Why the War on Drugs is Eroding the Public Trust in Policing Efforts

ImageIn 1971, Richard Nixon first used the term War on Drugs and declared that Drugs were “Public Enemy Number One.”  Although that was, perhaps, the first major escalation in the war, it has actually been occurring since 1914 with the Harrison Narcotics Act.  Even earlier, local laws (some dating back to 1860) have been attempting to control American appetite for drugs.  Whenever you want to pin the War on Drugs along the timeline, it has done little to improve the public’s view of cops.

One of the low points for public support of police occurred during Prohibition.  Overnight one of America’s most profitable legal businesses went from legal to illegal.  The demand that made alcohol such a profitable business didn’t disappear just because a President stroke pen to paper and declared it to be illegal.  If legal businesses could no long fill the demand, illegal businesses would.  And as a result, the highly profitable business of distributing alcohol became even more profitable.  Expecting lowly paid street cops to not take a months pay for looking the other way on a single night was ridiculous.  Of course, it didn’t take but 14 years to see how badly prohibition hurt the police, the public and the economy and for the amendment to be repealed.

Skipping ahead to the modern day, and we have the full fledged war on drugs.  Yet, after over 40 years of this endless war, the cracks are starting to show.  States are legalizing marijuana, prisons are crumbling under the weight of incarcerated users, and police forces are stretched to the limit after years of crime stats manipulation to maintain the flow of suspects into the court system.

In addition to the increasing flow of newly minted felons into the prisons system, America’s ability to solve what most would view as the most heinous of all crimes, murder, has fallen dramatically, even while the actual occurrence of that crime has dropped off. According to recent studies, America’s murder clearance rate is around 65%.  In raw numbers, that’s 6000 unsolved murders a year.  Interestingly, in 1965 there was almost the same raw number of unsolved murders, but the clearance rate was around 90%.  So even though we’ve seen a massive decline in the raw numbers of murder (and adjusted for population, the reduction is even more dramatic) police solve far fewer murders in terms of real or percentage numbers.

Yet that doesn’t seem to have to be the case.  In 2006, Philadelphia’s murder clearance rate dropped to 52%.  In 2008, after two years of intensive focus on solving murders, the clearance rate rose to 74%.  In 2010, it had risen to 92%.  What made the difference? According to Deputy Commissioner Richard Ross, a veteran Philadelphia homicide investigator and major-case supervisor. “If you don’t work a job, then it’s not coming in. That’s the saying around here. So we make our guys work the jobs.”  In other words, it’s about where the police focus their efforts.

If you look at the national trends, it’s clear where police focus their efforts.  In 2010, the year our murder clearance rate fell to 65%, police made 11,200 arrests for murder.  That arrest figure includes arrests from murders years prior, and it does not include the 6000 unsolved murders of that year.  (Several where solved, but the murderer killed and multiple murders with one person arrested.)  Now when it comes to drug abuse violations, this is not drug dealing but drug use, police made 1,638,800 arrests in 2010.

One could look at the numbers and come to the conclusion that drug abuse is a bigger problem that murder in America.  One would be wrong, however.  In the category of Drug Abuse Crimes, there are no victims, these people are not selling, and they are users.  Whatever you may think of users, equating them as a bigger problem than murders is just stupid.  And before you think that users are also drivers, arrests for driving under the influence are broken out from drug users.  In 2010, 1,412,200 arrests were made for DUI, the vast majority alcohol related.

So why are police so focused on drug users and not murders?  The answer is sadly simple and follows one of the oldest axioms in the book.  Follow the money.  When police make an arrest on murder, a crime that is hard to prove more often than not and involves hours of investigation by people on the street, detectives and lab personnel, the cost per arrest is quite high.  When it comes to drug users, users are practically falling into police hands because, lets face it, users who are using aren’t always the smartest people on the planet.  Every arrest comes with evidence in abundance (or the arrest wouldn’t be made) and quick plea bargains.  Fines more than cover the cost of policing and with federal aid for “task forces” and civil forfeiture, departments make money on drug abuse arrests.

How does this erode public trust in police?  The biggest change is the public perception of marijuana.  As the public at large has grown more and more accepting of marijuana, the arrest of users has become less popular.  It’s all fine and good for your local police chief to brag about the thousands of arrests they’ve made this year, but that’s just a number.  Drug Abuse arrests have reached the point where one in 250 of us know someone arrested for drug use ever year.  Depending on the demographic, it can be much higher.  And since we know these people, know most of them don’t hurt anyone with their use, are usually good people, aren’t violent and typically cause no trouble in the neighborhood, we begin to question the validity of the arrests.

Oh, we all understand the use of drugs is illegal.  But when they arrest that kid down the street that mows your lawn and plays basketball with the neighborhood kids, you’ve got to wonder if police are focused in the right areas.

And that’s where we get into crime stat manipulation.  Using drug arrests to bolster the numbers, police departments can easily push up the number of arrests in a given year.  They can then say with confidence that the city is safer because of all the arrests. But if you look at the numbers, the percentage of total arrests for violent crime is fairly stagnant at 4% of all crime, even though more murders are going unresolved.  So while it looks like overall crime is down, and arrest numbers remain healthy… the truth is violence within the system hasn’t changed.  So when the police come to you and say we made “umpteen” thousand arrest last year, but you can’t remember the last arrest for violent crime and you can remember three or four arrest that were for drug abuse of nice people, you begin to wonder just what the job of the police really is.

From basic numbers, it is clear the job of police is less about solving murders than it is about arresting drug users.  And that really is a shame.  All that does it set up false numbers about serious crime that does little to support the police position, and provides large numbers of anecdotal evidence that police arrest good people for crimes with no victims.  When the numbers skew enough, public trust in police goes away.