Historically, Americans and their political leaders have placed their faith in law enforcement to tame seemingly uncontrollable criminal elements. It is no different with drug traffickers.
During the Reagan Administration, major budget increases for the Drug Enforcement Administration were approved, the South Florida Task Force was created and the FBI got involved in drug interdiction for the first time. Governors, mayors and police chiefs applauded. It was the federal government's responsibility, they argued, to contain the cocaine tide at our borders. The government's failure to do so was why their city streets were turning into combat zones.
Beefing up law enforcement is also President Bush's approach to drug trafficking. Unfortunately, the return on this new investment promises to be no greater than that on the old: Only 10% of the drug shipments destined for the United States are interdicted. Worse, the influx has accelerated. Several record-breaking seizures (the largest was in Sylmar), seem to have had little or no effect on the availability of cocaine on the streets.
Public pressure on city halls and local police departments to get the pushers off the street is unrelenting. In response, many departments have enlarged their drug squads or tactical units. Highly publicized sweeps into drug-dealing areas are increasingly commonplace. In many cities, the numbers of street-level drug-related arrests have doubled, even tripled, during the past year.
But after street sweeps netted a record number of suspects, police chiefs in Washington and New York conceded that the arrests benefited their departments' public images more than they cut into drug dealing. Citizens, no doubt misled by all the "film at 11," may even believe that these operations represent a solid return for their tax dollars.
They are paying for a lot of police overtime. But since the supply of police officers cannot keep pace with the public clamor for drug arrests, taxpayers are receiving less overall protection.
Additional officers deployed in drug sweeps inevitably are drawn from the patrol pool or from special-assignment beats. A decrease in the number of patrol officers means that beats must be enlarged, that one car is patrolling an area formerly covered by two, or that traffic-law nforcement and investigations of burglary, theft, rape and so on receive less attention.
The emphasis on drug arrests has its human price as well. Hundreds of officers have been killed, thousands shot. The tensions associated with repeated crackhouse raids fuel burnout. Officers are angry and cynical at the legal system's seeming inability to keep criminals behind bars for long.
When these attitudes collide with cash-flashing drug dealers, corruption can follow. An officer earning $35,000 a year can boost his income by one-third just by turning his head. Ten Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department narcotics officers were recently indicted for stealing seized drug cash (one has pleaded guilty). FBI agents have taken bribes, an occurrence unknown before the drug war.
Although corruption in drug-enforcement agencies goes back decades, one big-city police chief recently said: "In 40 years of police work, I've never been more pessimistic. The police are vastly improved since I started--better educated, more representative of their communities, more restrained in the use of force. Yet, there is no light at the end of tunnel. We are losing the war on drugs.
"The murder rate in (one beat) is 25 times the national average and more than 100 times the lowest (beat rate) because of drugs. Middle-class recreational users generate more than 80% of the $150-billion drug traffic. Poor young men in inner cities kill one another like flies for a taste of the profits.
"We have been sucked in by the drug war's rhetoric. The law-enforcement approach costs too much in lives, injuries, fear and destroyed neighborhoods. It accomplishes little."
By reducing the enormous profits made by traffickers, dealers and money-launderers, drug legalization would help diminish official corruption and reduce drug-related crime. But decriminalization probably would not eliminate a black market for drugs. And it's unclear whether cheap and legal cocaine would lower the overall crime rate. In part, that would depend on what effect a drug's consumption had on an individual's self-control.
Experience suggests a better alternative: preventive policing. Normally, more than 50% of all police officers in the United States do patrol duty exclusively. They can best contribute to drug control by assisting community groups to exercise social control.
Parents, relatives, friends, neighbors, teachers, clergy, employers, etc. are the primary crime-fighters. They determine the values that make a neighborhood into a community. They have enough eyes, ears and influence to be effective. They alone can help the patrol officer who, on average, must protect 4,000 people.
Strong citizen-police teamwork offers the best hope of enabling communities to reclaim control of their neighborhoods from the drug dealers. Legalizing drugs or deposing dictators can't do that.