Friday, March 14, 2008

Radley Balko Interviews Ed Burns on Baltimore's "war on drugs"

Radley Balko at Reasononline has a terrific, in-depth interview with Ed Burns, a Baltimore police officer for 20 yars, and former school teacher who, famously, is one of the co-producers of The Wire. (He was also a co-author of the book, The Corner, a detailed ethnography of drug addiction in West Baltimore.) Here are some thoughts on the war on drugs, on the "stop snitchin' " movement, and on community-oriented policing.

Take just the term “war on drugs.” I mean, they’re not warring on drugs. They’re warring on drug addicts and the users and the small-time dealers. They’re warring on neighborhoods. They’re warring on people who can’t stand up to them. They’re not warring on major dealers.

You can follow it in any city, I don’t care how small it is or how big it is. If the paper is pretty avid about covering who’s getting locked up, you’ll notice that they’re not getting the big guys. They’re not getting the big stakeholders.

reason: What do you make of the "Stop Snitchin'" movement, the street campaign that discourages people from cooperating with police, which seems to have started in Baltimore?

Burns: Well, again, it’s something that’s incidental. It’s a symptom. If the police were connected, if the police were actively involved with the people in the neighborhood, the amount of information they would be getting would be so great that the whole idea of snitching wouldn’t be important. When I was a cop, having informants was a rare thing. They were looked down upon. I had sometimes as many as 50 guys working for me. I didn’t have to go out on the street. I could sit by the phone and just wait for the information to come. But you got that by being decent to people, working with them, helping them out on their little charges, stuff like that. That’s a lot of work and a lot of money comes out of your pocket to keep them happy and cooperative, but the amount of information you get back is profound.

Cops aren’t taught to do that anymore because today it’s all about numbers. You can get a number by just going up on the corner and grabbing somebody and getting a bag off of him. That’s the easy thing. If taking a guy in for drinking a beer on the street is a “1,” and catching the kingpin is a “1,” well, it takes two minutes to catch the guy with the beer can. It could take you two years to catch the kingpin. If numbers is all the department cares about, then the guy who pursues the kingpin is wasting his time.

And it is all about numbers. It’s how they talk, how they rate themselves. The fact that the murder rate in Baltimore stays constantly above the norm would be seem to be an indication that maybe they should try something different. But they’re bankrupt. They don’t have any idea what they need to do because they’re separated from the people. They’re not of the people. You’re policing as an army of occupation, not as police in the community. And that just doesn’t work.

reason: Is there any concrete policy you can think of that would lead to the more community oriented style of policing you’ve described?

Burns: You would have to change the nature of the institution. You’d have to stop making it a numbers game. Now, how do you do that with people who've been inculcated with this idea that it’s all about numbers? These guys have got computers, they've got charts, they’ve got all this kind of stuff, and it all revolves around locking people up. Clearly, that’s not the way to go. But it's how they sell themselves to politicians, and how they sell themselves to these community relation groups. This stuff is about locking people up.

The police should be focused on the most serious crimes, and in Baltimore the most serious crimes are murder, rape, and robbery. So you try to diffuse the other stuff, but you have to start putting your resources into those. Because if a person kills someone in the neighborhood, the neighborhood knows who did it. If the police don’t catch that person, and that guy’s walking around having beaten a murder, all the police credibility goes out the window.

It’s the same thing if you go up on the corner and you roust an addict while the guy sitting across from the addict has a gun. Everybody in the neighborhood knows he’s got the gun because he’s the bodyguard. And you don’t grab him. The people are thinking, well, maybe the dude is paying the police off. Why else would they grab the harmless addict but not the guy with the gun? Again, the problem is that the police are operating without information, and playing to the numbers. If I’m locking you up for petty stuff, you’re not going to be telling me shit. If I’m locking you up two and three times a month, you’re especially not going to tell me anything.

So how do you change all of this? You change the numbers game. You require police to reconnect with the people, and you start focusing everybody on the major crimes, the ones that make living very, very difficult—murder, rape, and robbery.

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Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Wire ends. Thinking about drug war violence.

One of contemporary television's most acclaimed programs, HBO's The Wire, concludes this month. The producers have rivetingly depicted the drug problem in all it ugliness and violence.

Should they have done so? According to the guidelines of some professional anti-drug and anti-violence propagandists, no. But first, the producer's of The Wire. They have lived with the ideas and drama of our urban drug phenomenon for more than six years and spell out a profound understanding of the problem. To address the problem they don't call for political organizing, they call for civil disobedience!

Writing in TIME magazine, ED BURNS, DENNIS LEHANE, GEORGE PELECANOS, RICHARD PRICE, DAVID SIMON, denounce the war on drugs as "venal."

What the drugs themselves have not destroyed, the warfare against them has. And what once began, perhaps, as a battle against dangerous substances long ago transformed itself into a venal war on our underclass. Since declaring war on drugs nearly 40 years ago, we've been demonizing our most desperate citizens, isolating and incarcerating them and otherwise denying them a role in the American collective. All to no purpose. The prison population doubles and doubles again; the drugs remain.

Our leaders? There aren't any politicians — Democrat or Republican — willing to speak truth on this. Instead, politicians compete to prove themselves more draconian than thou, to embrace America's most profound and enduring policy failure.

They urge a form of civil disobedience called jury nullification.

"A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong, gives it a superficial appearance of being right," wrote Thomas Paine when he called for civil disobedience against monarchy — the flawed national policy of his day.

If asked to serve on a jury deliberating a violation of state or federal drug laws, we will vote to acquit, regardless of the evidence presented. Save for a prosecution in which acts of violence or intended violence are alleged, we will — to borrow Justice Harry Blackmun's manifesto against the death penalty — no longer tinker with the machinery of the drug war. No longer can we collaborate with a government that uses nonviolent drug offenses to fill prisons with its poorest, most damaged and most desperate citizens.

Jury nullification is American dissent, as old and as heralded as the 1735 trial of John Peter Zenger, who was acquitted of seditious libel against the royal governor of New York, and absent a government capable of repairing injustices, it is legitimate protest.
Recognizing the current inability of the Congress and state legislatures to end the catastrophe of drug prohibition, they are calling for ending the war on drugs "one trial at a time."

But the defenders of the status quo want to whitewash the war on drugs completely. The Entertainment Industries Council "is a non-profit organization founded in 1983 by leaders in the entertainment industry to provide information, awareness and understanding of major health and social issues among the entertainment industries and to audiences at large."

They would not depict violence except very carefully so as not to diminish hope, etc.

In their "Substance Abuse Depiction Book" or Spotlight on Depiction of Health and Social Issues: A resource encyclopedia for the entertainment industry, in the chapter "Violence and Drugs", drug prohibition is barely acknowledged as a factor in the violence -- in one ambiguous sentence a few lines from the end.

I must acknowledge that the EIC properly recognizes the important roles of alcohol and tobacco as substance abuse problems, and the extremely large role of alcohol use and misuse in the nation's violence problem.

But let's get right to it. In the fifth sentence of EIC advice to media creators regarding marijuana, artists are advised they should,
Attempt to realistically reflect marijuana use as a potentially addictive behavior rather than a positive social activity.
Occasional lines of dialogue with people reacting negatively to marijuana use can contribute to a more accurate public perception about marijuana norms that deglamorizes such use.
With such advice circulating in Hollywood and New York, it is not surprising that the producers of The Wire stress that we need civil disobedience at the top of our national drug policy reform tool kit.

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Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Another Drug Warrior -- Did he or didn't he?

In May 1995, Atlanta Mayor Campbell hosted an American Cities Against Drugs conference.
Here are my remarks at that time.

More recently, did he use controlled substances illegally? Did he have a substance misuse problem?

Or was he, once again, scamming the system -- this time in order to use valuable and scarce in-prison treatment resources to avoid some months of imprisonment?

The New York Times
March 5, 2008

Ex-Mayor of Atlanta Enrolled in Prison Drug Program After Denial of a Problem


ATLANTA -- The federal Bureau of Prisons allowed Bill Campbell, the former mayor of Atlanta now serving time for tax evasion, to shorten his sentence by enrolling in a drug treatment program just a few months after he told a federal judge that he had no substance abuse problems.

Mr. Campbell, originally sentenced to serve 30 months in prison and get out in February 2009, has completed the program and since December has been in a halfway house where he has a job and is eligible to go home on weekends, prison officials said. Completion of the residential treatment program allows up to a year to be deducted from an inmate’s sentence, and permits early transfer to a halfway house.

Mr. Campbell’s projected release date is in June, more than seven months short of his original sentence. About half of the reduction is because of good behavior in prison; the rest is because of his participation in the rehabilitation program.

But after Mr. Campbell’s conviction in 2006, his own lawyers argued in a sentencing memorandum that he should serve no prison time because of his clean record.

“Mr. Campbell is a well-educated man, with no health or substance abuse problems,” his lawyers wrote in the memorandum to the judge before sentencing.

He had no need of what they called the prison system’s “thinly spread” resources, they wrote. There is a waiting list for the drug treatment program.

Prison officials said inmates must offer documentation of prior substance abuse to enter the treatment program, but for privacy reasons they said they could not disclose whether Mr. Campbell submitted such proof.

The lawyers’ sentencing memorandum that cited Mr. Campbell’s sobriety, along with other court papers, was not reviewed when determining his eligibility for treatment, said Felicia Ponce, a spokeswoman for the bureau.

“We wouldn’t look at any evidence,” Ms. Ponce said. “We would look at the presentencing investigation report.”

The presentencing investigation report is written by a probation officer and is not a public document. But major discrepancies between that report and the defense sentencing memorandum are highly unusual, legal experts said.

The investigation report summarizes the defendant’s role in the crime, community ties, physical condition, substance abuse history and other details. Both prosecutors and defense lawyers review a draft of the report before it is submitted to the judge.

If there is no mention of a drug or alcohol problem in the presentencing report, inmates who want treatment must submit documentation of an abuse history from a doctor, treatment facility, psychologist or other “legitimate verifiable outside source,” Ms. Ponce said.

Mr. Campbell’s chief lawyer did not return phone calls requesting comment. The former mayor’s sentence reduction was first reported in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Mr. Campbell is no stranger to questionable documentation. At his trial, prosecutors presented evidence that many of his living expenses were paid with cash, rather than his salary.

Later they released a letter provided by the defense, purporting to have been written to Mr. Campbell by his mother before her death and claiming that she had provided the cash. The letter veered from legalese (“I, June Kay Campbell, have given my son thousands of dollars in cash gifts”) to sentiment (“It was done just between the two of us and I wanted you to have it, although you did not ever want it and always helped others”).

Gabe Pascarella, an Atlanta businessman who testified at the trial, said he was surprised to hear that Mr. Campbell, a close associate for two decades, had undergone substance abuse treatment.

“I was never, ever aware of any substance abuse problem he had with alcohol or anything else,” Mr. Pascarella said.

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