Lessons Learned From DEA Agent Hank Schrader As Breaking Bad Begins Final Season

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Since the Drug War’s inception there have been a myriad of movies and television shows that have captured the many failings of prohibition. From HBO’s The Wire and Boardwalk Empire, to Traffic on the big screen, they have all provided fictional glimpses into why prohibition can never be achieved. But I believe the best modern-day morality play which captures the complete and utter failure of our national drug policy is Breaking Bad.

The show captures the nexus between prohibition, morality and philosophy even spawning a book entitled “Breaking Bad and Philosophy: Badder Living Through Chemistry.”

I was hooked early on when Jesse asked Mr. White, “Some straight like you is just going to break bad?” to last season when Walter uttered this famous line “I’m not in danger, I am the danger.”

As much as I love the character Walter though, I am not going to write about his moral failings as he descends into self-deception to justify his actions on the love of his family. I want to focus on the macro view of how the Drug War has changed and damaged not just individuals, but our law enforcement institutions.

The character of Hank Schrader, Walter’s brother-in-law who also happens to be a DEA Agent, is in some senses the archetype police officer as portrayed by the media. He distinctly represents the obsessive nature of the cops and robbers game that drug enforcement has become. Inherently Hank is good, like most of us are that chose to become part of law enforcement, but his quest for the elusive “Heisenberg” (Walter) starts him on a path that leads him to violate policy, procedure, his own ethics, and the constitutional rights of Jesse and others. There are many writers that believe Hank is the only character left that is good:

“When you boil it down and compare him to all the other major players Hank is the only truly “good” person. Sure he started off as kind of a shithead, and sure he beat up Jesse in a fit of emotion, and sure he took out all of his frustrations on his wife during his recovery, but he’s the only primary character who hasn’t crossed the line into moral hazard at any point throughout the series…”

-Idrees Kahloon, Harvard University Institute of Politics and Law

But I would disagree as many of the writers may be great critics, but they don’t know law enforcement and how unacceptable Hank’s incremental violations of the law are. Hank’s moral failings are not just individual failings like Walter’s, but they expose the system of prohibition and the collapse of our criminal justice system to adequately deal with the inherent corruption caused by the law.

Aaron Paul as Jesse Pinkman and Bryan Cranston as Walter White, the best meth cooks in the Southwest.  The finale season of Breaking Bad begins August 11 on AMC.

Aaron Paul as Jesse Pinkman and Bryan Cranston as Walter White, the best meth cooks in the Southwest.
The finale season of Breaking Bad begins August 11 on AMC.

Law Enforcement corruption is multi-faceted. Personal gain, abuse of authority or “Noble Cause” corruption has existed long before our modern-day Drug War, but has been exacerbated greatly by our government in their elusive quest to be drug free.

In an article written for the FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin the author discusses many of the ethical issues in law enforcement. One of his points is that the war analogy has contributed to the pressure on law enforcement on obtaining results, thus contributing to corruption.

He used the example of a convicted police officer who stated in an interview, “The pressure is to produce, to show activity, to get the collars. It’s all about numbers, like the body count in Vietnam.” He then clarified that “It is this push for results by administrators that some officers can interpret as their agencies not caring or wanting to know how those results are obtained.” It’s this equation of war, drugs and policing that has produced many of the scandals that have played prominently in the media the last forty years.

Retired Police Chief Dr. Joseph McNamara, a Research Fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, as well as a member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition addressed the International Conference on Drug Policy Reform and had this to say on the subject of the Drug War and its impact on corruption:

“When you’re telling cops that they’re soldiers in a Drug War, you’re destroying the whole concept of the citizen peace officer, a peace officer whose fundamental duty is to protect life and be a community servant. General Colin Powell told us during the Persian Gulf War what a soldier’s duty is. It’s to kill the enemy. And when we allowed our politicians to push cops into a war that they’ll never win, they can’t win, and let them begin to think of themselves as soldiers, the mentality comes that anything goes. We look at the rationalization of the crooked cops in New York, who robbed the drug dealers– guess what? The Los Angeles sheriff’s deputies who robbed the drug dealers here had the same rationalization. They said, why should these guys keep all the money? They’re animals. They’re enemy. And they told the drug dealers, you’re nothing, you have no rights, and we can do whatever we want. It’s a war, after all.”

But it’s not just the war analogies that are corrupting. It is the failure of law enforcement leaders to recognize that the policy of prohibition is clearly more harmful to our society than drug use is. I understand that for many Americans drug use is morally objectionable, but I would argue that although drug abuse is bad, the Drug War is clearly more harmful and ultimately hypocritical.

Breaking Bad exposes many of those hypocrisies in our criminal justice system which include the disparity in enforcement, the lack of recognition that it’s the profitability of the illicit market that drives the violence, not drugs, and how the policy affects even those sworn to do good.

So, as the much anticipated last season starts my happy ending would be Hank walking away from his job, finally admitting how his quest for Heisenberg not just destroyed himself, but a profession that should do no harm. It’s a pipe dream I know, but one that I cling too as I strive to bring back balance to the scales of justice sadly disturbed by the blind pursuit of drugs.

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What Breaking Bad REALLY Tells Us About The War On Drugs: 

What Breaking Bad REALLY Tells Us about the War on Drugs from Brave New Foundation on Vimeo.