Radley Balko tells a tale that will shock you:
A year and a half ago she was beaten by a neighborhood thug outside of a city bar. It took months of do-it-yourself sleuthing, a meeting with a city alderman and a public shaming in a community newspaper before the Chicago Police Department would pay any attention to her. About a year later, Shaver got more attention from cops than she ever could have wanted: A team of Chicago cops took down her door with a battering ram and raided her apartment, searching for drugs.
Shaver has no evidence that the two incidents are related, and they likely aren’t in any direct way. But they provide a striking example of how the drug war perverts the priorities of America’s police departments. Federal anti-drug grants, asset forfeiture policies and a generation of battlefield rhetoric from politicians have made pursuing low-level drug dealers and drug users a top priority for police departments across the country. There’s only so much time in the day, and the focus on drugs often comes at the expense of investigating violent crimes with victims like Jessica Shaver. In the span of about a year, she experienced both problems firsthand.
Arresting people for assaults, beatings and robberies doesn’t bring money back to police departments, but drug cases do in a couple of ways. First, police departments across the country compete for a pool of federal anti-drug grants. The more arrests and drug seizures a department can claim, the stronger its application for those grants.
“The availability of huge federal anti-drug grants incentivizes departments to pay for SWAT team armor and weapons, and leads our police officers to abandon real crime victims in our communities in favor of ratcheting up their drug arrest stats,” said former Los Angeles Deputy Chief of Police Stephen Downing. Downing is now a member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, an advocacy group of cops and prosecutors who are calling for an end to the drug war.
“When our cops are focused on executing large-scale, constitutionally questionable raids at the slightest hint that a small-time pot dealer is at work, real police work preventing and investigating crimes like robberies and rapes falls by the wayside,” Downing said.
The most perverse policy may be asset forfeiture. Under civil asset forfeiture, police can seize property from people merely suspected of drug crimes. So long as police can show even the slightest link of drug activity to a car, some cash, or even a home, they can seize it. In the majority of cases, most or all of the seized cash goes back to the police department. In some cases, the department has taken possession of cars as well, but generally non-cash property is auctioned off, with the proceeds then going back to the department. An innocent person who has property seized must go to court and prove his property was earned legitimately, even if he was never charged with a crime. The process of going to court can often be more expensive than the value of the property itself.
Asset forfeiture not only encourages police agencies to use resources and manpower on drug crimes at the expense of violent crimes, it also provides an incentive for police agencies to actually wait until drugs are on the streets before making a bust. In a 1994 study reported in Justice Quarterly, criminologists J. Mitchell Miller and Lance H. Selva watched several police agencies delay busts of suspected drug dealers in order to maximize the cash the department could seize. A stash of illegal drugs isn’t of much value to a police department. Letting the dealers sell the drugs first is more lucrative.
Earlier this year, Nashville’s News 5 ran a report on how police in Tennessee are pulling over suspected drug dealers and seizing their cash along I-40, often without bothering to make an arrest. The station combed through police reports showing that officers spent 10 times as long policing the side of the interstate where a drug runner would be leaving after he sold his supply — and thus would be flush with sizable amounts of cash — than on the side where he was likely to be flush with drugs. The police were letting the drugs be sold in order to get their hands on the cash.
Where I live in California’s Central Valley used to be a popular spot for meth labs. The Mexican drug gangs would set up in isolated farm houses and cook 20-30 pounds of crystal meth a week.
So then came the drug cops. There were all kinds of state and federal grants to add more cops, more prosecutors and to form special task forces. With all the cops around, the drug gangs moved their labs somewhere else.
But even though the meth labs are gone the drug cops are still here, because you can’t EVER reduce the number of cops. An politician who tries will be accused of being soft on crime.
And we’re not really any safer because those drug cops don’t do anything but look for drugs. They don’t hunt rapists and murderers, they don’t look for drunk drivers. Since we don’t have meth labs anymore they search for pot farmers.
We still have those.
BTW – Jeralyn tells a funny joke.