War on Drugs-Policing

-Karen Michelle

The drug war has had a profound impact on policing.  It has changed priorities, funding and tactics.

We are looking at policy and specifically how law enforcement has been detrimentally affected by the “war on drugs”. Despite the current administration’s “tough talk” on crime and drugs,  We also do not consider this to be a highly partisan issue because as we showed earlier in the history of drug policy, both Democrats and Republicans enacted reactive policies that ended up forming what we now know as “The War on Drugs”.

Militarization of Police Forces
1033 Program.  
The 1033 program provides surplus weapons and equipment to law enforcement.
The idea was that if the U.S. wanted its police to act like drug warriors, it should equip them like warriors,While we want police to be properly armed to deal with anything they may encounter, this blurring of lines between police and military is troubling.

The Armed Forces and the civilian police have distinct functions: while the Armed Forces are designed to destroy the enemy, civilian police are charged with protecting civilians and keeping the peace using as little force as possible.

SWAT/Tactical Units

The purpose of SWAT teams has evolved over time. Where they were once reserved to deal with hostage situations and terrorist attacks, and events that required military style weapons and tactics, in which they proved to be extremely effective. However, unfortunately now they are commonly utilized to serve warrants for narcotics offenses, often low-level drug possession, which is a waste of their elite training and expensive resources.

The majority (79 percent) of SWAT deployments studied were for the purpose of executing a search warrant, most commonly in drug investigations. Only a small handful of deployments (7 percent) were for hostage, barricade, or active shooter scenarios.

When Swat leaders and members were surveyed on their own views of militarization in policing, a few interesting trends emerged. A sizable number of respondents agreed that some tactical characteristics of policing, such as military-style uniforms, and patrol rifles, contribute to a militarized appearance unacceptable for much of the public.

Civil Forfeiture

In 2014, 24-year-old Charles Clarke lost his entire life savings-not to identity theft or bad investment, but to law enforcement officials in the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport. After visiting relatives in Cincinnati, Clarke began to board a flight home to Florida. He carried with him $11,000 in cash that he had saved over 5 years of financial aid, jobs, gifts from family, and educational benefits based on his mother’s status as a disabled veteran. Because his bank did not have local branches near him, Clarke usually kept his money at home. He had taken it with him to Ohio because he and his mother were moving to a new apartment, and he did not want to risk its getting lost in the move.

Just as Clarke was boarding, law enforcement officials seized his money, claiming his checked bag smelled of marijuana. Although Clarke was a recreational smoker at the time, the officers found no drugs or anything else illegal on him, his carry-on, or checked bag. In other words, the officers found no evidence that he was guilty of any crime before seizing his money. In the messed up world of civil forfeiture, they did not have to.

According to the Heritage Foundation (not known for any kind of anti-law enforcement bias):

During the 1980s, federal and state law enforcement officials dramatically expanded the use of civil forfeiture as a tool in the war on drugs. Their reasoning was simple: By seizing the assets and ill-gotten gains of criminal kingpins, they could remove the financial
incentive to commit crime.

In 1984, Congress went a step further. It created the Assets Forfeiture Fund and enabled law enforcement agencies to retain
the proceeds of their seizures. Prior to this reform, forfeiture funds were directed to the General Fund of the Treasury. Agencies now had a direct financial stake in generating forfeiture revenues, creating a perverse incentive for some overzealous investigators to engage
in a form of legalized bounty hunting. States quickly followed suit—42 states dangerously shifted their law enforcement priorities toward the pursuit of profit.
It is not surprising that with these direct financial incentives, civil forfeiture actions skyrocketed. Innocent and guilty citizens alike became targets for forfeiture.

Equitable Sharing is big money for law enforcement agencies. Under this, local law enforcement can keep up to 80% of assets seized.  Many police forces include civil forfeitures when creating future budgets.

4th Amendment

Consider this- In 2005, Cambridge, Md. police, received an anonymous tip about drug activity in the duplex at 408 High St. (Yes, that’s the actual name of the street.) They did a trash pull and found what they claimed to be two plastic bags, one from each apartment, that contained marijuana residue. That’s it. That’s the all probable cause for what happened next.

At 4:30 a.m,  SWAT teams from the Cambridge Police Department conducted simultaneous raids on the two apartments. According to the police, during the raid on the upstairs apartment, resident Andrew Cornish emerged from his bedroom carrying a knife, which was still in its sheath. The police say Cornish then confronted them, at which point one of the officers shot Cornish in the face and forehead. Cornish died. According to the court, the police found “a small amount of marijuana” in the apartment. By the officers’ testimony, the entire raid took less than a minute. Cornish’s father, Andrew Kane, filed a lawsuit. A federal jury finally ruled in Kane’s favor in December 2012, awarding him $250,000. The police and city appealed. By a 2-1 vote, the Fourth Circuit panel overturned the jury’s award.
The courts long ago decided that SWAT-style raids to search for pot — even when there is no evidence of distribution — are reasonable under the Fourth Amendment. A lawsuit arguing otherwise won’t last long.
K:Even more disturbing the majority found that even though the police violated Cornish’s constitutional rights by failing to give him the opportunity to come to the door and let them in peacefully — as required by centuries of common law — Cornish’s death wasn’t the fault of the police officers who entered his home and shot him. Instead, the majority ruled that Cornish is responsible for his own death, because according to police, he should have known that they were the police when he attacked them with a sheathed knife, and his act of knowingly attacking the police after they had entered his home supersedes their failure to knock and announce.

Sadly, courts back this event up.
In 1968, Terry v Ohio, the Supreme Court decided that officers could stop a civilian if they reasonably suspected, based on articulable facts, that the civilian was currently engaging in criminal activity or had engaged in criminal activity. “Reasonable suspicion” is a lower legal standard than “probable cause. “The Supreme Court permitted frisks if the officer reasonably suspected that the person was armed and dangerous; the frisk was designed to allow the officer to pursue the investigation without fear of violence. The lower standard was permitted because a stop and search was believed to place a far lower burden on a civilian than an arrest.

In Whren v US (1996) and Illinois v Wardlow (2000), the Supreme Court further lowered the threshold for a police stop. Whren allowed officers to make “pretext stops,”, to stop someone for one violation when the officer’s true suspicion lay elsewhere (e.g., stop an individual for a minor traffic infraction when the officer’s true intent was to search the car for drugs).In Wardlow, the court expanded the legitimate grounds for a stop by ruling that simply running from a police car was suspicious behavior that justified a police stop and search.

As search and seizure standards lower, our fourth amendment rights continue to erode.

Funding Issues:

Since Richard Nixon declared a war on drugs back in the 1970s the United States Government has spent nearly $1 Trillion towards eradicating the drug problem in this country. In 2015 alone $36 billion was spent on the war on drugs, but that number was just for law enforcement and some social services, and does not take into account the cost of incarceration for nonviolent drug offenders once they are arrested and sentenced to jail.

To put this into perspective The United States Federal Government allocated $154 billion for education in the 2015 fiscal year.

That means that the war on drugs in this country costs the American Taxpayer about half of what it costs to fund public schools, apart from state and local funding.

Think about for that a minute.

Proposed solutions: (As drug policy moves towards slow change)

Principle 1: Crime prevention—not arrests—is paramount. Crimes averted, not arrests made, should be the primary focus

Research shows we can’t arrest our way out of crime. This does not mean that police should stop making arrests. Arrest serves the important functions of bringing perpetrators of crime to justice, redeeming victims, and reinforcing the capacity of the police to deter crime via the threat of apprehension.

Research also supports the crime prevention effectiveness of proactive, sentinel-like deployment strategies rather than the traditional react, investigate, and arrest approach that characterizes the arresting officer role.

Principle 2: Citizen reaction matters.

Stop-question-and-frisk (SQF), also known as field stops, focuses on getting police out of their vehicles and having them question suspicious persons.

Results on the effectiveness of SQF are mixed and often based on deeply flawed analysis. The most convincing evidence of effectiveness is limited to where SQF is used for its legally intended purpose—to prevent gun carrying in violent crime places. Also, it is very controversial and have been the subject of much criticism, particularly in Black and Hispanic communities, who distrust the police.

Evidence shows that other non-arrest based approaches can effectively prevent crime. Replacement of zero-tolerance policing tactics with ones that place less emphasis on arrest but are comparably effective in community policing will likely be less noxious to citizens, particularly in minority communities.

What Officers think:

Ronald Serpas, a former New Orleans police superintendent said “The way our country is currently approaching criminal justice is not ensuring public safety but is making our jobs more difficult. Arresting low level offenders prevents us from arresting high level offenders.”

Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck said that he has learned during his career that “police departments can’t be at war with the communities they serve,” and “We’re not saying we’re not going to arrest anybody but that we should arrest the right people for the right crimes,”

“The war on drugs has been a tremendous failure,” Houston Police Chief Charles McClelland said “We’ve got to rethink the equation when we’re making young people, especially young people of color in their mid-20s unemployable because they have a high-level misdemeanor or felony on their record for drugs or nonviolent crime and have no vocation, education, or job skills.”

Former Plain clothes narcotics street enforcement team member Michael Woods Jr. tells the story of a young man he met while on the job, Daniel. “As I got to know Daniel  through street interactions, I learned that he began selling marijuana as a kid, just to make some money and got caught early on. Expecting a baby, Daniel did not want to be the typical teen dad, he wanted to provide, but dealing with the prior arrest, he could not find anything, so he turned back to the streets. He only sold marijuana but got caught again. His girlfriend’s parents moved her out to the county to get away from him after his minor crimes.  Daniel had tears in his eyes as he spoke of just wanting money for diapers and formula, but now he needed a car to get out to see his son, but how was that possible? He has courts fees and bail fees piling up, no job opportunities, and truly wanted to be there for his child. I did not have an answer at the time, and I lacked the maturity to speak like I do now. I just empathized with him but would end up busting him one final time for selling marijuana. After this, the neighborhood essentially ambushed us after arresting Daniel and a brief period of chaos ensured. During all this, Daniel got out of the police car and fled. Escape is a considered a crime of violence, so then Daniel got a violence charge on his record. I didn’t see him after the escape, but I checked his neighborhood frequently. I hoped that he was just laying low and spending time with his kid. Then one day I saw Daniel in his neighborhood and couldn’t believe it. I walked up behind him, and when he turned and saw me, his shoulders slumped, and he just sat down. I had to ask him why he would come back. He just told me he missed everyone, and shouldn’t have run, but he wanted to be able to see his child one more time. We never spoke again. Daniel ended up as part of the prison population in America. After this, employers wouldn’t hire Daniel, college loans become unattainable for Daniel, and public assistance benefits not available for Daniel. Daniel’s family could have been evicted from their home, private or public, and if Daniel or his family become homeless, social services will put their kids in foster care. Daniel is now permanently barred from jury service and has lost the right to vote. With these types of marginalization, how can we expect Daniel to ever be a full member of society? When Daniel gets out, he will most likely end up back in prison, as 68% of those in Daniel’s position end up back in jail within 3 years.

Woods summed up his feelings on the War on Drugs with: I realized that about 90% of my police work was spent fighting the War on Drugs and the other 10% was not actually spent protecting and serving either. For a significant portion of my career, all I did was fill prisons with drug offenders. During this time, enormous improvements in policing, from DNA testing to ballistics, surveillance a wiretaps, and more- advanced the tools of investigation significantly. Despite the advances, we’re catching a lower percentage of murderers than we were in the 1970s. For many reasons which should have been obvious to us, we simply cannot have a war on our citizens and expect that cooperation will ensue. That divide is created when we have a War on People and takes a tremendous toll on the efficacy of police work.  







Police, War on drugs and money:


Civil Forfeiture


4th Amendment





Police on war on drugs:








Adjacent Studies:




Policing suggestions/solutions:


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s