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November 19, 2004 - The East Valley Tribune (AZ)

Compromised Crimefighters

Local Cops' First Priority Must Be Criminal Activity, Not Grabbing Assets In The 'War On Drugs'

By Bill Richardson

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

If these incidents weren't so serious they'd be kind of funny.

A local narcotics cop used to look in the want ads for a vehicle he'd like to seize. He'd offer to buy it and when the purchase was nearly consummated he'd tell the seller his money was from selling dope. The seller didn't care. Once the cash changed hands the cop would seize the man's vehicle under Arizona's asset forfeiture laws.

An East Valley narcotics lieutenant got a convict out of jail to inform. After his release he ripped off the cop's "buy" money and disappeared.

Law enforcement officials from the East Valley, county, state and federal governments got a con-man convict out of prison to inform. The convict had done just six years of a 20-year sen-tence. His impact on the flow of drugs was zero. The con man conned the cops and is now a free man.

Was this sound judgment by the cops or just more flawed decision-making in the war on drugs?

Drug trafficking in America is now a multibillion-dollar a year business. Drug money is an integral part of the world's economy. It's a business run by people who know risk and make allowances for loss of product and cash. Just like any shrewd businessman does.

Quite the opposite of how law enforcement often operates, where. emotions and egos can guide decision-making, especially in drug enforcement.

The Tribune reported Mesa City Councilman Tom Rawles is asking hard questions about how the city's police department handles drug enforcement. Questions that need to be answered objectively, honestly and without hysteria and statistical babble. Leave the pie charts and graphs at home on this one, chief.

Rawles is the first city councilman I've heard of to ask objective questions about cops and dope. He wants to know what the effect of Mesa's involvement in a federal task force program is going to have on the local supply and demand for dope. I worked dope for almost half my career and still consult on illegal drug issues. It's a great question.

Vice Mayor Claudia Walters said if Mesa doesn't buy off on the program every major drug dealer around will come to Mesa. Sorry, many are already there and have been for decades.

Attacking dope emotionally and incessantly like the local cops have for years has cost us millions and yielded little in positive results. The drug business and their cash have gone mainstream.

PDs are addicted to the tax dollars spent on drug enforcement and the cash from seized assets, just like a junkie's hooked on heroin. Some in law enforcement will do anything to make a drug case, even if it endangers the community by getting a convict out of jail or taking a man's property without charging him with a crime.

A police executive asked me what I thought his department should do about dope. "Stay focused on the criminals that commit violent and serious property crime. Your highest priority is to reduce crime and violence in your community. If bad guys are in jail, they aren't committing crime.

Drug enforcement must be a part of a strategic and overall anti-crime plan. Don't waste manpower and money on undercover cases that drag on for days and weeks or trips to Glendale or Tucson to buy dope. Let the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office and the Arizona Department of Public Safety do that. No matter how much you seize in dope and assets, it won't make any permanent difference in Arizona's multibillion-dollar a year drug business. Make your city safe by putting all the bad guys you can in jail."

Without clear directives from policy makers, exceptional leadership and critical oversight, law enforcement often loses sight of what they're really supposed to be doing. Just like they've done in the war on drugs.

Drug enforcement has become an emotionally charged and publicity grabbing venture for bureaucrats and egos. It's time to rethink how to keep a community safe.

Mesa has a serious violent crime problem. Armed robbers are terrorizing citizens with gasoline and it seems like there's a murder every other week. Mesa PD has spent millions on drug enforcement and has nearly 100 people assigned to the special investigation division. Yet beat cars sit empty as major crimes go unsolved.

Lots of money and manpower spent on dope has produced suspect and questionable outcomes. To me Rawles is asking the right questions at the right time.

And to officials in our other East Valley cities: Mesa doesn't have an exclusive on the problem; you need to start asking hard questions too.

Retired Mesa master police officer Bill Richardson lives in Tempe.

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