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December 3, 2004 - The St. Paul Pioneer Press (MN)

Police Chiefs Have Dark View Of War On Drugs

By Ruben Rosario

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

If you really want to know how a war is going, don't ask the politicians or the agency spin-doctors. Ask the front-line grunts and field commanders.

And nearly to a man, those in charge of deploying the troops at the ground level believe our efforts largely have been a bust - pun intended - and that it's time for major policy reform or overhaul.

No, it's not the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. That's another issue for another time.

It's the so-called war on drugs, a much longer and perhaps thornier and more perplexing conflict that notably erupted in response to the devastating crack cocaine epidemic that swept through the nation in the 1980s.

Nearly 300 police chiefs, from the nation's largest metropolitan areas to the smallest towns, agree they lack the right resources or assistance on related fronts to turn the corner on drug abuse and related crimes in this country, according to a national survey released this week.

Some even date this losing war's origin to the rampant heroin use in the mid-to late 1970s. Ironically, "chasing the dragon," street slang for heroin, is making a significant comeback on American streets, a bitter fruit re-harvested following the ouster of the Taliban regime, which outlawed the growth of opium.

Afghanistan now accounts for as much as 85 percent of the heroin manufactured and sold throughout the United States and the world.

"Clearly, we are not winning it," said Hubert Williams, a former Newark, N.J., police commander and president of the Washington, D.C.-based Police Foundation advocacy group that co-commissioned the national survey.

"The most significant aspect of the survey, I feel, is that the police chiefs actually feel more strongly now than they did eight years ago when the first survey was conducted that our response to the drug problem is not working," added Mathea Falco, president of Drug Strategies, a Beltway research think tank that also sponsored the survey.

Major survey highlights include:

About 60 percent of chiefs surveyed believe drug abuse is a more serious problem in their community today than it was five years ago.

Three out of four chiefs believe resources for adequately battling drugs lag behind other crime or public safety problems, including the threat of terrorism.

Police chiefs in medium-sized communities( between 25,000 to 100,000 residents) and small towns rank drug abuse as the most serious problem they face.

Nearly half of the police chiefs believe the burden of curbing drug abuse and related crime should be shared equally by the criminal justice and public health arenas through education, prevention and treatment programs.

A majority of chiefs from small and big cities favor court-supervised treatment programs over prosecution for nonviolent drug offenders. About 40 percent acknowledged placements in drug programs are "very" or "fairly" difficult to find. More than four-fifths of all drug arrests are for possession.

"Ditto" was St. Cloud Police Chief Dennis Ballantine's initial reaction after reading the survey results. St. Cloud, a city of 60,000 about a 90-minute drive northwest of the Twin Cities, is home to a major state college as well as an unwitting hub to a growing methamphetamine trafficking and abuse problem.

Ballantine said recent state budget cuts to local governments and the loss of federal funds to help equip police in drug-related enforcement efforts have led to the reduction or elimination of education and early intervention programs. Such "soft" approaches are the first to go because of the prevailing sentiment that battling drugs is primarily or exclusively a law enforcement problem.

The survey is a stinging rebuttal. Ballantine says the general feeling of front-line narcotics cops and others who combat this problem on a daily basis is one of resignation.

"They keep working as hard as they can, but they realize that there will be more out there," Ballantine said. "It's like touching a water balloon at one end, only to realize there's a bulge sticking out at the other end."

Gary Kalstabakken is chief of police in Rosemount, a third-ring east metro suburb that has seen its population double to nearly 20,000 in the past 12 years. Meth also is a big concern in Rosemount, and the chief noted that the amount of hours its 18-officer department has spent helping a Dakota County regional drug task force will surpass last year's total.

Much of the resources of his department are devoted to alcohol and drug-related crimes and residual offenses, such as intoxicated driving, domestic violence and others triggered or aggravated by substance abuse.

"Sometimes, it does feel overwhelming," he said. "We have to be optimistic, and continue to work at it, but I agree that this effort has to be multi-faceted."

The grunts are on the record. Again. Let's see if the lawmakers this coming session will fight as passionately for more treatment and education funding efforts as they probably will for incarceration and stiffer penalties.

About 60 percent of chiefs surveyed believe drug abuse is a more serious problem in their community today than it was five years ago.

To read the police chief survey online, go to

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