Your tax dollars at work

Driven By Drug War Incentives, Cops Target Pot Smokers, Brush Off Victims Of Violent Crime

As Radley Balko explains, the reason for this is simple. Federal incentives.

Arresting people for assaults, beatings and robberies doesn’t bring money back to police departments, but drug cases do in a couple of ways. First, police departments across the country compete for a pool of federal anti-drug grants. The more arrests and drug seizures a department can claim, the stronger its application for those grants.

“The availability of huge federal anti-drug grants incentivizes departments to pay for SWAT team armor and weapons, and leads our police officers to abandon real crime victims in our communities in favor of ratcheting up their drug arrest stats,” said former Los Angeles Deputy Chief of Police Stephen Downing. Downing is now a member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, an advocacy group of cops and prosecutors who are calling for an end to the drug war.

“When our cops are focused on executing large-scale, constitutionally questionable raids at the slightest hint that a small-time pot dealer is at work, real police work preventing and investigating crimes like robberies and rapes falls by the wayside,” Downing said.

And this problem is on the rise all over the country. Last year, police in New York City arrested around 50,000 people for marijuana possession. Pot has been decriminalized in New York since 1977, but displaying the drug in public is still a crime. So police officers stop people who look “suspicious,” frisk them, ask them to empty their pockets, then arrest them if they pull out a joint or a small amount of marijuana. They’re tricked into breaking the law. According to a report from Queens College sociologist Harry Levine, there were 33,775 such arrests from 1981 to 1995. Between 1996 and 2010 there were 536,322.

Several NYPD officers have alleged that in some precincts, police officers are asked to meet quotas for drug arrests. Former NYPD narcotics detective Stephen Anderson recently testified in court that it’s common for cops in the department to plant drugs on innocent people to meet those quotas — a practice for which Anderson himself was then on trial.

At the same time, there’s increasing evidence that the NYPD is paying less attention to violent crime. In an explosive Village Voice series last year, current and former NYPD officers told the publication that supervising officers encouraged them to either downgrade or not even bother to file reports for assault, robbery and even sexual assault. The theory is that the department faces political pressure to produce statistics showing that violent crime continues to drop. Since then, other New Yorkers have told the Voice that they have been rebuffed by NYPD when trying to report a crime.

In many cities, crimes like burglary no longer merit a police response, but drug enforcement means federal money for cash-strapped cities, to say nothing of another form of enrichment.

Asset forfeiture:

Asset forfeiture not only encourages police agencies to use resources and manpower on drug crimes at the expense of violent crimes, it also provides an incentive for police agencies to actually wait until drugs are on the streets before making a bust. In a 1994 study reported in Justice Quarterly, criminologists J. Mitchell Miller and Lance H. Selva watched several police agencies delay busts of suspected drug dealers in order to maximize the cash the department could seize. A stash of illegal drugs isn’t of much value to a police department. Letting the dealers sell the drugs first is more lucrative.

Earlier this year, Nashville’s News 5 ran a report on how police in Tennessee are pulling over suspected drug dealers and seizing their cash along I-40, often without bothering to make an arrest. The station combed through police reports showing that officers spent 10 times as long policing the side of the interstate where a drug runner would be leaving after he sold his supply — and thus would be flush with sizable amounts of cash — than on the side where he was likely to be flush with drugs. The police were letting the drugs be sold in order to get their hands on the cash.

Back in Illinois, Gov. Pat Quinn (D) recently signed a new law that will require convicted drug dealers to reimburse the police agencies that arrested and prosecuted them. The law will provide even more incentive for departments to devote time and resources to drug crimes — and that shift comes at the expense of solving more serious crimes.

The bill does not require reimbursement from convicted rapists or murderers.

Unfortunately, none of this is surprising.

As Hillary Clinton said, we can’t legalize drugs “because there’s just too much money in it.