War on Drugs Policy Reform: Time to Return the Peace to Peace Officer

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In 1983, I was hired as a police officer in the community that I grew up in. If you had asked my friends, they would have said law enforcement was an unlikely professional choice for me, but I understood that it would not just challenge me personally, but that I could also make an impact in other people’s lives. So I took my oath of office and attended the academy, where I was given the basic tools necessary to enter an incredibly complex profession. What I learned immediately is that the most vital skill that law enforcement uses is effective communication. I believe that words matter and that what is currently lacking in the administration of justice is that we no longer emphasize the “peace” in “peace officer.”

In the United States, law enforcement agencies have statewide credentialing organizations aptly named Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) which is tasked with ensuring the professionalism of the police. In California, in addition to POST, the law also designates us as peace officers with policing authority. Philosophically we have strayed from the mission of being peace officers and I would argue that we have instead become “police officers” by virtue of our failed national drug policy. The distinction is a subtle one, as there are times that as professionals we must “police” people who are harming others, but I believe our core mission is to be peacekeepers within our communities by serving others.

What I learned immediately is that the most vital skill that law enforcement uses is effective communication.

In order to discuss the impact of the drug war on policing we must understand the purpose of law enforcement. Law enforcement authority was established as a theory of a social contract that recognized obligations between constituents and government. Kardasz notes that as members of a community we agree to abide by the rules and laws of our state and cede our right to defend ourselves and our property to the police. Sir Robert Peel, the father of modern policing, developed ethical principles that clarified the roles and relationship of the police and the public they serve. He posited that “The ability of the police to perform their duties is dependent upon public approval of police actions.” As our federal government continues to impose a one-tool solution to the political problem of drug use in America, I believe the public’s support of law enforcement’s effort in waging the drug war is waning, and with it, the moral authority from which it derives it power.

In the court of public opinion, a recent Rasmussen poll reflected that only 7% of Americans believed that the United States is winning the War on Drugs. I stand with others polled who believe that our national drug policy is an abject failure. Every society in history has used mind-altering substances of one form or another. The smart ones have acted to reduce the harm of that use rather than trying to prevent it altogether. Throughout my 21 year career in law enforcement I saw the damage that this  war on human nature has caused. The unintended consequences of trying to achieve a drug-free America have done more damage to  those we have sworn to serve. From opinion pieces to headlines, we are inundated with stories of police misconduct, excessive force allegations, personal corruption and what is now known as Machiavellian police corruption, where the police officer believes they are acting correctly because the end justifies the means.

The survey revealed that when asked if the War on Drugs had been successful in reducing drug use 82% of our national law enforcement leaders stated no.

One recent example, a piece in the New York Times titled “Why Police Lie Under Oath” by Michelle Alexander, was gut wrenching to me, not less so because it’s a topic largely ignored by police professionals across the United States. Alexander clearly points out the Machiavellian effect the Drug War has had on our profession with distinct examples of how and why police lie in order to meet quotas, obtain promotions or simply because they can as they are more respected within the community. But these lies, although not publicly supported, can and do at times occur with a wink and a nod as just one more aspect of the means justify the ends in saving American’s from themselves.

The recognition that our national drug policy has not been successful is not news. Our law enforcement leadership cadre admitted as much in survey conducted in 2005 by the National Association of Chiefs of Police (NACOP). The survey revealed that when asked if the War on Drugs had been successful in reducing drug use 82% of our national law enforcement leaders stated no. In light of these findings, why have our political and law enforcement leaders not recognized the impact of the drug war on relationships between police and the communities they serve? Since Nixon initiated the “War on Drugs” in 1970, each and every president, attorney general and drug czar has tried to perpetuate the perception that we are winning the war. In addition to playing cheerleader, the federal government has funded the expansion of the War on Drugs through both increased grants and by allowing local police departments to share money and other property seized through federal asset forfeiture laws. Currently as a nation we spend more than 41.3 billion dollars a year in continuing to wage a rhetorical war on an unachievable goal of a “drug free” America.

Drug Abuse Resistance Education: Mandatory for all school children since the 80s!

But this continued optimism and funding has a significant cost to our society. It results in law enforcement and other policy makers’ unremitting support in a mandate that no one is willing to challenge contributing to a groupthink mentality. Consequently, the public recognizes the impact of the Drug War as a failure as they watch their neighbors, families and friends suffer the consequence of discriminatory laws impacting not just minorities but all Americans, and resulting in the tearing of the social contract between law enforcement and the citizens they serve.

Both the federal government and law enforcement leaders have largely refused to admit that in attempting to win an unwinnable war they have lost the trust of the very people they have sworn to protect. In a situation similar to our entrenchment in Vietnam, our politicians and law enforcement leaders know that this war is unwinnable, but continue to sacrifice their officers and their communities by not searching for the truth. In 399 B.C., Socrates, reflecting on life’s purpose, challenged the Athenian government, saying, “There you are mistaken: a man who is good for anything ought not to calculate the chance of living or dying; he ought only to consider whether in doing anything he is doing right or wrong – acting the part of a good man or of a bad.”

Both the federal government and law enforcement leaders have largely refused to admit that in attempting to win an unwinnable war they have lost the trust of the very people they have sworn to protect.

From my experience in law enforcement, I believe we have a moral imperative to critically analyze public policy by questioning how we enforce social order and demand that above all we aspire to conduct ourselves as Socrates envisioned governance by knowing and doing good above all else. By using this lens to study what the role of law enforcement should be, we can reflect upon and correctly assess the destruction of the peace officer and its effect on our society. Clearly, it is time to end the Drug War and return the peace to the term “peace officer.” We must engage in a discussion that challenges our politicians and law enforcement leaders to design policy based on science and harm reduction strategies that includes compassion and human rights.

Feature Photo: Johnny Silvercloud/flickr