When Cops Turn Against the Drug War

Commissaris Muyshondt, sorry to bother you,” said a voice over the phone. “We arrested your brother this morning. Just thought you should know.”

On the other end of the line, Officer Peter Muyshondt closed his eyes and breathed deeply. Not again.

“Thanks for the heads-up,” Muyshondt replied in Dutch, the dominant language in his hometown of Antwerp, Belgium. “I’ll be down to see him.”

He hung up the phone, overcome with anger and disappointment. It was embarrassing enough to drive by Antwerp’s most notorious drug corner each day in his police cruiser, watching his little brother Tom breaking the laws Muyshondt was sworn to uphold. But to visit Tom in jail each time he got arrested, to pretend he didn’t notice the stares and whispers of fellow law enforcement as they gossiped about the officer with a criminal brother… It was more than he could take sometimes.

With a sigh, Muyshondt headed to the jail. After security checks, he sat across from his brother in the visiting booth and picked up the receiver, their only communication through the thick plexiglas wall. He meant to reprimand Tom, but one look at his brother’s cheeky grin and Muyshondt couldn’t stop the smile that spread across his face.

“So, the good guy finally showed up to visit the bad guy!” Tom joked.

Muyshondt laughed, and suddenly, they were kids again, two brothers sowing mischief over the rural county where they grew up in central Belgium, trying to protect each other from the volatility of their home life. As teenagers, they had each found their escape: Peter, to a regimented military high school where discipline and rules helped him cope with a chaotic childhood; Tom, to a life in which drugs helped him do the same.

At that time, “I was really believing that my brother being punished by criminal court would help get him off addiction,” Muyshondt told Filter in an interview in Brussels. Still, he admits that watching his brother go through the cycle of drugs and prison made him question police tactics.

When you have a family member who uses drugs “you are getting information you don’t want that is right in your face [and] you start to reflect,” he said. Seeing his brother behind bars, he thought for the first time what a dangerous place jail could be, what violence or predation might be waiting for his brother in every cell or shower stall, and then he considered how many other people’s brothers he had put there, without concern for their safety.

“Frustration and anger against everything and nothing.”

Despite the risks of incarceration and unregulated street drugs, Muyshondt believed his brother would pull through. So he wasn’t expecting the call in July 2006 informing him that Tom had died of an overdose.

A week earlier, Muyshondt had visited Tom at a rehab facility. As usual, the two had laughed and joked—in this case about the birdhouse-making classes that Tom was forced to attend as part of his therapy.

Muyshondt described his feelings at learning of his brother’s death as “frustration and anger against everything and nothing.”

A Legitimate and Vital Strand of Reform

Tom’s death marked a turning point in Muyshondt’s attitude towards drugs and drug policy. No longer did he think that punishment would stop a person from using. In fact, he didn’t think that drugs themselves were the problem. Instead, he began to speak out publicly against prohibition, which spawns a lucrative illicit market, and locks people like his brother into a perpetual cycle of prison and the streets.

“Prohibition isn’t working,” said Muyshondt, who has written two books condemning the ineffectiveness of policing against drugs. He argues that only legalization and regulation of drugs will dry up the illicit market and allow communities to focus on preventing addiction.

The notion that working to change police officers’ views is an important strand of the reform movement is highly controversial for many in the harm reduction community. Many people, including those who have had traumatic experiences at the hands of the police or know others who have, view engagement with police as inappropriate, or even as “collaboration.”

Recognizing these realities does not contradict the urgency of also seeking deeper, systemic change.

When I wrote about police harm reduction work and the surrounding controversies for Filter last year, I received a flood of responses, many of them critical. Some on social media accused me of “shilling” for law enforcement.

I’m not. If harm reduction is about meeting people and situations “where they’re at,” and striving to improve things by not making the perfect the enemy of the good, these are difficult conversations that we need to have.

Police cause great harm in the course of the drug war, which they help to sustain through their advocacy, and officers’ conversions therefore reduce harms. And for many sections of the population, current or former officers’ advocacy against the drug war is particularly compelling. Recognizing these realities does not contradict the urgency of also seeking deeper, systemic change.

Muyshondt’s story may be unique because he had a brother to help open his eyes to the realities of why people use drugs and how prohibition increases overdose deaths. But in other ways, his story is similar to those of others who have become advocates for drug policy reform during or after long careers in law enforcement.

Many, if not most, people get into police work because they want to serve communities by fighting crime. But as the years go by, starry-eyed optimism often gives way to doubt as they see the same people arrested again and again, as the drug dealer they took out is quickly replaced by another, as they realize that prison is more a brutal training ground for illicit behavior than a deterrent.

From left to right: Peter Muyshondt, harm reduction workers Dominique Delhauteur and Marylene Tommaso, and the author in front of the Saf ti safe consumption room in Liege, Belgium. Photo courtesy of Tessie Castillo.

A New Jersey Narcotics Officer

Many officers are willing or able to ignore the internal voice asking whether what they are doing is really working. But tragedy can be the catalyst to turn doubts into action.

Lieutenant Detective Nick Bucci joined the New Jersey State Police in the late 1960s, right before President Nixon declared his infamous War on Drugs. In a phone interview, Bucci told Filter that the narcotics squad where he worked swelled from seven officers to about 75 nearly overnight, thanks to an influx of drug war money.

Bucci admits that racial profiling was a big part of police tactics in his department.

He and his colleagues began profiling cars near the George Washington Bridge. “You see a car coming across the bridge at 2 pm with three guys in it and you follow them, wait for them to not signal when they change a lane, then you signal them to pull over and the next thing you know they are throwing stuff out the window,” he said.

Bucci admits that racial profiling was a big part of police tactics in his department. When officers wanted to boost their arrest portfolio, they’d head down to the open-air drug markets in inner cities where it was easy to round up black people who used and sold drugs there.

Asked if the officers ever felt guilty about exploiting an already-vulnerable population, Bucci replied, “[The officers] wanted to get promoted, and to get promoted you had to make arrests.”

Bucci eventually became a Lieutenant Commander, with two dozen narcotics officers taking orders from him. They organized sting operations and arrested people for crimes ranging from possession of marijuana blunts to cocaine trafficking. It was dangerous work. Bucci lost a partner during a shootout at a meth lab raid.

Although he enjoyed policing for the most part, a few observations kept bothering him over the years. For instance, although he and his men made hundreds of arrests for drug crimes, the drug market continued to thrive, even expand. Drugs were becoming cheaper and more plentiful. Worse, violence was escalating.

“Every time we made an arrest, someone else took over the market,” he said. “And every time someone else took over the market, they did it with a gun.” It’s a phenomenon that has been described as the “freelancer effect.”

A Culture of Conformity

Bucci wasn’t the only officer with questions. At times, subordinates would approach him with doubts about whether their work was truly making a positive difference. Though he harbored the same doubts, as a senior officer Bucci didn’t hesitate to remind them that their job was to enforce the law, not question it.

This illustrates why it is so difficult to create change within law enforcement. Anyone who works at a job where they truly care about the mission knows how easy it is to ignore or dismiss information that runs counter to that mission. Many people, perhaps most, if they find themselves of minority opinion, will choose to leave the organization rather than stay and stir up trouble.

This phenomenon of self-selection is not unique to law enforcement. A Christian who suddenly doubts her faith may leave the church rather than stay and persuade others to renounce their beliefs. A nonprofit employee who starts to question his work will more likely quit than remain to change the organization’s mission.

Like the military, law enforcement officers are taught to follow orders, not to question them.

Within policing, this natural process is compounded by the fact that law enforcement is structured in such a way to especially discourage individuality or change. Like the military (and no wonder there is such cross-pollination between the two), law enforcement officers are taught to follow orders, not to question them.

Additionally, financial and career incentives are built into law enforcement such that officers and departments are rewarded based on numbers of arrests or numbers of drug seizures, not on whether these tactics do anything to prevent chaotic drug use.

But despite the entrenched status quo, many officers can and do change their minds about the drug war. Nick Bucci, who once ordered his subordinates to do their jobs without questioning, is one such case. The moment of reckoning came when his officers were conducting a raid on a house that had recently received a shipment of five pounds of marijuana. During the raid, the 25-year-old buyer got scared and fled on foot. One of the officers shot him dead.

Though he was still a few years short of his retirement pension, Bucci turned in his badge. He was done.

“We are never going to stop [drugs],” said Bucci. “Every time you make a marijuana arrest … that person will lose his driver’s license and employment. If they live in subsidized housing, they will get kicked out of that … police should not be policing morality.”

Bucci now works for Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP*), a group of active and retired law enforcement who are raising awareness about the failures of the drug war and urging alternative drug policy rooted in evidence and efficacy.

An Undercover Operator

On the other side of the Atlantic ocean, Nic Castle, a retired Police Constable from Cheshire in the United Kingdom, is also traveling the country for LEAP, talking to his fellow officers about the need for change.

Interestingly, Castle began his career in harm reduction, running a needle exchange and methadone program in Lancashire before joining the police force to help drug users (as he saw it at the time) by locking up their dealers.

Due to his past experience, Castle was quickly assigned as an undercover cop. His job was to befriend drug users, gain their trust, and try to convince them to give up the locations of their dealers. Ironically, he was good at this because he liked and sympathized with people who used drugsan attitude that didn’t carry over into much of the police force.

“A lot of police officers saw [drug users] as scumbags who deserve what they get. This was linked in with race,” he told Filter. “My ideology was always that they may be a drug user but they are still human beings.”

Castle would listen to the stories of the people he met on the streets and learn about their journeys to homelessness and addiction. “Most people take drugs because something happened to them,” he said. “They are victims of crime, mental health, finances.”

“We were taking people that needed help and what did we do? We kicked them when they were down.”

After building rapport with someone, he was usually able to convince them to buy drugs for him, in exchange for half. In time, he might get introduced to a dealer. Castle and his fellow officers would spend months in a given community, building trust and creating a list of people engaged in drug crimes. It was a risky job, not only for him, but for all the drug users with whom he interacted.

“Users were living under a level of threat all the time,” he said. “If they introduced the police to someone or gave up information to the police … they would get assaulted.”

Castle’s undercover operations resulted in hundreds of arrests, but to his chagrin, when his colleagues took the careful information on the drug markets that he had provided, they would usually arrest the very people he had befriended—the ones who had poured out heart-wringing stories, ignorant of the fact that they were talking to someone who would soon betray them. Because they had purchased drugs and delivered them to Castle, many of his contacts were tried as drug suppliers, earning sentences of four-to-five years in prison.

Finally, by 2006, seeing how much damage he was doing to people who needed help, Castle was fed up. He turned in his badge and renounced police work.

“I believed that what I did was morally wrong and that the people that the War on Drugs was attacking were often the people who needed help and support,” said Castle, who grew emotional over the phone as our interview wound to a close. “[The police] were taking people that needed help and what did we do? We kicked them when they were down.”

Today Castle travels the UK talking to other police about the problems with drug prohibition. “By fighting a war we were creating more violence and giving more power to the gangsters that were running [the drug markets],” he said.

Hearts and Minds

Like Muyshondt and Bucci, Castle believes that the key to changing police hearts and minds about the drug war is for them to receive the message from fellow officers.

“Police need to open their eyes and acknowledge not only does [the drug war] not work, but we have helped create the problem,” said Castle. “In talking to police officers that have finished and retired, I am surprised at how many actually feel that way.”

Bucci says he makes progress with police by pointing out the self-perpetuating cycle of the drug war: Saddling someone with a criminal record makes them unable to participate in the mainstream workforce and more likely to turn to the illicit market out of economic necessity—a fact which, incredibly, Bucci says, few law enforcement seem aware of.

A few conversations among law enforcement, many of whom are already retired, might not seem like enough of a catalyst for sweeping change. Certainly, it’s not the only way to challenge the drug war.

We can and should also reform drug laws, address systemic racism within society and law enforcement, dismantle the systems of perverse financial incentives that keep the drug war entrenched in the criminal justice system, and replicate the work of state and countries that have already decriminalized or legalized some drugs.

We need a critical mass of law enforcement to do what Muyshondt, Bucci and Castle have done—first, stop doing harm. Then make amends.

But two approaches can simultaneously be valuable. With law enforcement actively fighting against these changes, as they often do, it will be hard to see progress. At the very least, we need a critical mass of law enforcement to do what Muyshondt, Bucci and Castle have done—first, stop doing harm. Then make amends.

“Police are easy followers,” said Muyshondt with characteristic bluntness. He seems to believe that if the winds of change shift direction on drugs, law enforcement will follow the new trends as devotedly as they now follow current ones.

Castle believes that in order to change police hearts and minds, we have to change the entire conversation about drugs. We have to “open up about the real issues,” he said. “The problems with child abuse, domestic violence, financial problems because people can’t earn enough money to be able to live in certain areas of the country. Until we start saying that these are the problems that lead to drugs for a lot of people, we are not going to get a true picture.”

Systemic change, even revolution, starts with individual conversations. At first it might not seem like a few new allies would have much effect on the system as a whole, but those allies are the dry brush waiting for a spark. The job of active and retired law enforcement who know the truth about the War on Drugs is to lay that brush, so when the fire finally catches, there will be no stopping it.


* LEAP is the fiscal sponsor of The Influence Foundation, which operates Filter.

Top photo via Wikimedia Commons

Tessie Castillo @TessietheWriter

Tessie is a writer and drug policy advocate in Raleigh, North Carolina. Her articles explore topics such as criminal justice reform, drug policy and harm reduction. She previously served as the advocacy and communications coordinator for the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition, a statewide nonprofit that advances drug policy and criminal justice reform. During that time, she played a pivotal role in helping to legalize syringe exchange programs and expand access to naloxone. You can find her at her website or on Instagram.

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