Take It From a Cop: The Drug War Poisons Community Policing

The following first appeared on Substance.com: 


The Ferguson riots are the latest high-profile example of the deep schism between American law enforcement and the communities it serves. This schism has been made demonstrably worse by the way the drug war has blurred the police mission. The community policing mission should always be fundamentally different to that of the military—yet that often hasn’t been the case, thanks in large part to wrongheaded policies put in place decades ago.

The long history of racial disparity in the enforcement of our drug policies was greatly exacerbated by the architect of the modern war on drugs, Richard Nixon. His vision was to create a crime- and violence-free society—but his false belief was that black heroin addicts were the primary cause of crime in our communities.

Nixon once stated to his aide H.R. Haldeman, “you have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognizes this while not appearing to.”

Nixon’s dream of devising a criminal justice system that targets communities of color through the mechanism of our drug policies was achieved. According to the ACLU report “War Comes Home: The Excessive Militarization of American Policing,” among myriad other sources, law enforcement’s attempt to eradicate drug use in America has hit communities of color the hardest.

Clearly, the fatal shooting of Michael Brown on August 9 and the ensuing riots in Ferguson are about many different things. But the drug war’s militarization of our cops is the fuel that ignited this conflagration—and continues to spark many others in communities where aggressive policing and harsh tactics, such as “stop-and-frisk,” are wrongly believed to be an effective tool to curb crime.

I am not naïve enough to argue that if we had a rational drug policy, treating drug use as a public health issue, the relationship between cops and their constituents would be perfect. That is a fantasy as far-fetched as the idea of achieving a drug- or crime-free society—policing, after all, requires making people accountable for their behavior. Yet you can police your community in a fashion that is fair, respectful and based on the values enshrined in the Law Enforcement Code of Ethics.

Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) speaker and retired police chief Dr. Joseph McNamara once noted the effect of war language on law enforcement professionals:

“When you’re telling cops that they’re soldiers in a Drug War, you’re destroying the whole concept of the citizen peace officer, a peace officer whose fundamental duty is to protect life and be a community servant. General Colin Powell told us during the Persian Gulf War what a soldier’s duty is. It’s to kill the enemy. And when we allowed our politicians to push cops into a war that they’ll never win, they can’t win, and let them begin to think of themselves as soldiers, the mentality comes that anything goes.”

There have been countless examples of this in action. Looking back on my 20-year career as a police officer in California, I recall scandals like the Los Angeles Police Department’s 39th and Dalton narcotics raid, where the police committed 127 documented acts of vandalism. Such reckless aggression was a direct reflection of drug war dogma.

I also think back with regret to the countless narcotic search warrants that I participated in. After searching for any signs of drugs, we would leave the premises not vandalized, but in complete disarray—without worry or concern about the impact on the people who lived there, and without considering the possible harms our actions were causing.

Public polling gauges the American sentiment on the drug war, yet holds little sway over the prevailing law enforcement belief that drug use is a morally flawed choice. Recent polls by both Pew (2014) and Rasmussen (2013), for example, reveal declining public support for our current drug policies and a widespread belief that the drug war is a failure. But the law enforcement establishment continues to support the mass criminalization of a public health issue for ideological reasons—encouraging our political leaders to cling to an outdated approach that has no foundation in science.

It’s not just the drug war’s failure to prevent drug use that should concern the police, but its effect on the people we are sworn to protect.

The drug war has helped to shift law enforcement away from its founding ethical principles, which clarified the roles of the police and the desired relationship with the public they serve. These wise principles, often described as “policing by consent,” were designed by Sir Robert Peel, the historical father of policing, in the 19th Century. They have long served as law enforcement’s guide. One of Peel’s nine principles of policing states that “the power of the police to fulfill their functions and duties is dependent on public approval of their existence, actions and behavior, and on their ability to secure and maintain public respect.”

There is a fight within law enforcement itself over this evolution away from Peelian principles. Police leaders believe that the cornerstone of policing should be trust, integrity and a partnership with the community—yet they often won’t acknowledge how the emphasis on the drug war, with its detrimental effect on communities of color, exacerbates tensions like those we see in Ferguson.

The ninth of Peel’s principles states that “the test of police efficiency is the absence of crime and disorder, and not the visible evidence of police action in dealing with it.” Today, law enforcement’s emphasis on actions over results—rewarding drug busts, for example, despite the negligible effect they have on supply—has contributed to many of the negative consequences of the drug war which drug policy reform organizations like LEAP are working to remedy.

Most notably, this emphasis on drug war actions has resulted in the systematic subversion of all Americans’ constitutional rights. It has resulted in the corruption of law enforcement and helped to destroy the relationships necessary to build strong and healthy communities. We see the damage our policy causes when we continue to arrest 1.4 million drug users and sellers each year but ignore400,000 untested rape kits in our evidence lockers; when we engage in racial profiling and practices such as stop-and-frisk which do little to alleviate crime; or when we think that the citizens we serve are animals—as captured by CNN during the filming of law enforcement during the Ferguson riots.

The Greek playwright Aeschylus once wrote, “In war, truth is the first casualty.” His prescient summary of the nature of conflict and power has played out on American soil over the last 40 years as we have strived to make our country drug-free.

I believe that the actions in Ferguson show that we abandoned Peel and his community-based policing principles long ago, by engaging in a war not on drugs, but on people. All Americans need to ask, What next? Ending the drug war is a necessary step to achieving peace with honor, and to repairing law enforcement’s damaged relationships with those people we have harmed the most.

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