Drugs, Money Add Up to Temptation for Police
Is it the tip of an iceberg or a minor aberration?
Signs of corruption among narcotics law enforcement officers are cropping up from one end of the country to the other: big city cops in New York, Washington and Miami, rural sheriffs in Georgia, a federal prosecutor in Boston and government agents and customs officials in California.
No one is certain how widespread the taint may be. No one keeps such statistics. But, although authorities insist that most police, prosecutors and agents are honest and dedicated, the suspicion is growing that corruption is more widespread than at any time since Prohibition.
What makes the current situation so disturbing is that the rewards of corruption have never looked so tempting.
Illicit drugs and cash go hand in hand: Millions and millions of dollars are packed in briefcases, bags, boxes and suitcases waiting to be laundered or smuggled out of the country.
When narcotic officers raid a drug peddler’s house these days, they sometimes find hundreds of thousands of dollars, along with massive amounts of cocaine. Cash-rich drug dealers can tempt lawmen with a small fortune for inside information or protection.
“The amount of money is so overwhelming that these dealers can pay what it would take police officers five to 10 years to make,” said Hubert Williams, president of the Washington-based Police Foundation, a police research and advocacy group.
Finding and arresting drug dealers is often stressful and dangerous, requiring undercover narcotics officers to work long hours and to mix with criminals to gather information. Yet the amount they earn to support their families is only a small fraction of the money they recover.
In addition, according to law enforcement specialists, fighting a seemingly endless and hopeless battle against drugs sometimes creates cynicism, especially when many of those arrested escape severe punishment.
“You’ve got the hot dogs who really make a career (of fighting drugs), who like the danger and see it as part of their job in protecting the public,” said Gerald Caiden, a USC public administration professor who has specialized in studying law enforcement.
“At the other end, you have those who become cynical, burned out and say, ‘What the hell, who am I against a rising tide?’ I assume that some of those slide under the line. If you can’t beat them, join them.”
Profiting from drug-trafficking can sometimes be as easy as allowing contraband to cross the border, selling information or looking the other way when smugglers land airplanes on country roads. For example:
When U.S. Customs Service investigators searched the San Diego home of Jose Angel Barron, 41, a $13,000-a-year part-time inspector at the San Ysidro border station, they found $65,000 in cash. They found $580,000 more at his mother’s home. Federal officials believe that Barron took bribes totaling $1 million. He was sentenced to 17 years in prison and fined $1.7 million in September.
In Boston, a former member of the U.S. Justice Department’s Organized Crime Strike Force, David P. Twomey, 40, was convicted in early 1986 of selling confidential information to a marijuana smuggler for $210,000 and a 30-foot speedboat.
In southern Georgia, rural lawmen have been offered from $50,000 to $150,000 to ignore light planes carrying drug shipments when they land on rural roads or at makeshift strips, according to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.
“If you think that corruption in foreign countries with drug problems can’t reach the U.S., just look at many police departments here at home,” said Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House Narcotics Committee.
Across the country, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration reports that since 1983, 10 of its active agents have been convicted of drug offenses, including taking bribes, making drug deals and revealing secret grand jury testimony.
In Los Angeles, three former DEA agents were recently charged with conspiring to launder hundreds of thousands of dollars through Swiss banks. Investigators suspect the three of aiding drug dealers with tips on pending investigations and arrests.
Prosecutors portrayed the former agents as men hooked on a life of luxury that included expensive homes, a red Ferrari for one of them and frequent trips to Europe.
Philip B. Heymann, who headed the criminal division of the U.S. attorney general’s office during the Carter Administration, said law enforcement has long worried about the dangers of corruption in narcotics investigations.
“It’s the reason that Hoover (the late FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover) didn’t want to handle drugs,” said Heymann, director of the Center for Criminal Justice at Harvard.
“When you think about the mechanics of the situation: One or two officers making an arrest search and find something small in size and worth a fortune. And, dealing with a person who has lots of cash, you have a situation that is tempting to lawyers, agents, anybody.
“I don’t have any idea how widespread it (corruption) is. Every place we look, we seem to find it. Our experience in New York, in Boston, in Miami and in Los Angeles demonstrates it is a substantial problem.”
In New York City’s crime-ridden Bedford-Stuyvesant section, 13 police officers were suspended in September, 1986, and charged with stealing and selling drugs, accepting bribes from drug dealers and peddling guns. All 27 of the 77th Precinct top supervisory officers were transferred by the police commissioner “to recover the confidence of the people.”
In Washington, the FBI is investigating vice officers suspected of skimming narcotics and money seized in raids. From 300 to 400 drug cases investigated by a 16-member squad are expected to be dismissed because of irregularities.
In Miami, federal grand jurors accused a dozen officers of the city’s troubled 1,000-member police force last year of stealing and reselling $15 million in cocaine.
Down South, Georgia Bureau of Investigations Director J. Robert Hamrick said that several sheriffs have been charged with drug trafficking during the last decade as smugglers shifted their operations from the Miami area because of law enforcement pressure.
Sheriff Ernest Wyatt Forrest, 57, of Crisp County, Ga., was arrested in a sting operation in December. Investigators said they offered him $60,000 to protect a planeload of marijuana.
Drug-related offenses were found nationwide when the Customs Service investigated corruption among its 17,000 employees in Operation Clean Sweep, a yearlong probe concluded in 1987.
William Green, associate customs commissioner for internal affairs, said in a telephone phone interview that about 20 employees were charged and another 60 were fired because of violations discovered in the investigation.
Since Operation Clean Sweep, Green said, the Customs Service has had “just a few cases of drug-related matters,” perhaps half a dozen, ranging from drug use to trafficking in small amounts. “It’s still too many, but that ain’t bad,” he said.
To combat internal corruption, he said, the Customs Service has instituted a “field associate” program that trains employees who volunteer for the job of watching their fellow workers for serious violations and reporting directly to internal affairs.
At the DEA, Public Affairs Director William Alden said the “dramatic increase” in drugs and drug-generated money has increased the temptation to break the law. Realizing that, he said, the agency relies on internal controls to deter dishonesty.
“We feel fortunate that we have had as few occasions of what was charged in Los Angeles, considering the tremendous temptation,” he said. “One is too many. It’s unacceptable, but considering that we have nearly 3,000 agents, the level, from our view, is very small.
“Each of us has been in a position to lay hands on large sums of money. Cash is an absolute necessity in drug transactions. Large sums of cash are the rule. As a result, our system has been designed to monitor and try to remove that temptation.”
Just how great a temptation the huge influx of drugs and the generation of enormous amounts of cash can be is revealed in the DEA’s latest statistics.
During the first nine months of the 1988 fiscal year, DEA agents seized 88,000 pounds of cocaine, 13,000 pounds of heroin, 687,689 pounds of marijuana and 92,860,867 dosages of dangerous drugs nationwide. The agency also seized $655 million in assets, including $225 million in cash.
Millions in cash and thousands of pounds of drugs are also found by other federal and local law enforcement agencies. For example, the Los Angeles Police Department seized $22,157,147 in cash, more than three tons of cocaine and nearly 20 pounds of heroin during the year as of Aug. 31, according to 1988 statistics.
Jerome H. Skolnick, a UC Berkeley law professor who has studied the corruption threat, likened the illicit drug trade to Prohibition in the role played by organized crime.
“There is a lot of money involved, and the people who engage in these crimes are businesslike, and they have a lot to gain by corrupting officials,” he said. “Whatever corruption we find is the tip of the corruption iceberg. It means that corruption is very difficult to ascertain and to prove.
“The key question is whether this little group of three (former DEA agents charged in Los Angeles) is a group of rotten apples or are they representative of the barrel,” he said.
“Every police department has corrupt officers at one time or another. The question is whether that corruption . . . is part of a system. I don’t know whether the DEA’s is. If it’s a systemic problem, it’s a tremendous problem.”
Ultimately, he said, the amount of corruption is a question of morality.
“There are dedicated police officers who won’t take anything, but here is also a tremendous temptation because there is so much money involved. The chances of being caught are relatively slight. . . . It’s very difficult to catch a police officer. . . . They know what the investigators are up to.”
The problem of police corruption is growing, according to the Police Foundations’s Williams, who served as Newark, N.J., police chief for 11 years.
He said the situation is causing police chiefs to seek new enforcement tools, such as random drug testing.
One of those favoring testing is Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl F. Gates.
Gates wants to randomly test every member of the Los Angeles Police Department, not just probationary officers, who have been tested at random for the last 18 months, according to Police Department spokesman Cmdr. William Booth.
Booth said the chief became convinced four or five years ago that specialists were needed to investigate narcotics complaints against members of the department and ordered the formation of a special 16-member unit in the Internal Affairs Division.
Members of the group examine every drug complaint, anonymous or not, against all Police Department officers and civilian employees, Booth said.
During the last three or four years, Booth said, an average of 10 sworn officers a year have been separated from the department for “chipping around” with narcotics. “Just about all of it has been use and abuse,” he said. “Nothing at a major corruption level.”