You know what else is a pretty stupid system? The War on Drugs.
I had mentioned last week that the video of the drug raid in Missouri really pissed me off. Well, on that subject, Radley Balko has an outstanding piece ("A Drug Raid Goes Viral") which makes the interesting point that "despite all the anger the raid has inspired, the only thing unusual here is that the raid was captured on video, and that the video was subsequently released to the press. Everything else was routine."
The closest I've ever been to illegal drugs was when I would drink beer before I was 21. I've never done marijuana, meth, crack, etc. It's just not my style. With that said, one of the greatest failures of the 20th and 21st Centuries has to be the War on Drugs. Prohibition never has and never will work. With the War on Drugs, the cure has been far worse than the disease. And the video of the "routine" drug raid in Missouri should give every citizen pause to think about what we're really doing here. As Balko points out,
According to surveys of police departments conducted by University of Eastern Kentucky criminologist Peter Kraska, we've seen about a 1,500 percent increase in SWAT deployments in this country since the early 1980s. The vast majority of that increase has been to serve search warrants on people suspected of nonviolent drug crimes. SWAT teams are inherently violent. In some ways they're an infliction of punishment before conviction. This is why they should only be used in situations where the suspect presents an immediate threat to others. In that case, SWAT teams use violence to defuse an already violent situation. When they're used to serve drug warrants for consensual crimes, however, SWAT tactics create violence where no violence was present before. Even when everything goes right in such a raid, breaking into the home of someone merely suspected of a nonviolent, consensual crime is an inappropriate use of force in a free society.
The overwhelmingly negative reaction to the video is interesting. Clearly, a very large majority of the people who have seen it are disturbed by it. But this has been going on for 30 years. We've reached the point where police have no qualms about a using heavily armed police force trained in military tactics to serve a search warrant on a suspected nonviolent marijuana offender. And we didn't get here by accident. The war on drugs has been escalating and militarizing for a generation. What's most disturbing about that video isn't the violence depicted in it, but that such violence has become routine.
As horrifying as the video from Columbia, Missouri, is, no human beings were killed. The police got the correct address, and they found the man they were looking for. In many other cases, such raids transpire based on little more than a tip from an anonymous or confidential informant. Nor is it unusual for raids just as violent as the one depicted in the video to turn up little in the way of drugs or weapons. (Whitworth wasn't exactly an outstanding citizen—he had a prior drug and DWI conviction. But he had no history of violence, and there were no weapons in the home.) Surveys conducted by newspapers around the country after one of these raids goes bad have found that police only find weapons of any kind somewhere between 10-20 percent of the time. The percentage of raids that turn up a significant amount of drugs tends to vary, but a large percentage only result in misdemeanor charges at worst.
Shooting the family's dogs isn't unusual, either. To be fair, that's in part because some drug dealers do in fact obtain vicious dogs to guard their supply. But there are other, safer ways to deal with these dogs than shooting them. In the Columbia case, a bullet fired at one dog ricocheted and struck another dog. The bullet could just as easily have struck a person. In the case of Tarika Wilson, a Lima, Ohio, SWAT officer mistook the sounds of a colleague shooting a drug dealer's dogs for hostile gunfire. He then opened fire into a bedroom, killing a 23-year-old mother and shooting the hand off of the one-year-old child in her arms.
The Columbia raid wasn't even a "no-knock" raid. The police clearly announced themselves before entering. The Supreme Court has ruled that police must knock and announce themselves before entering a home to serve a search warrant. If they want to enter without knocking, they have to show specific evidence that the suspect could be dangerous or is likely to dispose of contraband if police abide by the knock-and-announce rule. As is evident in the Columbia video, from the perspective of the people inside the home that requirement is largely ceremonial. If you were in a backroom of that house, or asleep, it isn't at all difficult to see how you'd have no idea if the armed men in your home were police officers. The first sounds you heard would have been gunfire.
To me, one of the most disturbing aspects of the video from Missouri is how the officers are dressed. They are wearing every available piece of armor and equipment imaginable. They are in full riot gear (minus the shields) over marijuana. This is what it has come to, a weed is so important that we must be at war with it.
The militarization of America's police departments has taken place over a generation, due to a number of bad policy decisions from politicians and government officials, ranging from federal grants for drug fighting to a Pentagon giveaway program that makes military equipment available to local police departments for free or at steep discounts. Mostly, though, it's due to the ill-considered "war" imagery our politicians continue to invoke when they refer to drug prohibition. Repeat the mantra that we're at war with illicit drugs often enough, and the cops on the front lines of that war will naturally begin to think of themselves as soldiers. And that's particularly true when you outfit them in war equipment, weaponry, and armor. This is dangerous, because the objectives of cops and soldiers are very different. One is charged with annihilating a foreign enemy. The other is charged with keeping the peace.
It's called "mission creep" and it is as reliable as the sun rising in the east and setting in the west. Every government program starts with the greatest of intentions (and everyone knows what the path to hell is lined with). "It's for the children," they'll say. Or, "think about our society." Or, "it's for the public good," or every other platitude that politicians sling about year after year.
And as a government program creeps along, the tentacles of it's mission stretch deeper and deeper into the lives of the citizenry, until one day, 30 years later, it's become "ok" for militarized cops to break down a door, fire a couple of rounds into a dog or two, and terrorize a man's wife and child, only to find that the "tip" they received about a man being a drug distributor was a bit of an exaggeration. And I'm supposed to believe that the man with the "drug paraphernalia" is the bad guy? That the man with the marijuana is the danger to society?
SONG: "Hip To My Heart" by The Band Perry --- great song (with a fairly lousy video) from a great new band with an odd band name. It should also be noted that the rest of their debut EP is really great.
LOOKING FORWARD TO: Watching two of my siblings graduate from their respective schools. It's going to be great to see all of the family.