The Drug War’s Collateral Damage

Drug prohibition militarizes our police, enriches our enemies, undermines our laws, and condemns our sick to suffering.

At around 6pm on January 27 of last year, 80-year-old Isaac Singletaryspotted a couple of drug dealers attempting to do business on his frontlawn. It wasn’t the first time. Singletary, described by relatives asterritorial and a bit crotchety, did what he’d done in the past. Hegrabbed his gun, and walked out on to his lawn to scare them off.Problem is, this time the men weren’t drug dealers. They wereundercover Jacksonville, Florida police posing as drug dealers.

Theyhad come on to Singletary’s property to bait possible drug offenders.When he brandished his gun, the police shot Singletary four times, oncein the back. He died a short time later. A subsequent investigation byFlorida’s attorney general cleared the officers who shot Singletary ofany wrongdoing.

As many police officers internalize the mentality that they’re fightinga “war,” police-community relations have soured, and many officers haveadopted the “us or them” mindset typically seen in soldiers. Here’sformer Kansas City and San Jose police chief Joseph McNamara, in a 2006 op-edWall Street Journal:

Simplyput, the police culture in our country has changed. An emphasis on”officer safety” and paramilitary training pervades today’s policing,in contrast to the older culture, which held that cops didn’t shootuntil they were about to be shot or stabbed. Police in large citiesformerly carried revolvers holding six .38-caliber rounds. Nowadays,police carry semi-automatic pistols with 16 high-caliber rounds,shotguns and military assault rifles, weapons once relegated to SWATteams facing extraordinary circumstances. Concern about such firepowerin densely populated areas hitting innocent citizens has given way toan attitude that the police are fighting a war against drugs and crimeand must be heavily armed.

The military’s task is to conquer and annihilate a foreign enemy (as former Reagan administration official Lawrence Korb once put it,it’s “to vaporize, not Mirandize”). The police are charged withprotecting the public order, but without sacrificing the rights of thecitizenry. It’s dangerous to conflate the two. But that seems to bewhere we’re headed. Our politicians have dressed our police likesoldiers, trained them in paramilitary tactics, given them militaryweapons and armor, and told them they’re fighting a “war.” We shouldn’tbe surprised if and when some police officers take that message toheart.