Our society’s emphasis on drug-law enforcement and the stigmatization and punishment of people who use drugs is driven in significant part by the impact of political rhetoric on law enforcement, as I have previously written for Filter.
But the relationship between policing and politics is a vicious circle. Law enforcement professionals have failed to recognize how their support of drug criminalization for purely ideological reasons encourages politicians to cling to an approach to a public health issue with no foundation in science.
Worse, law enforcement has ignored the impact of the drug war’s in-built racism on communities of color. The resulting poisoning of police-community relations polarizes views in line with our national politics—with calls for police abolition on the one hand and police identity politics, attacking any attempts at reform, on the other.
Many recent events offer little cause for hope. There was nothing surprising about Attorney General Barr’s December 3 statement to a law enforcement audience that “if communities do not show more respect to law enforcement officers, they may lose police protection.”
His words were grounded in the historical demonization of communities of color by politicians, police and the media to shift public opinion to the right. Barr follows Nixon and many other state actors who have constructed emotional arguments to create a politically useful fear of crime and lawlessness in our society.
This represented a concerted police union effort to undermine the significant criminal justice reforms made by a new wave of elected district attorneys.
Days later, police union rhetoric reared its head when President Trump met with Philadelphia Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) President John McNesby—a man who once called Black Lives Matter activists “a pack of wild animals.”
This meeting, which involved the presidents of multiple FOP chapters, represented a concerted FOP effort to undermine the significant criminal justice reforms made by a new wave of elected district attorneys in the last several years, and the latest salvo by police unions against “progressive” DAs and reform activists.
“DAs … are single-handedly ruining cities, major cities. Philadelphia obviously is number one,” said McNesby, singling out reform-minded DA Larry Krasner.
Deadly Costs, Hopeful Signs
But if communities are being “ruined,” what’s really responsible?
One new study emphasizes how racism, linked with prohibition and lack of economic opportunity, has contributed to violence in the Puerto Rican community in Kensington, Philadelphia. Racism has been entrenched in drug enforcement since prohibition began, as a recent Statesman Journal report on disparities in crack and heroin policing and sentencing aptly illustrated. And my colleague Neil Woods has written for Filter (with J.S. Rafaeli) about how prohibition produces violence.
The view of drug use as a moral failing has long pervaded and steered the criminal justice system, ensuring harsh punishments for individuals and communities. The emphasis on using the criminal justice system to “treat” a public health issue additionally diverts critical funding needed for evidence-based substance use disorder interventions.
The intended deterrence of drug use through swift, severe and certain punishment has resulted in damage to public health, and the continuation of policing strategies that reinforce structural racism. It has undermined American civil liberties, together with the very legitimacy of law enforcement and the criminal justice system and their relationships with the communities they are meant to serve.
Our drug policy contributes to racism, violence, human rights abuses, addiction, disease and death.
In return, these policies do virtually nothing to prevent drugs from entering the US (many, in any case, originate here), nor to mitigate problematic drug use and related harms. Rather, they produce harms.
As organizations like the Law Enforcement Action Partnership (for which I am the board chair) have long stated, our drug policy contributes to racism, violence, human rights abuses, addiction, disease and death.
The US public increasingly knows this. Even years ago, polls by Pew and Rasmussen showed declining public support for our drug policies and widespread belief that the drug war is a failure. Yet majority opinion holds depressingly little sway over criminal justice professionals’ prevailing belief that drug use is a morally flawed choice.
At the same time, for all the obstacles and reactionary elements that remain, there has been a tremendous shift among many criminal justice professionals in the last decade in recognizing that criminalization has not solved America’s drug-related problems.
Just 10 years ago, this would have been unthinkable.
Many examples of reform are incomplete and imperfect, yet still represent progress. Evidence includes that crop of reform DAs, a small down-tick in nationwide incarceration, diversion programs, a nationwide law enforcement call for MAT in jails, many incremental legislative reforms, and the growth of LEAP and other reform groups.
Law enforcement professionals here and abroad—not enough, but a growing minority—can now be found calling for safe consumption sites, for syringe exchange programs, for naloxone distribution to both the public and the police, for access to methadone and suboxone, for pre-booking diversion programs like LEAD, for drug treatment on demand, for Good Samaritan laws, for drug checking services, for a safe drug supply and for the decriminalization of all drugs.
Just 10 years ago, this would have been unthinkable. And while most colleagues in the drug policy reform movement share my frustration that the pace of change isn’t faster—and many see the pursuit of more radical societal reforms as a better avenue than reforming criminal justice from within—these changes have made crucial differences to people’s lives. They will make many more if momentum continues.
Racism and a New Willingness to Speak Out
Where we continue to fail, however, is in acknowledging the central role of race, class and other socioeconomic and identity factors in the development and implementation of disastrous, targeted policies.
Government institutions are far too slow in addressing the systemic maintenance and exacerbation of inequalities. The criminal justice field urgently needs to assess how race influences both individual and systemic decision-making, and act on those findings. Law enforcement must adopt strategies to end race-disparate outcomes—and be subject to close, independent scrutiny of the results.
The failure to progress in these areas is informed by the attitudes of many politicians. One extreme, but far from unique, example came in 2016, when Paul LePage, then the governor of Maine, sickeningly harkened back to the fear of miscegenation. In a town hall meeting, he stated that “drug traffickers from Connecticut and New York come to Maine and impregnate girls who are young and white before leaving the state.” And you could list many dog-whistle or outright racist statements from officials and politicians associated with the current administration.
Racism has always been present in American politics, and particularly around criminal justice subjects. What is newer, however, is the willingness of some law enforcement leaders to push back publicly. Innovative police leaders quickly countered Attorney General Barr’s recent statement. Chris Magnus, the police chief of Tucson, Arizona, was one of them:
If police fail their communities by misusing their power & authority, community members have every right to demand reform. We work for the public & must earn their trust. Nothing could be more consistent with democracy than that! Good cops understand this.https://t.co/HUZiP4BUjd
— Chris Magnus (@ChiefCMagnus) December 4, 2019
Similarly, when Trump told law enforcement in 2017 “don’t be too nice” with suspects, a barrage of criticism was leveled at him by police leaders across the country.
This could ultimately break the destructive feedback loop of political and law enforcement rhetoric. But far too many law enforcement professionals continue to minimize structural racism and racial coding.
A critical motivation behind this emerging attitude is the recognition that statements like these perpetuate hostile relationships between communities and the police, and that “today’s crime policies, which too often rely only on jail and prison, are simply ineffective in preserving public safety,” as Law Enforcement Leaders, a group that advocates against mass incarceration, has noted.
Yet despite this evolution—one that could ultimately break the destructive feedback loop of political and law enforcement rhetoric—far too many law enforcement professionals continue to minimize the structural racism and racial coding in the enforcement of our drug laws. In doing so, they continue to support a war not on drugs, but on friends, family members and the most vulnerable people in America.
A study just released by the Council on Criminal Justice showed that racial disparities have narrowed over the past 16 years. Glaring inequalities continue—and any disparity is too big.
But it is notable that changes to drug policy and enforcement (when we know that levels of drug use have not significantly shifted) have been critical to this relative progress. “The divide in state imprisonment rates dropped for all major crimes but was most pronounced for drug offenses—a key driving factor for the racial shift,” noted the Associated Press.
Knowing this should inspire all of us who work to reform drug policy and the criminal justice system to redouble our efforts.
Photo of Attorney General Barr with President Trump via Wikimedia Commons