A few people have asked what I think of this critique of my work over at Patterico’s blog, by a guest blogger with the handle JRM.
He’s taking aim at my article from last month on the drug war’s collateral damage, which he characterizes as “fact-free.” He gets one thing wrong right off the bat. He writes that the article was in Reason. It wasn’t. It was reprinted on Reason’s website. The piece was actually commissioned by Culture11, a (now defunct, unfortunately) conservative website co-founded by strident drug warrior William Bennett.
But let’s get to his criticisms. I’ll start with the crime rate. JRM writes:
Balko also cites the climbing murder rates:
If you look at a graph of the U.S. murder rate going back to about 1915, you’ll notice a few interesting patterns. There’s a spike at around 1919, just at the onset of alcohol prohibition. The graph then takes a dramatic dip in 1933, just after the repeal of prohibition. There’s then another spike in the late 1960s, just as Richard Nixon took office and fired the first shots of his war on drugs. That spike falls in the 1970s as President Carter took a less militant approach to drug prohibition, but then with Reagan’s reinvigorated war in the 1980s, it begins another upward ascent.
Balko cites this chart for his claim as to the murder chart going up. The chart stops in 1997.
Fortunately, I was able to locate this really neat thing on the internets called Google. You can use it to find data, like the fact that the murder rate in 1997 of 6.8 per 100,000 people was a dropoff from prior years, that Balko’s claim that Reagan’s anti-drug efforts led to more murders (the answer, by the way, is fewer) and even that they kept data past 1997 – when the murder rate continued to drop, stabilizing at 5.6 per 100,000 over the last few years. That’s the lowest rate since 1965.
JRM’s snark aside, he completely misses my point, which is odd because he actually excerpted it. I never claimed the murder rate continued to increase indefinitely after Reagan took office. I wrote that there a few landmark points in U.S. history where the federal government took a significantly more aggressive approach to limiting our access to intoxicating substances (alcohol prohibition, Nixon’s war on drugs, and Reagan’s escalation of the war on drugs), and that there’s a corresponding jump in homicide rates following each of those changes in policy (starting in 1919, 1973, and the mid-1980s, respectively). I also pointed out that there are two notable points where the government de-escalated its efforts to ban or limit access to intoxicating substances (the end of alcohol prohibition, and Carter’s detante from Nixon’s war on drugs), and both of these points were followed by a drop in national homicide rates.
I’m well aware about the dramatic drop in violent crime that began in about 1993. I’ve written about it. So have a lot of other people. Just about every economist, sociologist, and criminologist with a research grant has a theory. I might have missed it, but one theory I haven’t seen is that violent crime began dropping in 1993 because the Clinton administration started taking an exceptionally aggressive approach to the drug war. On the contrary. Most law-and-order conservatives criticized Clinton for not pursuing prohibition with enough vigor and righteous might.
My point is that there are some notable dips and peaks in the U.S. homicide rate that correspond to changes in federal drug policy. Economists (most notably Harvard’s Jeff Miron) have pretty conclusively hammered down the link—to the point where I’m not even sure it’s even all that controversial anymore.
The point is not that federal drug policy is the only thing that drives the homicide rate. We also saw some pretty stellar economic growth that began in about 1993. I’d imagine that played a sizeable role in the drop in violent crime that began at the same time.
Let’s move on to JRM’s next criticism:
…Balko cites a 2006 WSJ editorial, which says in part:
Police in large cities formerly carried revolvers holding six .38-caliber rounds. Nowadays, police carry semi-automatic pistols with 16 high-caliber rounds, shotguns and military assault rifles, weapons once relegated to SWAT teams facing extraordinary circumstances. Concern about such firepower in densely populated areas hitting innocent citizens has given way to an attitude that the police are fighting a war against drugs and crime and must be heavily armed.
If only we had police shooting and fatality statistics from some large police force.
Did I say Fox News? I meant the New York Times. Sorry. I get them confused a lot.
So, we have fewer shootings, fewer cops killed on the street, and fewer accidental shootings. One might suspect that this would lead an observer to conclude that police forces are getting better, if one looked at the actual data, rather than making it up.
First, the author of that Wall Street Journal op-ed is Joseph McNamara, who served as police chief of both Kansas City, Missouri and San Jose, California. He started his career as a beat cop for NYPD, where he also later served as a deputy inspector of crime analysis. He now has a doctorate in criminology and is a scholar at the Stanford’s Hoover Institution, a conservative think tank (Ed Meese and Thomas Sowell are also fellows there). I don’t know JRM’s background, but I’d submit that McNamara can’t exactly be characterized as a left-wing loon, and in fact is pretty darned qualified to write about police issues.
Second, JRM leaves out the rest of my discussion of police militarization in the piece, which includes the very real, not-made-up statistic based on police department surveys done by Peter Kraska showing the number of SWAT deployments in the U.S. jumping from a few hundred per year in the 1970s to 50,000 or more per year today. Most of these SWAT deployments are to serve drug warrants. JRM can disagree, but my point is that even if these raids don’t produce a single gun shot (though we know that’s far from the case), that’s a disturbing trend. The image of state agents dressed in black, kicking down doors, and wresting people out of bed at gunpoint in order to police nonviolent crimes just isn’t one I associated with a free society (oddly enough, some prominent conservatives agree, at least when other countries do it).
Third, JRM bases his theory that “police forces are getting better” all over the country on a New York Times article about a study of officer-related gunfire in New York City. That would be one force, not “forces.” Of course, if violent crime across the country has dropped since about 1993, it wouldn’t be terribly surprising to see a corresponding drop in police gunfire since 1996, at NYPD or any other police department. That doesn’t mean the police aren’t becoming increasingly militarized. Nor does it mean that the decline wouldn’t be even greater were it not for the drug war. Police militarization and the rise of SWAT teams has been a gradual process. It began in the early 1980s. Over that time, the homicide rate has dropped, risen, dropped dramatically, then slightly ticked upward again. You can’t just point only to what’s happend since 1996 and say, “See, that proves that militarizing our police departments has given us only goodness and light!”
I mean, I guess you can. It’s just not terribly convincing.
Fourth, most police departments don’t actually keep track of officer-involved shootings, even though they’re required to by the Justice Department. The truth is, we really don’t know whether such shootings are going up or down nationally. I wish they would keep better track. But as I’ve discovered with the repeated rejections of my open records requests regarding botched drug raids, police departments tend to be lax when it comes to keeping track of their own mistakes. My guess is that officer-involved shootings generally have followed the violent crime rate, and so probably dropped for about 15 years starting in the 1990s, then levelled off or inched upward over the last three. (The introduction of the Taser has probably also had a downward impact on police shootings.)
That doesn’t mean, however, that we shouldn’t be concerned about police militarization. Even if the police are shooting fewer people, there’s still plenty of reason to worry about the increasing willingness to use violent, confrontational tactics to police consensual crimes, as well as the disregard for constitutional and civil liberties that comes with a militaristic, us-versus-them mindset. I’ve talked to plenty of older and retired cops who are quite worried about the trend toward more military-like gear, tactics, training, and the effects it may be having on many officers’ state of mind and approach to the job.
(I should note here that I blame the politicians and policymakers for this, not the cops. The people who set the incentives and bad policies deserve scorn, not the people who respond to them in the very ways we would expect them to.)
Finally, JRM writes:
Balko claims that the current Mexico drug issues are caused by America’s unwillingness to import delicious drugs and its funding of drug interdiction efforts. I can’t help but notice that in those countries where hard drugs are either de facto or de jure legal, crime seems to be worse. Mexico’s lack of enforcement of the drug laws (primarily due to widespread corruption) hasn’t led to peaceful drug lords. It’s led to drug lords killing each other and everyone else.
Here, JRM is badly misinformed. Hard drugs are not “de facto” or “de jure” legal in Mexico, any more than they are in the United States. Yes, it’s pretty easy to get high in Mexico. Same as it is in America. But to say that there’s a “lack of enforcement of the drug laws” in Mexico is absurd. The violence we’ve seen in Mexico over the last few years is a direct consequence of President Felipe Calderon’s aggressive, bloody, militarized war on drugs (which has been encouraged by the U.S. government, and funded in part by U.S. taxpayers).
Since coming to office in December 2006, Mr. Calderón has sought to revamp and professionalize the federal police force, using it, with the army, to mount huge interventions in cities and states once controlled by drug traffickers.
The result has been mayhem: a street war in which no target has been too big, no attack too brazen for the gangs…
The violence between drug cartels that Mr. Calderón has sought to end has only worsened over the past year and a half. The death toll has jumped 47 percent to 1,378 this year, prosecutors say. All told, 4,125 people have been killed in drug violence since Mr. Calderón took office.
Calderón’s offensive began in December 2006, just days after he took office. Prompted by a series of murders, the former economist surprised the country by dispatching 10,000 troops to patrol the streets of Morelia and other cities in his home state of Michoacán — a major producer of crystal meth, marijuana and heroin.
Within weeks, troops were also sent to Tijuana, Juárez, Nuevo Laredo, Monterrey and other drug-trafficking corridors. Stunned police officers were forced to hand over their weapons to the soldiers. Residents saw convoys of Humvees rolling past their houses.
Thousands of suspects were arrested in raids and at highway checkpoints. Dozens were extradited to the U.S. Calderón also asked the United States for help, a historic move in a country that is especially sensitive about U.S. meddling. The Bush administration pledged $1.1 billion in police and military aid.
Drug-related murders are soaring — 3,004 this year as of Sept. 3, compared to 2,673 in all of 2007, according to a tally by El Universal newspaper. In 2006 there were 1,410 drug-related killings.
And mass killings are commonplace. Twelve decapitated bodies were found Aug. 28 outside the Yucatán Peninsula city of Mérida. Police found 24 bodies bound and shot in a rural area outside Mexico City on Sept. 13. And on Aug. 16, gunmen shot and killed 13 people, including a baby, at a party in the northern town of Creel.
Many Mexicans fear that Calderón’s battle is turning into a quagmire, says Francisco García Cordero, editor of Criminalia, a criminal-justice journal. When the crackdown began, 53% of Mexicans approved of Calderón’s anti-crime efforts, according to a poll commissioned by the Reforma newspaper. By Sept. 1, only 34% approved…
Back in Morelia, at the Miguel Silva General Hospital, medical director María Soledad Castro says doctors now treat about 15 gunshot victims a month. “Before this all started, we rarely got even one gunshot a month,” she says.
None of this is surprising. You create black markets, you get crime. Step up enforcement and knock off a couple of big-time dealers, and their rivals are going to fight over the portion of the market that you’ve just opened up. When the liquor store down the street goes out of buisness, the other neighborhood liquor stores compete for its customers with ads, and maybe some sales or specials. When the main drug supplier in town goes out of business, competing suppliers compete for his customers by killing one other, and anyone who happens to get caught in the crossfire.
Those were JRM’s three criticisms, from a 3,500-word article that apparently was “fact-free.”
Now, I think I’ll head to bed.