Why Are Cops Losing Their Jobs for Questioning the Drug War?

With so much bloodshed, hundreds of thousands incarcerated, and millions of families torn apart, one would have to be blind not to question the failed war on drugs. Given their close proximity to the devastation it has wrought, it’s only natural that the police and Border Patrol officers tasked with executing the drug war for the last four decades would have the strongest views. Yet, around the country, some have been fired for criticizing the drug war as well as supporting drug decriminalization.

On April 13, 2009, 26-year-old Bryan Gonzalez was patrolling the U.S.–Mexican border near Deming, New Mexico, when he pulled up next to fellow agent Shawn Montoya for a break. The two began a casual discussion about the drug-related violence in Mexico, at which point Gonzalez shared his belief that drug legalization would end both the drug war and the cartel violence. When Montoya asked why Mexicans cross the border and steal jobs, Gonzalez responded that Mexicans came to the United States due to a lack of available jobs in Mexico.

Although he was born in the United States, Gonzalez informed Montoya that he had dual U.S.–Mexican citizenship until the age of 18, which gave him a unique understanding and sympathy for the migrants who cross the border. Gonzalez also mentioned Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, or LEAP, an organization of mostly retired law enforcement officials opposed to the drug war.

Little did Gonzalez know that know that voicing his beliefs would cost him his job. According to a lawsuit filed by the ACLU, he was reported to his supervisor, who sent word of the exchange to the Joint Intake Command in Washington, D.C., which launched an investigation into the matter. 

In October 2009, after two years as a officer with excellent reviews from his employer, Gonzalez received a letter of termination from the Border Patrol, citing his “personal views that were contrary to the core characteristics of Border Patrol agents, which are patriotism, dedication, and esprit de corps.” 

“I was terminated not because my service was inadequate, but because I hold certain opinions that are shared by millions of my fellow Americans,” Gonzalez is quoted as saying in an ACLU press release. “I am no less patriotic or dedicated to excellence in my work because I respectfully disagree with some of our current border enforcement policies. It was wrong for the U.S. Border Patrol to retaliate against me for exercising my free speech rights guaranteed by the very Constitution I swore to uphold.”

Micah McCoy, communications specialist at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of New Mexico, told AlterNet, “People don’t give up the right to have a political opinion when they put on a uniform of a government agency.” McCoy specified that Gonzalez was not expressing his view as a representative of the border patrol.  “It’s not like he was going on TV and saying all drugs should be legalized. He was having a casual conversation with a coworker that was reported to a supervisor by a third party who wasn’t even present during the conversation. And Bryan subsequently got fired for it.”

In January, the ACLU of New Mexico filed a lawsuit in federal court on behalf of Gonzalez. Meanwhile, the Justice Department is trying to have the case thrown out on behalf of the Border Patrol because Gonzalez has already lost a discrimination complaint filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which backed the Border Patrol’s position that Gonzalez could no longer be trusted to uphold the law.

The more disturbing element to this story is that the retaliation against Gonzalez for his critical view of the drug war is not an isolated incident. Several law enforcement officers have faced similar reprisals for questioning the wisdom of U.S. drug policies. 

Last September, Joe Miller, a probation officer in Arizona’s Mohave County, near the California–Mexico border, joined 32 members of LEAP in signing a letter supporting last year’s failed California ballot measure to legalize and tax marijuana. Two months later, Miller was notified that he was under investigation for failing to “indicate that [his] opinion was not the opinion of the Mohave County Probation Department,” even though the LEAP letter included a disclaimer at the bottom that specified that that “all agency affiliations are listed for identification purposes only.”  Miller was ultimately terminated.

Watching fellow officers get punished for speaking their minds about this particular issue could stifle an important public policy debate within the law enforcement community. 

For example, Miller was one of just a handful of signatories still on the job when he signed the LEAP letter. The fact that the majority of signers were retired members of law enforcement points to a common fear among police officers that they may be subject to reprisal for expressing their views. The New York Times spoke to an officer who demonstrated the chilling effect of these firings:

Among those not yet ready to publicly urge the legalization of drugs is a veteran Texas police officer who quietly supports LEAP and spoke on the condition that he not be identified. “We all know the drug war is a bad joke,” he said in a telephone interview. “But we also know that you’ll never get promoted if you’re seen as soft on drugs.”

More importantly, by muzzling officers, authorities are building a system that discourages cops from thinking critically. Considering that police are vested with the power to detain, arrest, and kill, the prospect that agencies are creating an environment that chokes off complex thought is troubling, to say the least.

Bryan Gonzalez, who has gone back to school since being fired and may even pursue a law degree, expressed this dynamic best when he declared, “I don’t want to work at a place that says I can’t think.”

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