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.