Cops Gone Wild: What T-Shirtgate Exposes About Police Culture

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Can someone pass the Advil? I have had a raging headache keeping up with the media coverage on what can only be described as T-Shirtgate. Last week a San Diego multi-jurisdictional Narcotics Task Force (NTF) consisting of the San Diego Sheriff’s Department, DEA and other state and local agencies served a search warrant on an indoor marijuana cultivation facility which the owner claims is in compliance with state law. One of the investigators was wearing an obscene t-shirt, the language of which has sparked outrage.  But reports on the issue missed the bigger picture about the profanity-laced message:

“Marijuana Eradication, San Diego, CA Fuck the Growers…Marijuana is still illegal”

I know many good police officers that don’t share these views and would not have conducted themselves in this manner, yet we need to have this discussion in order to quantify the damage to the institution of law enforcement as a whole. Michael Cindrich, a former prosecutor and current criminal defense attorney representing individuals accused of marijuana related offenses shared his experiences with the NTF.

The incident in San Diego highlights the problem with having multi-jurisdictional task forces comprised of both state and federal agents. While state agents are responsible for upholding California law, federal agents are responsible for eradicating the medical marijuana industry. I have seen firsthand the disrespect for California medical marijuana laws by state and federal agencies. It ranges from those who are ignorant of the laws and have no real desire to learn them, to those who disagree with these laws and will take whatever interpretation of them that will serve their goals of suppressing the industry.

According to Americans for Safe Access the investigator in question has been identified as a sergeant and was the supervisor in charge of the raid. This raises even more questions which includes who’s supervising the supervisor? Although agency administrators have condemned the actions of the sergeant, we still have rogue policies that create rogue officers and validate offensive acts like this one.

Condemnation of the public behavior of one officer is great, but it’s ignoring a larger issue. The media on the story simply saw this t-shirt scandal as a single incident of misconduct rather than asking why it is that the officers believed it was appropriate to wear such a shirt in the first place. The media failed to address the corrupting influence of the drug war on the police, particularly narcotics officers.

The conservative icon William F. Buckley once famously stated in the National Review:

Narcotics police are an enormous, corrupt international bureaucracy…The anti-marijuana campaign is a cancerous tissue of lies, undermining law enforcement, aggravating the drug problem, depriving the sick of needed help, and suckering well-intentioned conservatives and countless frightened parents.

T-Shirtgate is a symptom of a “cops gone wild” subculture which exists where law enforcement is socialized into alienating itself from the very community it serves. This subculture has its own sets of values that impact the rule of law and is made worse by training that supports the us versus them mentality portrayed in this case.

I have written in the past that there is a disregard for state law in narcotics investigative training in the Golden State, specifically by the California Narcotics Officers Association (CNOA) and how their training contributes to undermining not only the Compassionate Use Act, but the rule of law. I would guarantee that all the members of the Marijuana Eradication Unit have attended training by and are members of the CNOA. I will also guarantee you that somewhere in their training they have heard the statement “fuck the growers.”

I know, as I was one of the law enforcement officers going through training in the early years of the Compassionate Use Act. Our instructions were nothing more than a disregard for the new law. They encouraged us to take patients’ medicine, cite them and force the patient to bring a medical provider to court to prove otherwise. Although there has been an evolution in law enforcement practices which were mandated by changes in the law, the CNOA just implemented a more sophisticated training model that in essence accomplishes the same thing.

It’s not the profanity on the shirt that should bother the citizens of San Diego but rather that the ease and comfort with which the sergeant wore it speaks to the culture war surrounding the issue of marijuana.

According to the local news, Sheriff Bill Gore had this to say about this matter: “This shirt is not approved or condoned by the Sheriff’s Department. Its message is vulgar and not representative of who we are and the values we uphold. Appropriate administrative action will be taken.”

I question whether he acknowledges what’s below the surface of this issue. There is a systemic institutional issue in his narcotics unit and others driven by training and a forty-year failed drug war heavily influenced by the federal government which disregards state law and an unwillingness to accept the paradigm shift that is occurring on all levels surrounding marijuana. This is evident not just by what the t-shirt said but who wore it. So William F. Buckley was right; it’s the corrupting influence of prohibition that continues to impact the only thing law enforcement has, which is its reputation.

I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: the only way to save law enforcement from themselves is by ending the drug war.

For previous articles about the War on Drugs, click here.