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When a cynic wears a badge

Police corruption and the war on drugs

By Nora Callahan, Executive Director,
The November Coalition


Last May the Government Accounting Office (GAO) released to the House of Representatives a report entitled: Law Enforcement, Information on Drug-Related Police Corruption. Prior to 1970 most police corruption was characterized as "individual," or stated in other terms, a bad apple here and there. Today it is described as "systemic" and drug-related corruption is admittedly culprit. Systemic corruption means simply this: it has affected the entire system of law enforcement.

The report clearly admits that data on drug-related police corruption is not collected nationally so it "was not possible to estimate the overall extent of the problem." As you can observe in the side bar to the right, a sampling of news reports in the last three months gives us a glimpse into how wide-spread the problem is.

The GAO report admits that today there are more opportunities for police to have easy access to cash and drugs. The same drugs that were illegal before 1970 are still illegal today, so what has really changed?

The drug war

In 1990, the mayor of New Haven, Connecticut appointed Nick Pastore as police chief. Pastore was a controversial figure because he did not support the war on drugs. In a 1998 interview with the Drug Policy Foundation he said:

"The drug war is detrimental to policing because it treats the police officers like military in combat and it treats everyone else like the enemy."

The GAO report found similar mitigating attitudes within the law enforcement community. These attitudes include:

  • Vigilante justice as a means to punish those who may escape justice
  • The perceived line between corrupt and acceptable police behavior is not fixed. There are levels of acceptance regarding what is and what is not considered drug enforcement corruption.
  • A "de-sensitizing" or rationalization process occurs that justifies an officer's behavior on the basis of, for example, the notion that they were only harming or disrupting illegal drug dealers. Attitudes toward stealing illegal drugs can actually be a part of a particular police department's culture as tolerance varies between departments and cities. Even more alarming is the suggestion that a "acculturational process" occurs, whereby new officers learn the rationalizations and "accepted" behaviors from more experienced officers.
  • The police culture where the code of silence has grave consequences for those violating it. Loyalty to officers comes first and above all else.
  • Cynicism or disillusionment about their jobs, the criminal justice system, and public support

Attitude and actuality -- recipe for disaster

Beyond attitude were the actual physical situations that lead to police corruption:

  • Officers having day to day contact with "informants" have higher incidence of corruption.
  • Special drug task force officers are in a "high-risk" environment
  • Consensual crimes, often called "vice" afford officers opportunity for corruption because people in such circumstances will not report the offending officer.

The GAO report recommended more education and integrity training for our nation's law enforcers, but policing of the police received the most attention. If systemic corruption is of any great concern, the effectiveness of more policing should be obvious. We are back to square one.

In October of 1995, Dr. Joseph McNamara, a veteran of the New York City Police Department, former Chief of Police of Kansas City and San Jose; and currently a Research Fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution addressed the International Conference on Drug Policy Reform and had this to say on the subject.

"When you're telling cops that they're soldiers in a Drug War, you're destroying the whole concept of the citizen peace officer, a peace officer whose fundamental duty is to protect life and be a community servant. General Colin Powell told us during the Persian Gulf War what a soldier's duty is. It's to kill the enemy. And when we allowed our politicians to push cops into a war that they'll never win, they can't win, and let them begin to think of themselves as soldiers, the mentality comes that anything goes. We look at the rationalization of the crooked cops in New York, who robbed the drug dealers-guess what? The Los Angeles sheriff's deputies who robbed the drug dealers here had the same rationalization. They said, why should these guys keep all the money? They're animals. They're enemy. And they told the drug dealers, you're nothing, you have no rights, we can do whatever we want. It's a war, after all.

"When former police chief Daryl Gates made his famous statement in Congress, that casual drug users should be taken out and shot­­it was before the United States Senate, by the way, not in some cop beer hall­­he assured the Senators he wasn't being facetious. Well, when he came back home, the LA Times said, did you really say that? And Chief Gates said, "look, we're in a war."

The Thin Blue Line

The GAO report ignores the obvious solution and as long as our government keeps ignoring the obvious, our nation's law enforcement ranks will continue to redefine the "Thin Blue Line."

Just as the historically failed policy of alcohol prohibition, our current heavy-handed approach to illegal drugs places literally billions of tax-free dollars in the hands of the underground criminal network. This in turn breeds insurmountable temptation to law enforcement officials. The lure of drug money is everywhere. When a middle-class customs officer can make $50,000 by waving a truck through a checkpoint, something is clearly wrong.

It is imperative to remember, however, that in the dragnet of drug war prosecution, a suspect police officer, or officers, are subject to all the tactics that the ordinary citizen is. The Thin Blue Line can dissolve in an instant. If the more experienced officer is teaching the rookie how to be a drug law violator-who is going to prison? Cops can become embroiled in broad but vague drug "conspiracy" statutes just like everyone else. "They" quickly become "Us" and can be convicted on simple hearsay testimony alone. And a cop "gone bad" makes a great Drug War Headline. We can only imagine the injustice that is occurring as a mad dash to protect those higher in the chain of command is made. That is the true definition of systemic corruption after all, the recent GAO report lays it all out.

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