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January 19, 2007 - Northern Iowan (IA Edu)

Column: War On Drugs Records Interesting Casualty

Will The Final Cost Be Tallied In Lives Lost Or Freedoms Surrendered

By Tristan Abbott, NI Opinion Columnist

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

On November 21st of last year, police in Atlanta violently broke down the door of a 92-year-old woman's house.

They did so without knocking, and without announcing their presence.

The woman, Kathryn Johnston, opened fire upon the officers, presumably unaware that they were the police. The police then returned fire, fatally wounding Johnston.

The police were using a no-knock warrant, a somewhat controversial type of permission that is designed to give police more leverage in fighting the all-important War on Drugs. (The idea is that it's better to risk shooting up an old lady than it is to allow dope addicts a chance to flush their pot after cops knock on their door).

The police who attacked Johnston had received a tip from a small-time drug dealer that there was a kilogram of cocaine in Johnston's home. This tip turned out to be a lie.

According to a neighbor's description, Johnston was very paranoid about all of the crime in her neighborhood and very protective of her home. She didn't even allow deliverymen inside. When the police stormed in, without knocking, it is entirely understandable that she assumed they were criminals and that she should defend herself.

Allow me to embrace my libertarian side and say something very sensible that is nonetheless controversial:

If you break into someone's home without knocking, you can't complain when you get shot. If you go into a bad neighborhood and violently break down someone's door, you probably deserve to get shot. Even if you're a cop.

And that's what the blog arguments regarding this case were initially about. There were people who, like myself, feel that the police have way too much power when it comes to fighting the War on Drugs, and that incidents like this are inevitable if we keep sending out SWAT teams with no-knock warrants to arrest small-time drug users and dealers.

The people who support the drug war would counter this point by saying something along the lines of "well, if Grandma didn't want to get shot maybe she shouldn't have been living in the hood," or something equally puerile. People who support the War on Drugs typically don't rely on things like "reason," "empathy" or "basic human decency" when making their points, you see.

The argument between people who support the War on Drugs and those who oppose it is an old one, and so it went away after only a few days. The old lady had died, and all the rage of all the internet nerds in the world wasn't going to do anything to bring her back.

The drug war had happily claimed another victim, and that was that. There was no use hoping that the officers involved would be punished, and no use hoping that this incident might spark progressive reform.

But then, last week, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution ran a follow up piece to the Johnston story which revealed that the officers in the case actually lied in order to receive their no-knock warrant. According to the paper:

"In an affidavit to get a search warrant at the home Nov. 21, narcotics officer Jason R. Smith told a magistrate he and Officer Arthur Tesler had a confidential informant buy $50 worth of crack [Johnston's residence] from a man named 'Sam.'

"But narcotics officer Gregg Junnier, who was wounded in the shootout, has since told federal investigators that did not happen..."

Not only did the officers secure their warrant on false pretenses, they also continued lying about having purchased drugs at the home after they had killed a 92-year-old woman. And it gets worse, as the police went so far as to try and pressure their fake informant into lying for them:

"Alex White [the supposed informant] came forward to authorities a day after the shooting, saying narcotics officers were trying to tell him to lie and say he bought drugs at the house. White came to light after he jumped out of an Atlanta squad car Nov. 22 and called 911."

Due to the immensity of the misconduct of the Atlanta police, there's a good chance that the offending officers might be substantially punished for lying to a judge and killing an old woman. Notice that's a good chance, not a sure chance. It's really about 50/50.

Police misconduct regarding the War on Drugs, especially in the south and especially regarding the abuse of minority suspects, is an immensely pervasive problem that no one seems to want to acknowledge, let alone fix.

If you're in any way surprised that the Atlantic police would do something so audacious or that there's a good chance that none of the officers involved will not be punished, then you haven't been paying much attention to the War on Drugs:

In September of 2001, Dallas resident Yvonne Gwyn was jailed after police found two bricks of cocaine in her possession. She spent six weeks in jail before it was revealed that the "cocaine" bricks were actually made of drywall, and they were planted by cops. None of the officers involved have faced serious punishment.

In July of 1999 in Tulia, Texas, narcotics officers jailed a full 15% of the town's African American population in a sting that netted 46 arrests. No evidence whatsoever was found suggesting that any of the people arrested had any ties to illegal drugs, and all 46 were arrested based on the shaky testimony of an undercover cop. All 46 were jailed, and most of them spent at least a few years in prison.

These were two events I just happened to remember off the top of my head. A quick google search yields many more results that I don't have enough space to mention here, but I hope you get my point: police are accustomed to greatly abusing powers when it comes to busting suspected drug users and dealers, and only when it comes to most egregious cases of abuse do the people who are wrongly arrested have a chance of getting out of jail. Punishing crooked narcotics officers is almost unheard of.

When you give people high-tech weaponry and the right to arrest people on shaky pretenses and with minimal oversight, you are asking for trouble. Our country's "tough" stance on drugs, which has gotten only more and more draconian since the introduction of the drug war, has done just this.

If we keep allowing these abuses to take place without questions, and if we keep supporting the erosion of basic legal protections and the expansion of police powers, we can only expect to see more tragedies.

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