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May 2, 2007 - Atlanta Journal-Constitution (GA)

Column: Futile Drug War Ignores Target - Safety

By Cynthia Tucker

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

If Kathryn Johnston's tragic death is to lead to systemic change at the Atlanta Police Department, then Chief Richard Pennington should reconsider the foolish and costly war on drugs. Forget raising the numbers of narcotics officers -- a tactic reminiscent of President Bush's misguided "surge" in Iraq.

What Pennington ought to do is decrease the number of officers who waste time and ruin lives going after penny-ante drug dealers.

Atlanta police are still reeling from the plea deals of two narcotics officers involved in the illegal Nov. 21 raid on Johnston's home, during which she was fatally wounded. Gregg Junnier will serve 10 years, while Jason Smith will serve 12 years and seven months.

Prosecutors say that together with another officer, Arthur Tesler, they piled lie upon lie to obtain a "no-knock" warrant to search Johnston's home, where they may have believed they would find cocaine. Their supporters claim they were under pressure to produce arrests.

While Pennington denies having an arrest quota, he, like many big-city chiefs, makes judgments on an officer's proficiency based partly on the number of suspects he or she apprehends. Given that standard, many officers will go for the quick and dirty take-down -- handcuffing and booking any of the street-level dealers who frequent down-at-the-heels neighborhoods.

It takes time and resources to build a case against crime kingpins, an effort that many police officers and their superiors don't want to undertake.

Certainly, Atlanta's narcotics officers have few major drug arrests under their belts, according to a recent analysis by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Over a nearly three-year period, 6,121 drug confiscations Atlanta sent to the GBI Crime Lab tested positive for cocaine.

But just six of those were more than a kilogram, a bit more than 2 pounds. Sixty-four percent were less than a gram -- which would barely move the needle on your kitchen-cabinet food scale.

Pennington is by no means the only police chief caught up in a futile but ruinous strategy of rounding up and prosecuting men and women who deal small amounts of illicit substances. That strategy has consumed local police for decades now, though it has done absolutely nothing to reduce the amount of drugs sold on the streets. Still, they keep doing it. (Remember that colorful definition of insanity -- doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different outcome?)

The result has been a war on black men and their neighborhoods -- an invidious campaign that has placed black men disproportionately under law enforcement jurisdiction, ruining their chances for decent employment and virtually ensuring they have no legitimate means to support wives and children. Men with prison records are unlikely to be attractive job candidates.

In 1954, black inmates accounted for 30 percent of the nation's prison population, according to Marc Mauer, assistant director of The Sentencing Project, a Washington-based group that advocates alternative sentencing.

Some 50 years later, Mauer wrote, blacks account for almost half of all prison admissions. Much of that increase, many criminologists say, has come from arrests for drug crimes.

The drug war punishes indiscriminately, locking up not only violent thugs but also many nonviolent drug offenders. Former Georgia prison guard John Bell, for example, was handed a 10-year sentence after his March 2000 arrest for possession of 205 grams (7.2 ounces) of crack, worth about $7,000 at the time.

He had served in the Navy and had no prior arrests, yet his sentence was as stiff as that meted out to Junnier, whose illegal actions resulted in the death of an innocent elderly woman in her own home. (Bell was paroled in 2004.)

If local police wanted to make poor neighborhoods safer, they could concentrate on arresting dealers for more serious offenses, including gun crimes. (Anyone caught with an illegal weapon ought to get a stiff prison sentence.)

If Pennington wants to hire more officers to walk a beat and establish a visible presence in poor neighborhoods, he deserves full support from City Hall.

But if he's just going to hire more officers to knock down the doors of old ladies, he should join the White House as the new "war czar." The Bush team, too, believes in doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.

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