Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Policing for Profit

Policing for Profit[1]


Does your local police force have a brand new armored personnel carrier?  Are they all equipped with Kevlar vests and helmets?  Where did their new helicopter come from?  Are they talking about flying drones above your back yard?

And, most important, where did they get the money for all of this stuff?  It was not voted from local tax revenues by the City Council.  It was not allocated by the mayor from city funds.  It did not even come from the legislature in the state budget.

Instead, those goodies or the money to pay from them came directly from the federal government to the police force, bypassing all local governments and their oversight of police activity.  That’s right: the feds have bought your local police and didn’t even ask the mayor’s permission first.

And if they’ve bought them, they can tell them what to do.

As the federal government has escalated the War on Drugs over the last forty years, it has co-opted local police forces to do the dirty work for them.  They have used grants of both money and equipment to do this.  Over time three major grants have been initiated and favored police agencies have also been given access to Department of Defense surplus equipment: that’s where all those APCs AR-15s, and Kevlar vests have come from.

(The Rise of the Warrior Cop by Radley Balko gives a good history of the grant programs and their uses.  His main interest in this book are organizations like SWAT teams and their uses, a subject that should also be of great concern to drug law reformers.)

However, these grants are not unrestrained; they may be used for only three purposes.  The may be used primarily for local enforcement of drug laws and they are used to fund multi-jurisdictional drug task forces.

The third use is to reimburse local prosecutors, courts, and jails for the prosecution of drug offenses against defendants arrested by federal agents by for offenses deemed too minor for federal prosecution.  However, with recent federal budget cuts, this reimbursement has stopped.  In several sparsely populated Texas counties near the Mexican border, sheriffs and district attorneys are now refusing to file state charges against these federal arrestees, simply releasing them.

Local police can’t get these federal grants just by asking for them.  They must earn them.  And the way they earn them is by running up their statistics on the FBI crimes reports, reports based solely on the number of arrests.  Nationwide about half of all arrests are for drug offenses and more than half of those are for marijuana; around 800,000 arrests each year for simple possession.  Simple possession arrests are made by single cops without extensive preparation and little follow-up (but the cops love them because the routine of arresting and booking the suspect and appearing in court makes a lot of extra-pay overtime).  In contrast, a rape or murder may take many days for a team of detectives, using many forensic science tests, a week or more to solve; and an major financial crime can occupy dozens of specialized investigators months or even years to unravel.  To which crimes will a police chief trying to sell arrest numbers to the feds devote his resources and manpower?  Meanwhile violent and destructive law-breaking continues.

 Probably the most destructive feature of policing for federal dollars is the funding of multi-jurisdictional task forces.  These dollars from Uncle Sam pay for the formation and operations of police forces focused on drug law enforcements composed of elements from local, state, and federal police agencies.  These task forces operate outside the normal oversight and control of the local governments that provide the officers comprising the task forces.  Consequently, they are hotbeds for over-reaching and unlawful, abusive behaviors.

Two different tasks forces in Texas acted so outrageously that the state legislature passed a statute forbidding the use of state funds for these groups. (I’m not picking on Texas – it’s no better or worse than other states – I just know it better.)  In the ‘90s, two Texas task forces made the news.  In Tulia, a small town in the Panhandle, an undercover task force cop arrested about forty people for dealing cocaine – about ten per cent of the black population of the town.  After a few were convicted on the sole testimony of the cop and sentenced to twenty years or more, most of the others pled guilty.  Ultimately, that cop’s scheme fell about, he was convicted of perjury, and those convicted were pardoned[2].  At almost the same time, a task force investigation in Hearne, a small town near Waco, that had arrested over twenty people, mainly black, fell apart when it was revealed that they were all based on false reports from an informant who was both working out a plea deal and receiving money for his tips.  The common factor is that, in both situations, the task forces were not operating as a part of a regular police force subject to the oversight and discipline that these organizations provide[3].

When the police work to earn federal dollars instead of working to preserve public safety, everyone’s life becomes less secure, crime flourishes, and corruption spreads.  Now is the time to insist that the federal government stop buying police to join the War on Drugs and to tell your local police to protect the public, not prowl the beat for the profit in federal dollars.

[1] I got the title from Ann Lee.  Ann is an octogenarian, a stalwart of the Drug Policy Forum of Texas and a founder of RAMP, Republicans Against Marijuana Prohibition.  And she’s also the mother of Richard Lee.  Hanks, Ann! 
[2] For more on the Tulia story, read Taking Out the Trash in Tulia, Texas by Dr. Alan Bean.
[3] For more on snitches, see my earlier “Informants: Deal with the Devil”.

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