For my Fox column this week, I interviewed David Doddridge, a 20-year veteran of LAPD, a former narcotics officer, and now a member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. While I had him on the phone, we chatted about a few other issues, too.
RB: Do you think what happened with Kathryn Johnston in Atlanta–where the cops invented an informant out of whole cloth in order to obtain a search warrant–was an anomaly? Or do you think that kind of thing is common?
Doddridge: Oh, it happens everywhere. There’s tremendous pressure to ‘climb the ladder’ after you make a drug bust. You want to get up that ladder before word hits the street, and the higher-up guys you’re after know that you’re on to them. That leads to the temptation to take shortcuts. What happened in Atlanta goes on all over the country.
RB: You say ‘climb the ladder,’ but one common critique of the use of drug informants I’ve heard is that the lower guys on the ladder aren’t given much information about who’s above them. And because federal grants, performance reviews, and other incentives are tied to arrest numbers, a lot of times you get higher guys copping deals to nab big numbers of lower guys. So the major players end up getting lighter sentences than the lower-level guys. Did you experience that, too?
Doddridge: Yeah, it goes both ways. If you can get a big guy and get him to give up a lot of little guys, you’ll take that, too. Especially if you can get your hands on his books.
RB: At what point in your career did you conclude that the drug war wasn’t working?
Doddridge: About halfway through. We had just hauled this young woman off in handcuffs, mostly for helping her boyfriend. She was going to lose her kids, her house, her future. And it hit me–all of this is for what? What are we doing here? We arrest one drug dealer, and two take his place. I watched while we ransacked parents’ homes because their kids were dealing. I saw the looks on their faces, knowing that their kid’s future was over, and they were probably going to lose their home. This thing [the drug war] was ripping apart the fabric of our communities.
RB: One aspect of the drug war I’ve spent quite a bit of time researching is the militarization of police, the increasing use of SWAT teams. A common response I get from cops is that SWAT teams make warrant service safer. Do you agree with that?
Doddridge: Laughs. Oh, no. Of course not. SWAT teams are trained to deal with dangerous people. When you bring a SWAT team to serve a drug warrant, a drug offender, you’re escalating the situation, not de-escalating it. One thing you have to understand: Cops love action. They crave action. You have thousands of these SWAT teams across the country, now. You’ve got these guys in some small town in Idaho with nothing better to do just looking at each other. “What do we do with this warrant? Well, might as well give it to the SWAT team.” It isn’t necessary.
RB: You helped serve a number of warrants as a narcotics officer. My own suspicion is that these SWAT raids hit the wrong target far more frequently than we read about in the newspaper. Do you agree?
Doddridge: In five years, I personally obtained about 45, maybe 50 warrants. Two of them hit the wrong house. On one, there were two houses on the property, and we picked the wrong one. The other time, it was just wrong. Completely the wrong house.
RB: That’s two out of 50, or around four percent. Based on your experience, do you think that number is representative in drug policing, or is that something you don’t feel you could comment on?
Doddridge: I’d say that’s about representative.
(Note here: There are an estimated 40,000 SWAT raids per year. That would amount to about 1600 raids on innocent victims per year, or 30.7 per week.)
RB: Police groups say that drug dealers are armed to the teeth. Heavily-armed, military-style SWAT teams are necessary to counter this high-powered weaponry.
Doddridge: I’ve heard that. And it’s just not true. In 21 years at LAPD, I never once saw any assault weapons on a drug raid. Drug dealers prefer handguns, which are easier to conceal. Occasionally you’ll find a shotgun. But having a bunch of high-powered weaponry around is just too much trouble for them. It’s too much for them to worry about.
RB: Many thanks for your time.