The Drug War and Modern Policing

Wednesday, August 8th, 2012

By Sean Dunagan, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition

The war on drugs has claimed innumerable victims.  The tens of thousands killed in Mexico, the half a million incarcerated here for nonviolent drug offenses, the taxpayers who have funded it all to the tune of a trillion dollars.  But one of the greatest victims of the drug war is law enforcement itself.

I don’t mean the bloated bureaucracy of DEA or the robber barons of the prison-industrial complex.  I mean the foundations of civilian law enforcement.

The profound and deleterious effects of drug prohibition on civilian policing are evident in a number of ways.  Not long ago– in most of our lifetimes, even– police officers wore blue or white dress shirts, black slacks, and a tie to work.  Today, they most closely resemble soldiers.  This is not a change in fashion, but in mission.  SWAT teams, once found only in large cities and deployed only in extraordinary circumstances, are now active in 90 percent of municipalities with populations greater than 50,000.  The number of paramilitary raids by police in this country has grown from a few thousand in the 1980s to more than 50,000 last year.  The average cop on the street has gone from carrying a .38 revolver, to a 9mm, to a .40 caliber with laser sights (and, often, magazines that would be illegal for an average citizen to even own).

This change in tools and tactics is a direct consequence of a policy that makes criminals out of the roughly 23 million Americans who use drugs.  As Radley put it, “Dress cops up as soldiers, give them military equipment, train them in military tactics, tell them they’re fighting a ‘war,’ and the consequences are predictable.”  Indeed, they are.

One of the consequences has been erosion in public confidence in law enforcement.  Rolling tanks through cities and raiding family homes in the middle of the night didn’t win many hearts and minds in Vietnam, Iraq, or Afghanistan, and it’s been equally unsuccessful here.  This is particularly true in the black community, where one in 15 children have a parent in jail.

A visible manifestation of this distrust is the “no snitching” movement, which even the Partnership for a Drug Free America acknowledges to be rooted in the drug war:

The no-snitching campaign is partly a response to the proliferation of informers, which in turn is a result of the war on drugs. Police routinely turn minor drug offenders into informers to try to catch bigger dealers: about one in three drug prosecutions involves the use of informants, who typically get reduced sentences in exchange for their cooperation. “If a dealer needs to make a deal, he’ll tell on his mother,” said Pittsburgh Police Department Commander Maurita Bryan. “It may not be right, but it’s all we have.”

The impact on the ability of law enforcement to do its job is clear.  In 1965, police solved 91 percent of murders.  Even in the late 1960s, after the Miranda decision and amid significant social turmoil, the clearance rate remained above 85 percent.  It has fallen steadily since the launch of the drug war, and now stands below 65 percent.

The effects of the drug war have also made the job of policing more dangerous.  In the 1960s, an average of 155 officers died in the line of duty each year.  In the ten years following the 1973 launch of the drug war, that average jumped to 221—a 43 percent increase.  Of course, correlation doesn’t prove causation, but it’s worth noting that the same dynamic occurred during alcohol prohibition.  In the 13 years preceding Prohibition, the average was 117 law enforcement deaths a year; during Prohibition, it more than doubled to 240.  Following repeal, it fell again to 148.

The modern theory of policing in a free society traces its history to Robert Peel, the former British Home Secretary and Prime Minister who established London’s Metropolitan Police Force in 1829.  His guiding vision for the department was codified in what became known as the 9 “Peelian Principles” of policing (though it’s not clear whether he personally compiled the list).  They are worth posting in their entirety:

1. The basic mission for which the police exist is to prevent crime and disorder.

2. The ability of the police to perform their duties is dependent upon public approval of police actions.

3. Police must secure the willing co-operation of the public in voluntary observance of the law to be able to secure and maintain the respect of the public.

4. The degree of co-operation of the public that can be secured diminishes proportionately to the necessity of the use of physical force.

5. Police seek and preserve public favor not by catering to the public opinion but by constantly demonstrating absolute impartial service to the law.

6. Police use physical force to the extent necessary to secure observance of the law or to restore order only when the exercise of persuasion, advice and warning is found to be insufficient.

7. Police, at all times, should maintain a relationship with the public that gives reality to the historic tradition that the police are the public and the public are the police; the police being only members of the public who are paid to give full-time attention to duties which are incumbent on every citizen in the interests of community welfare and existence.

8. Police should always direct their action strictly towards their functions and never appear to usurp the powers of the judiciary.

9. The test of police efficiency is the absence of crime and disorder, not the visible evidence of police action in dealing with it.

Law enforcement is a demanding and often thankless career.  Every day, officers perform selfless acts of bravery and heroism that save lives and bring comfort to victims.  Certainly, there are still law enforcement officers who execute their duties in conformity with Peel’s principles.  My father, a retired police chief, was one.  Law Enforcement Against Prohibition’s leadership and membership are full of them.  But as our civilian police agencies grow increasingly militarized, their numbers are thinning.

The drug war has, indeed, claimed innumerable victims.  We should all be fearful that Robert Peel’s vision will be among them.

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56 Responses to “The Drug War and Modern Policing”

  1. #1 |  Helmut O' Hooligan | 

    My “drive to murder many of the poor.” Was that supposed to be serious? Take your Pfizer candy and calm down for fuck’s sake.

    I am a libertarian socialist, you hysterical twit. I do not support corporatism. I do not support capitalism and I would like to see wage labor replaced with cooperative ventures and self-employment. That is what I THINK and I couldn’t care less what you think because you are indeed a troll.

    You don’t come here to discuss the content on the blog. You come here to start never-ending arguments and to try to piss people off. Because you like it, don’t you. Chaos for the sake of chaos. You get off on that because you are a frustrated little person that feels that no one appreciates your brilliance. If you think the commenters on this blog are so terrible, why are you constantly posting? Because you fucking love to be a distraction.
    And I bet you would never talk this kind of vile shit if we were talking face to face. Your kind are cowards unless they have anonymity.

    There Leon, that’s all you get from me. I will not address you on this blog again because I will not feed an obvious troll. So go bother someone else. Better yet, get a life and do something more productive with your time. Good day sir.

  2. #2 |  Leon Wolfeson | 

    @50 – “Shut up, shut up, you’re overwrought”. Typical totalitaranism. Heck, good Stalinism.

    So sorry I talk about the consequences which your fanaticism would have, in practice. I’m not interested in what you call yourself, but what you call FOR.

    When I use 10% of your literally murderous hyperbole, YOU get upset. You start talking about how YOUR sexual gratification depends on suppressing others, since of course in reality your instant, social darwinist, mental analysis is pseudo-scientific bullshit.

  3. #3 |  Mike Parent | 

    Legalization with Regulation would decriminalize 40 -50 million Americans, most whose only “Crime” is using a substance safer than the one the govt allows. The marijuana segment of the Drug Wars budget and resources is appx. 50%. Why is so much money and effort used in targeting something safer than what they currently allow? All their fear mongering about drugs is propagandized, to the extreme. Legalize and regulate marijuana as we do alcohol, the model is in place.

  4. #4 |  KPRyan | 

    I especially like # 7:
    “7. Police, at all times, should maintain a relationship with the public that gives reality to the historic tradition that the police are the public and the public are the police; the police being only members of the public who are paid to give full-time attention to duties which are incumbent on every citizen in the interests of community welfare and existence.”

    And it brings to mind a sicko program I watched recently on ‘Current TV’ (supposedly a ‘populist/liberal’ channel). The program follows Miami Dade SWAT cops on their rounds as they invade and destroy dwellings.

    Anyway, there’s a newly minted SWAT officer who had been with the SWAT program for a few months. One night after a raid he, rather than going out for dinner/drinks with his unit, told them ‘No thanks’ and instead spent the evening with a girlfriend (I think it was).

    So the following day the newbie gets to work and as soon as the other SWATers show up, they give him grief for daring to spend time apart from the group. They make it clear to him that he will not make it as a SWATer unless he fixes his errant behaviour. He apologizes and promises it won’t happen again.

    Cops today are entirely seperate from the communites they ‘serve’. They intentionally segregate themselves. Groupthink at its finest.

  5. #5 |  Keghead | 

    To reinforce comment #2 from Whim, take a look at this article. NYPD shot a knife wielding man who was smoking pot 12 times to kill him. They didn’t taze him. They didn’t fire a warning shot. And they didn’t even go for a non-fatal shot. They did attempt pepper spray. They shot him 12 times in a crowded street. They then confiscated the camera phones of bystanders. In rationalizing their behavior, their police commissioners exact words were, “Under the circumstances, what the officers did was appropriate to the situation. They want to go home at night as well.”

  6. #6 |  The Drug War and Modern Policing « Remnants of Liberty | 

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