrests and seizures have little if any impact on drug availability or the problems associated with substance abuse. Measuring success by these statistics also breeds corruption and impropriety.

Because the amount of funding narcotics taskforces receive is often based on how many people they arrest and the amount of drugs they seize, individual officers can advance their careers significantly by making a large number of arrests, even if the people they're arresting are not harming anyone. This incentive structure has led to fabricating informants, raiding homes on false evidence, lying to judges, and planting evidence. Anything to increase the body count. To be sure most officers are good people, but the demands put on then by their superiors and local politicians foster civil rights abuses and undermine public safety.

Atlanta's police union has complained that narcotics officers are under enormous pressure to meet quotas for arrests. The easiest way to boost their numbers is to arrest low-level offenders - from people smoking marijuana on the street corner to drug mules and the homeless. Low-level offenders are plentiful and easy to catch. Arresting them pads the official reports, but does nothing to stop major traffickers or reduce the problems associated with substance abuse. While officers are booking people for drug possession, they're not patrolling neighborhoods for real criminals. And money spent prosecuting and jailing low-level offenders is money not being spent on drug treatment or education.

Instead of grading narcotics taskforces on how many arrests they've made, how many warrants they've served, and how many pounds of drug they've seized, they should be graded on more informative and meaningful criteria. Is violence in the drug trade decreasing? Are drug overdoses declining? Are police officers helping or hindering needle exchange programs that reduce the spread of HIV/AID from injection drug use? Are police agencies dismantling major crime networks or just wasting time arresting low level drug offenders? These are all better measurement criteria than generalized arrest numbers.

Ms. Johnston's death is about more than bad apples in the Atlanta police department. It's about the corrupting incentives of a failed drug policy. At a minimum policymakers need to change these incentives or more innocent citizens like Kathryn Johnston will die. Ultimately, substance abuse should be treated as a health issue instead of a criminal justice issue. The greatest investment of drug resources should be in prevention, treatment, and harm reduction programs that prevent death, disease and disability related to drug misuse. Law enforcement's role should be limited to stopping drug offenders who threaten public safety (people who commit violence, rob or steal to support their habit, drive while impaired). This sensible approach would cost taxpayers less and accomplish more than arresting and jailing millions of nonviolent drug offenders.

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