De-Prioritizing Drug Law Enforcement

The disturbing video of the puppycide SWAT raid in Missouri has, not surprisingly, generated a lot of discussion in short order.  One of the things I argued in my original post was that the most troubling aspect of the video is how coolly and methodically the SWAT team operates, demonstrating that this sort of raid is standard operating procedure when a SWAT team looks to serve a drug warrant.  In the comments, I elaborated on this a little bit by explaining that, as such, my problem with what happened wasn’t so much with the SWAT team itself as it was with the underlying conditions that make the SWAT team’s actions so inevitable, noting that:

1) Drugs can be easily flushed down the toilet, so if we’re going to be serious about enforcing our drug laws, we have to allow no-knock raids. (2) Black markets prevent the peaceful enforcement of property rights, so people involved with that black market are highly likely to be well-armed; they’re also likely to be fearful of somebody trying to rob them of their stash. (3) The combination of (1) and (2) means that service of a search warrant in a drug case involves an inordinate potential for violence, since the suspect will have minimal (if any) warning that the people breaking down his door are cops, and even if that warning is adequate, the suspect will have little opportunity to verify that they’re cops. (4) Therefore, to minimize the suspect’s ability to respond violently, it is necessary to serve drug warrants in the same manner as a special ops mission – nothing can be left to chance, and warrants need to be served under the assumption that the suspect is armed and dangerous. (5) Dogs and 90-year old women get killed, kids terrorized, and parents assaulted.

All because we’ve banned some substances that are for the most part inherently harmful only to the user, and (this is crucial) made enforcement of that ban a top priority.

(Emphasis added).

Mike at the Big Stick responded by suggesting that I was arguing that the violence inherent in drug law enforcement requires that we simply stop enforcing drug laws.

While I firmly believe that ideally, we’ d legalize most drugs, thereby destroying the black market and its inherently attendant violence due to lack of enforceable property rights, I was not suggesting that we entirely cease to enforce those laws as long as they remain on the books.

By emphasizing that militaristic and violent service of warrants is caused by making drug law enforcement a top priority, I was merely arguing that we must stop making enforcement of drug laws such a high priority that we view it as a “War.”  This is a far cry from saying that we shouldn’t enforce drug laws at all.

Instead, making drug law enforcement a lower priority means that we recognize that every time we bust a dealer or supplier (or even a network of dealers or suppliers), a new dealer or network is going to rise up to replace them, supply and demand being an immutable law.  As such, there is little-to-no deterrent effect involved with busting up dealers or suppliers.  The social benefit, if any, of busting dealers is thus purely punitive.

What making drug law enforcement a lower priority thus means is that we’re willing to risk a few dealers dumping their stashes down the toilet because we give them a couple minutes to answer the door rather than waiting five seconds before knocking it down and entering with guns at the ready and in full military gear.  There is simply no way in which the added risk of violence this creates is worth the handful of convictions it protects.

I assure you that even the most cold-hearted gangbanger has no desire to shoot a cop in circumstances where his conviction is a foregone conclusion and where no amount of witness intimidation will prevent that.  But if he thinks that cop is just someone looking to rob him or even carry out a hit on him and doesn’t have the opportunity to confirm his suspicion?  I’d be shocked if he thinks twice about firing.  This is true even if the homeowner isn’t a drug dealer at all, but is simply the victim of a vindictive informant.

Making enforcement of drug laws a lower priority also means a greater emphasis on enforcement of the collateral effects of drug Prohibition.  It means gaining the trust of communities so that they’re willing to cooperate in violent crime and property crime investigations rather than having the police wage war on those communities.

Basically, if we’re not going to legalize anything, we can at least come to terms with the fact that the deterrent effect of our drug laws is at best limited, and the deterrent effect of aggressively enforcing (as opposed to more or less passive enforcement) them is virtually non-existent.

Simply put, there is no reason why we should treat drug crime as a higher enforcement priority than prostitution.   So if a cop sees someone on the street smoking some pot, he ought to still make the arrest (or, better yet, issue  a ticket because we’ve decriminalized).   If an open-air drug market has drawn complaints from a community, force it behind closed doors or at least disperse it by more actively patrolling the neighborhood, instituting some sting operations or aggressively enforcing loitering laws.

But there’s really no use for massive investigations or for treating drug crimes more seriously than we treat property crime and violent crime.  There is no reason that drug crimes should be singled out as a basis for civil asset forfeiture, a cash cow for law enforcement agencies that provides an incentive for agencies to pursue drug cases and warrants on relatively scant evidence.   And there is definitely no reason that drug cases should be an exception to basic civil liberties protections.

Perhaps most demonstrative of the skewed nature of making drug crime a top law enforcement priority is that it is one of the few crimes I can think of where law enforcement is willing to waste a sizable percentage of its resources looking for a suspect where no one has actually complained about that particular suspect’s underlying offense.  Law enforcement does not generally look for unreported murders or violent crime or for unreported property crime.  To be sure, law enforcement has been known to invest resources investigating prostitution even in the absence of a complaint, but does that investment even a fraction of its investment in investigating unreported drug crimes?  I quite doubt it.

Think about how skewed our priorities have to be to spend as much of our law enforcement resources on searching for unreported drug crimes as we do, while spending virtually no resources searching for the 60% of rapes that go unreported every year or even working to prevent those rapes from happening in the first place.  Is the prevention of rape, which affects one in every six women, really less worthy of law enforcement’s resources than the more than $1 billion we spend on DARE every year?

This is what I mean when I say that, at a minimum, we need to make enforcement of drug laws something other than a top priority.  The social problems associated with drugs are similar in so many ways to the social problems with prostitution, yet we could not treat the two crimes more differently.  As a result, only the drug laws cause community-destroying violence, the erosion of civil liberties, and widespread violence.

Alas, I suspect the odds of de-prioritizing drug law enforcement are little better than the odds of outright legalization.  To be honest, I suspect that a major reason we treat drug crime so much more seriously than prostitution, and really more seriously than the overwhelming majority of crimes is simply that drug crimes are amongst the only crimes that inherently involve a federal interest.  Prostitution only rarely involves interstate commerce, and when it does, it seems to be of the Eliot Spitzer, wealthy client variety – and no one’s going to mess with the civil liberties of the wealthy and the powerful.  Similarly, rape, murder, violent crime and property crime are almost always going to be entirely local in nature.

But drugs?  They require a production and distribution chain, especially once you’ve made them illegal in the first place.  As a result, drug law enforcement was always going to be effectively the top priority for the federal government simply by virtue of it being one of the few crimes where the federal government will frequently have an interest at stake.  Once the feds made drug enforcement such a high priority, it was inevitable that the states would as well – doing so guaranteed (and continues to guarantee) all sorts of federal government goodies.

Please do be so kind as to share this post.
Share

50 thoughts on “De-Prioritizing Drug Law Enforcement

  1. There’s a lot more money in drugs. Good cops get a piece of the money through drug asset seizure and forfeiture. Bad cops get a piece of the money through bribes to look the other way or help out by “enforcing the law” against competition. If it were made legal, why… it’d be like when Prohibition went away. There would not only be less money but less *CRIME* which means more job insecurity.

    For those in positions of police authority, there are too many upsides to continue the drug war as is and too many downsides to even starting down the road to repeal Prohibition 2.0.

      Quote  Link

    Report

  2. Sadly, does majority does, in fact, support the war on drugs, just like majority supported prohibition, gays as second-class citizens, etc.

    About time we stopped worshiping democracy as anything other than the least-worst way to select leaders and for once, give individual liberty a chance.

      Quote  Link

    Report

  3. Outstanding post! I’ve had a difficult time expressing how I can be skeptical of widespread decriminalization and yet also be against the War on Drugs as it is currently being fought. I realize that we disagree on the former, but you articulate well how one can be against The War but not in favor of decriminalization. Outstanding.

    My sense is that if the quantity of drugs is small enough that it can be flushed down the toilet in under 60 seconds, it’s not major enough an operation that it was worth a SWAT invasion. If we force quantities to be kept that small, I can live with that. Their punishment is the loss of their stash. It’s the largescale distributors that I am mostly interested in.

      Quote  Link

    Report

  4. Great post. I might just add that I’m not sure drug offenses are treated more seriously because of the federal interest. My guess is drug offenses are cleaner and more simple since you have a bag or brick of evidence, something solid and tangible. Drugs users , i wouild guess, are a lot easier to interrogate and flip then a rapist or stone cold murderer. There is no he said/ she said like in some rape cases or tenuous circumstantial evidence.

    I’m more then ready to skeptical of cops, but they want to feel competent and effective at what they do like everybody else. Addicts are generally not the sharpest knives in the tool shed so they are easier to catch.

      Quote  Link

    Report

  5. There’s a difference between legalization and decriminalization though. With decriminalization, there can still be penalties- say a fine and time in rehab- without having to treat people like dangerous criminals for putting things in their bodies that aren’t good for them.

      Quote  Link

    Report

  6. Great post Mark. It’s going to take a lot of shoving to roll our behemoth of a culture over to the point where our craven political class is willing to stick their necks out and change the drug laws. Best we all get pushing.

      Quote  Link

    Report

  7. Question: If the police stop drug raids and take a mostly hands-off approach to drugs, will it reduce inner city violence or the ancillary crimes associated with drug use (theft, etc)?

    My point here is that there might be a perception that the police are abandoning the law-abiding citizens of these communities. Maybe it’s a small part of the forces at work, but I do believe that a portion of the pressure on police forces comes from civic leaders themselves. There’s a certain desperation to stop drug use and the police are asked to play a role in prevention.

      Quote  Link

    Report

    • @Mike at The Big Stick, There does not seem to be any evidence that the law-abiding citizens of these communities support the aggressive enforcement of drug laws. There is also no evidence to suggest that the aggressive enforcement of drug laws prevents violence from being even worse. The violent side effects associated with drug use are entirely, purely, and exclusively the result of the black market created by making drugs illegal.

      The decision to prioritize drug law enforcement equates to a de-prioritization of enforcement of laws against violent crime and property crime. Indeed, one of the most common complaints that you hear about the police in the inner cities is that they barely respond at all to complaints about property crime and don’t even have the resources to adequately investigate violent crime.

        Quote  Link

      Report

      • @Mark Thompson, I can accept the premise that the police could ignore drug distribution and use in these iner city areas and the public would be happy. But then what? You’re saying that a black market leads to violence but does that mean legalization? It’s not as though with de-priortization the drug sellers will form unions. I fail to see how no police presence equals less killings in turf wars.

          Quote  Link

        Report

        • @Mike at The Big Stick, De-prioritization does not mean “no police presence.” Not even close. To the contrary, it arguably even means more police presence in the form of moving resources from drug investigation to beat patrols. It simply means that drug crime should be investigated when drug crime is reported and is an item of concern to the local community – and only when drug crime is reported and is an item of concern to the local community. This is not a demand that police ignore drug crime; it’s a demand that they treat drug crime no different from any other crime.

            Quote  Link

          Report

          • @Mark Thompson, Bottom line, you haven’t given a single reason why drug crime should be a higher enforcement priority than any other crime. You haven’t given a single reason why drug crime warrants deviation from knock-and-announce in a way that other crimes do not. You haven’t given a single reason why drug crime warrants asset forfeiture laws. Etc., etc.

              Quote  Link

            Report

            • @Mark Thompson, I never argued it should be a higher priority. What I remain most interested in is procedure. Specifically, how the police should bust drug operations when/if the public or their superiors demand it. So far ThatPirateGuy is the only one who has really outlined a procedural guideline for future police operations and I thank him for it.

              Afterall, this whole discussion was spawned by a criticism of tactics…right? I suspect we would not be seeing YouTube videos and expressions of outrage if it had been two patrolmen knocking on the door politely, being invited in, petting fluffy and then arresting the guy after finding a joint on his coffee table.

              Just as some background, I did a year-long study of law enforcement techniques when I was in college as part of my anthropology degree. I primarily focused on the evolution of tactics in the City of Louisville because my grandfather helped rewrite the manual after the 1968 riots.

                Quote  Link

              Report

              • @Mike at The Big Stick, sure.

                And with regards to Prohibition 1.0, I’m sure that increased police powers were a direct result of Al Caponish-levels of violence.

                Which is kinda sucky, when you think about it. Dr. Frankenstein creates a monster and then spends the next few years explaining how important it is that he be given weapons to fight this monster.

                There’s another option, Mike.

                Give the monster a name. Take responsibility for who created what. We can wave “why” away. Sure, everybody had the best of intentions. Absolutely.

                We’re past intentions at this point.

                  Quote  Link

                Report

              • @Mike at The Big Stick, Jaybird, Mark, You’re not looking back far enough, so let me help.

                In 1967 my grandfather carried one service revolver, .38 caliber. Occasionally he kept a shotgun in the back of his squad car but it was almost never used. In the spring of 1968, during the riots that swept through much of the country, he carried three handguns at all times, plus a shotgun. The stories related to me by my grandfather’s friends on the force was that prior to 1968 most of them had never been shot at by anyone that wasn’t white. This changed after 1968.

                During the riots police officers were bringing their surplus M1 rifles to work. After the riots there was a new interest in armor technology, crowd control techniques and improved ammunition. The first SWAT team was established in Los Angeles in 1968. Officers began switching from revolvers to large capacity automatics (my uncle carried an auto when he was a patrolman).

                It wasn’t the ramp-up in the drug war that spawned these tactics, it was the civil unrest of the 1960s and 1970s. The police developed SWAT teams in response and these tactics carried over into drug enforcement in the same communities.

                I’m not outlining this as some kind of excuse for heavy-handedness. What I am saying is that violence in these communities was not a reaction to police techniques. To the contrary, police techniques were a response to greater threats of violence.

                  Quote  Link

                Report

              • @Mike at The Big Stick, oooooh. You’re related to a cop.

                Fair enough.

                For what it’s worth, I believe that the SWAT response to drugs was part and parcel with Johnson’s War On Poverty. It’s one thing to hear that “those people” are smoking a doob on their Friday nights. It’s quite another to know that you pushed for laws to help “those people” and take YOUR OWN MONEY and redistribute it in the form of welfare and support systems and safety nets and they’re taking advantage of that and smoking a doob!!! SEND IN SWAT!!!

                And we get to see what happened with prohibition happen again.

                And the arguments against ending prohibition are echoed today. “Hey, I’m not saying that people shouldn’t be allowed to drink wine from time to time. But gin? People are going blind drinking bathtub gin that has wood alcohol in it! You want to repeal Prohibition? CHILDREN ARE GOING BLIND!!!”

                  Quote  Link

                Report

              • @Mike at The Big Stick, Jaybird – Actually I’m related to several cops. Those connections allowed me to interview a lot of retired officers who started with the police department in the 1940s and retired in the early 1980s. The stories they told me lead me to believe that tactics were ramping up long before the War on Drugs really kicked off under Reagan. In general you had the riots, then a complete change in attitude towards the police, tactics got more heavy-handed, etc. It’s kind of like Desert Storm. I think the Republican Guard was the direct recipient of 20 years of post-Vietnam military R&D and spending. We dropped far more ordinance than necessary because we had all these smart bombs we wantesd to try out. Now even medium-sized cities like my own have pretty kick-ass SWAT units. So they abuse them.

                  Quote  Link

                Report

              • @Mike at The Big Stick, It sounds to me like what we really have is an epidemic crisis in civil management of domestic law enforcement forces. A huge exacerbating problem is a total lack of central authority over these forces. Local police forces have upward access to all the latest techology and training, but all oversight comes merely from local authorities — city hall, the mayor’s office, and county courts mostly (though I suppose local authorities may be acting in some cases on federal warrants?). It seems like it’s time for state DOJs and Supreme Court systems to really step in and assert themselves. I don’t know that the feds are in a position to do much about this, which makes it a difficult thing to have a national discussion about. I actually have my doubts that drug enforcement is at the root of this problem, though dialing it back would likely help.

                  Quote  Link

                Report

              • @Mike at The Big Stick, Mike, I don’t have much insight myself on what’s going – I just tend to agree with your point above that with all this tactical know-how and firepower newly at their disposal, the stuff is likely to be used one way or another. Blame Joe Biden, maybe (really). That said, I don’t deny that the current proximate cause is overzealous drug law enforcement, and as a policy matter I support Mark’s solution. I’m just not sure it’ll be a permanent one. It’s also not clear to my why poorly supported no-knock and other violent raids would be less tyrannical outside the drug context. It seems to me to get a fix on where the tyranny-legitimacy line really is, he needs to set out some more specific standards relating to legal justification of raids like this in general and suggest some procedural safeguards specific to this question, not just pivot to the policy issue driving it, though again, I think that would probably be an effective way to address the problem, at least initially.

                  Quote  Link

                Report

              • @Mike at The Big Stick, Federal grant programs, which are often tied to drug arrests, are a big part of this, actually. Especially because those grants are often tied to drug arrests – and only drug arrests – and can be extremely lucrative to the point that they can provide enough funding to start up and maintain a SWAT team, which is exactly what they are frequently used for. Here, BTW, it appears that the Democrats are the biggest reason for the funding.

                See here for more: http://www.cato.org/pubs/wtpapers/balko_whitepaper_2006.pdf

                  Quote  Link

                Report

              • @Mike at The Big Stick, There’s several far more likely reasons. To my knowledge you don’t see this coming from Dems with big urban constituencies, and it seems that quite a bit of this funding, in practice, goes to less urban areas.

                But from personal experience I can say that this is precisely the sort of funding that public safety unions are very good at obtaining and the Democrats are obviously the party most willing to listen.

                Additionally, these funds are wonderful vehicles for pork that can be bragged about in newsletters and news articles.

                  Quote  Link

                Report

    • @Bubbaquimby, thanks for the link! The rest is for people wanting to know what it says but not so much to actually click over:

      The chief is implying that there were drugs that were vacated prior to the serving of the warrant. While they couldn’t wait ten seconds for Whitworth to answer the door, they apparently could wait eight days to serve the warrant. According to Chief Burton, the corgi was shot by accident and the pit bull had it coming.

      In the comment section, some people are suggesting that police are saying that they were not aware of any kids in the house, which I don’t know if it makes it better or worse. They were operating based on a tip from someone who said they saw it in the house and residue found from the trash.

      Their main regret seems to be the 8-day delay. They’re pretty sure they let him skate by on this with their tardiness.

        Quote  Link

      Report

        • Thompson, sorry I wasn’t clear. The informant(s) said that they saw a ton there (and they somehow knew it was “high-grade”). Once you have above a certain amount, it’s considered “intent to distribute.” The police imply that it was all gone because it had all been distributed.

          Supposedly, there were two informants. There are claims that the first was stale, however, and that the tip came a long time ago. The second tip resulted in the trash scan, which resulted them finding the residue, which resulted in the warrant. That’s my understanding.

          On one other note, according to the comment section, the judge that issued the warrant already had quite a reputation for being unsympathetic to the accused.

            Quote  Link

          Report

          • @Trumwill, the family got busted with a misdemeanor amount of weed. What is the threshold between misdemeanor and felony in that jurisdiction?

            My inclination is to say “it’s probably pretty freakin’ low” but I don’t know and my google-fu is weak.

              Quote  Link

            Report

            • @Jaybird, not sure, but it’s pretty low. The CPD’s position is that there was a whole lot more there that was dispersed before the raid took place and they just found the leftovers. It could be true, or it could be a way for them to say “oops” without leaving themselves too exposed to a lawsuit.

                Quote  Link

              Report

  8. It sounds like you are making the same argument that ended all those ridiculous, but wonderfully cinematic, high speed car chases that all too frequently killed innocent bystanders. Despite that, crime statistics have fallen. Maybe it’s the horrid traffic?

      Quote  Link

    Report

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *