« Nearly four years(!?!) in federal prison for MLB scout who hacked into rival team's research and notes | Main | Perhaps previewing coming SCOTUS work in Beckles, four Eleventh Circuit judges make case against circuit's refusal to apply Johnson to guidelines »

July 19, 2016

Has the drug war really "made policing more violent"?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this new Democracy commentary authored by Jonathan Blanks that carries this full headline: "The War on Drugs Has Made Policing More Violent: What can be done to curb the excessive and, sometimes, predatory policing that has emerged from the Drug War?".  Here are excerpts from the piece:

American policing today has become increasingly aggressive and, at times, even predatory. Policies and tactics have evolved to make police contact more confrontational. In so doing, they have increased the chances of violence and fatal uses of force. This has been particularly true of efforts aimed at fighting the Drug War. Police are incentivized to initiate unnecessary contact with pedestrians and motorists, and they do so most often against ethnic and racial minorities. Such over-policing engenders resentment among minority communities and jeopardizes public safety.

Some of the Drug War’s most disturbing images involve police officers in SWAT gear, kicking down doors, ransacking homes and endangering the lives of everyone inside during pre-dawn raids. Officers rummaging through a car for drug contraband while the driver sits helplessly on the sidewalk as onlookers drive by may be less violent, but is just as invasive and degrading. This experience can be humiliating under any circumstance, and any perception of race as playing a role in the stop piles resentment on top of humiliation.

The “pretextual” or “investigatory” stop is a common police tactic to investigate potential criminal activity — particularly drug possession and trafficking — in situations where there is no legal reason to suspect a crime is occurring. There is not a large amount of data on how often these stops produce contraband seizures, but what data there is suggests that the overwhelming majority of people who are stopped are guilty of no crime. Much like the pedestrian stops during the heyday of New York City’s “Stop and Frisk” program, most of the motorists stopped for investigatory purposes are black or Hispanic. Those who are stopped are often pressured to give consent to a search the officer has no legal right to demand.

There is evidence that some police departments, particularly state police and drug task forces in the American interior, target motorists with out-of-state plates in the hopes of finding drug proceeds and other unexplained cash. Cash-driven interdiction is the result of asset forfeiture laws that allow police departments to keep the proceeds of assets seized in connection with suspected crimes. This “policing for profit” puts budgetary concerns above public safety.

Officers are also trained to prepare for the possibility of violence in every encounter. Anti-police attacks such as the recent tragedies in Dallas and Baton Rouge heighten the fear and trepidation some officers feel in the field. While fewer police officers are feloniously killed in the line of duty per year than at almost any time in American history, officers who find themselves in stressful situations may be more likely to resort to the use of force, including deadly force, in order to maintain their sense of control during such encounters.

In short, the laws and tactics employed to fight the Drug War have transformed police officers from those who protect and serve to a force that, too often, actively searches the innocent and seizes for profit. Aggressive and antagonistic policing also increases the likelihood of disagreement, thereby increasing the possibility of escalation and the use of force that could lead to the injury or death of an innocent person. But the effects of aggressive policing extend beyond the outcome of any given police stop.

Although a majority of Americans express a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the police, the same is not true across all racial and ethnic lines. Less than one-third of black respondents to a Gallup poll expressed a large amount of confidence in the police. And while a majority of Hispanics still have a lot of confidence in the police, just over 40 percent of other nonwhites do. Research by Charles Epp and others at the University of Kansas shows that support for police declines when individuals and the people they know have negative police experiences, particularly through investigatory stops.

This lack of confidence in the police can endanger communities. As Jill Leovy documented in her book Ghettoside, the poor relationships officers have with black Los Angelenos hinders homicide clearance rates and prosecutions. At the same time, the “broken windows” policing strategy that focuses on heavy enforcement of petty crimes has been shown to have no effect on the felony crime rate, the premise on which the strategy is based.  Together, these create a tragic contradiction in which black communities are over-policed for drugs and petty crimes, but under-policed for homicides and other violent crimes.

I would generally agree with the suggestion that the drug war has contributed to the over-policing of many communities, particularly poorer communities, and I also fear that the drug war has contributed to strained relationships between police forces and certain communities. But I am not sure I would assert that the drug war has itself "made policing more violent": rather, based in part on experiences during alcohol Prohibition a century ago, I would be more inclined to assert that efforts to treat drug use and abuse through blanket prohibitions and criminal justice interventions creates the conditions for a society that has less respect for criminal laws and for police efforts to enforce order, and that in turn makes everyone involved in this part of the criminal justice system more prone to look to violence rather than to law as a means for securing order.

Some prior related posts:

July 19, 2016 at 04:42 PM | Permalink


Radley Balko would disagree with you Doug.

Posted by: federalist | Jul 19, 2016 5:07:59 PM

Grew up in Texas when driving with slightly long hair was a capital offense, summarily imposed by police and featured at least once or twice a month on the local news. Compared to then, what is happening today is relatively minor. What has changed is smart phones and the 24-hour news cycle makes isolated incidents across the nation seem like a pattern.

Posted by: tmm | Jul 19, 2016 5:12:32 PM

Think how bad it would be if they outlawed tobacco.

Posted by: Liberty1st | Jul 19, 2016 5:23:46 PM

...or alcohol for that matter.

Posted by: Ed | Jul 19, 2016 7:57:56 PM

Hi Doug,

longtime fan. Thanks for sharing the piece.

As with most posts on outlets, I didn't write the headline. The thrust of my post was an attempt to show that the seemingly banal ways in which we enforce the Drug War and the incentives that we've created are more violent than they appear at first blush. Indeed, policing has generally been a violent business since day 1, in its various forms, so I don't mean to imply the police writ large are necessarily more violent than they were in, say, 1968. In many ways, policing is more professional than it has ever been. But instead of finishing the headline with an implied "than it was before," it could be finished "than it has to be/should be".

However, I don't fully buy that this violence is a result of less respect for the law. Indeed, if blacks and whites use drugs at similar rates, as most polling indicates, you have--on net--much more disrespect for the blanket prohibition among whites due to their majority status, but you less often see the disrespect for the law enforcers in the situations that end in violence. Yet, these laws are not implemented as harshly or as stringently in predominantly white communities so the "society" isn't less tolerant of drug enforcement; it's the policies that ensnare and humiliate law-abiding citizens in communities that contribute to the resentment and disrespect of the enforcers, not the laws themselves. To that end, I recently published a law review article on the effects of pretextual stops on police legitimacy in a Case Western Reserve symposium on Whren v. US. I'd be happy to send it along if you're interested.

But again, thank you for your comments and for sharing the piece. Been a longtime fan of your work.



Posted by: Jonathan Blanks | Jul 20, 2016 2:51:56 PM

Thanks for chiming in, Jonathan, and I had an inkling the headline was not yours, especially because the text did not really make the point that the headline flags.

On substance, your points about difference views by racial cohort to the drug war actually plays into my sense of why poorer and minority communities are inclined to have more violent police-citizen encounters. Communities that are over-policed realize that other communities are involved in drug/illegal behaviors and yet are not subject to as much attention/scrutiny, and that breeds an extra layers of resentment. Having misguided laws over-enforced in your community is bad enough, having them over-enforced ONLY in your community makes matters even worse.

Thanks for the nice comments and thoughtful engagement and for all your work.

Posted by: Doug B. | Jul 21, 2016 10:32:54 AM

Oh good grief Doug/Jonathan.

Jonathan: "Indeed, if blacks and whites use drugs at similar rates, as most polling indicates, you have--on net--much more disrespect for the blanket prohibition among whites due to their majority status, but you less often see the disrespect for the law enforcers in the situations that end in violence. Yet, these laws are not implemented as harshly or as stringently in predominantly white communities so the "society" isn't less tolerant of drug enforcement; it's the policies that ensnare and humiliate law-abiding citizens in communities that contribute to the resentment and disrespect of the enforcers, not the laws themselves."

Could people get their stories straight--isn't it the standard left-lib pablum that drug use is a public health issue? So now, when it suits liberal worldview, drug usage is now indicative of a disrespect for law? And then we leap into the "oh, the cops are tougher in the 'hood line, which, of course, breeds resentment"--have either of you ever lived in a predominantly black neighborhood? (The off-campus apartment doesn't count.) Have either of you ridden a city bus to school every day where every single person on that bus was black, except you? I have, when crime was far higher than it is today. Newsflash, there is going to be a different policing strategy in 1980s Bed-Stuy than 1980s Whitestone--and another newsflash, not all drug crimes are the same---the heroin addict isn't the heroin dealer, and if we're going to get all racial about things--can't it be argued that the flooding of drugs into Maine is an example of whites being exploited by largely minority criminals? I get it, aggressive police activity visited on the law-abiding IS going to cause resentment, but tendentiously ignoring the reality that policing needs to be different in different places is intellectually dishonest.

Doug, "over-policed"--you do realize that cops keep a lid on a ton of violence in the inner city. And you can bet your sweet bippie that that suburban kids dealing heroin in suburban schools are going to get a ton of response from the cops. Suburban parents don't have a sense of humor about that nonsense and most don't care that it's Johnny who swims at the club pool that is peddling it.

Posted by: federalist | Jul 21, 2016 12:51:01 PM

I think the story coming from the left is pretty consistent, federalist: drug use/abuse should be treated as a public health issue, and it is, practically speaking, treated this way in by suburban parent in suburban schools. I live in, and my kids go to, the high school in my suburban neighborhood that has a well-known reputation as the "rich kids" druggie school. And I am unaware of any parent who is actively urging the federal/state/local police to be a bigger presence in the school. And I certainly have not seen any media reports of any suburban kids doing any perp walks (or heard them complaining about being regularly pulled over for no apparent reason when they are in the "high-crime" area of the high school).

I do not at all disagree that policing "needs to be differnet in different places," or even that having more police precence in the inner city may reduce violence in some ways. But, again drawing on the history of alcohol prohibition, I think that strict drug prohibition and enforcement efforts makes black markets more violent, which in turn becomes a jusification for still more enforcement efforts along the lines you wish to justify.

Posted by: Doug B. | Jul 21, 2016 1:30:12 PM

Doug, it's, of course ok to have the view that drug laws are dumb etc. But that's not the majority view, and (we've had this debate before) it's not fair to blame the cops for enforcing the law.

But once again, you employ your non-defense defense of my charges:

1) The story from the left is that it's a public health issue. But here's it's used to make some weird point that disrespect for the law is the same in white populations. You failed to address.

2) I pointed out that LE policies are going to be different in different places because Mr. Blanks DID NOT ACKNOWLEDGE THAT, and in my opinion tendentiously so. It detracts from his argument.

3) Re: Suburbs. Once again, tendentious--no one thinks that aggressive policing is necessary in most suburban public schools because the crimes people typically associate with "high-crime areas" don't happen there. Drug use is behind closed doors and, given the Fourth Amendment, pretty hard to root out. However, my guess is that there would be little mercy shown to some white kid plying heroin to his schoolmates in those schools. Nothing you have said undermines that point.

4) Of course, you'll never address the point I make about Maine.

Posted by: federalist | Jul 21, 2016 1:49:58 PM


1. It IS now indisputably the majority view that blanket marijuana prohibition laws are dumb, and the fact that other drug prohibition criminal laws are not aggressively enforced among the privileged elite --- and here I think class matters much more than race --- in large part explains (1) why there is not stronger maroritarian opposition to these laws, and(2) why I said, in response to Jonathan in my 10:32am remark, that I do not think white disrespect is at the same level as black disrespect. (Indeed, critical race theories like Michele Alexander would be quick to make the point that majority white populations support and have respect for existing drugs laws precisely because they serve now as a means to create a "New Jim Crow").

2. You seem unable to understand or see the import of the fact that LE policies are going "to be different in different places" not only because of different crime patterns but also because elites/majorities/monied interests are going to support different types of enforcement. Consider college campuses, where there are certainly more drug, underage drinking offenses per capita than any other neighborhood. But I unaware of a single college campus (let alone the more elite ones) in which there is a police presence that is anything comparable to what we see in most inner cities. By making this point, I am not complaining about this reality, nor am I saying police should pull out of the inner city (which many think is functionally going on after Feguson), nor am I seeking to "blame the cops" for enforcing (or not enforcing) the laws. Rather, I am trying to help you better see how facile it is to fault anyone for failing to talk in a short piece about the reality that LE policies are different in different places.

3. Your facile statement about the suburbs also shows your inability to think "critically" about these realities. What you say are "crimes people typically associate with high-crime areas" is itself a statement full of cultural and social assumptions and implication. Again, I would assert on many grounds --- including my personal experiences as a student and now living in a college community --- that many campuses are, statistically speaking, "high-crime areas." But various elite cultural and social norms lead us not to worry too much about the kinds of crimes that take place in those areas and thus few urge a greater police presence in those area. (Notably, all the talk/concern about campus rape may be changing some elite cultural and social norms here, but it remains telling that nobody said boo about the fact that Brock Turner was engaged in illegal underage drinking before he committed his sexual assault. Again we see how criminal laws like those prohibiting underage drinking are regularly ignored by elites and may not be the subject of disrespect because ignoring those laws do not prompted serious criminal justice consequences.) And your assertion that a white kid plying heroin would get little mercy is comical and ignorant, as this headline from just a few weeks ago highlights: "Teen gets probation in Elkton heroin case" http://us.geosnews.com/p/us/md/cecil-county/elkton/teen-gets-probation-in-elkton-heroin-case_5541126 (Lead: "A [white] teen caught behind the wheel of a vehicle containing more than 3,000 baggies of heroin during an Elkton traffic stop in December received a suspended five-year sentence")

4. I am not sure I understand all the racial implications of your point about Maine. Are you saying that (white) people in Maine who are willingly buying drugs are being victimized/explointed by minority drug dealers? I did not address the point because it seems so ladden with racial stereotypes that I am surprised a bright person would make it.

Posted by: Doug B. | Jul 21, 2016 3:46:07 PM

1.---seriously, Doug? The post I was responding to the weird "disrespect" nonsense. Obviously, that's not defensible, so we pivot and pivot until the subject is unrecognizable.

2. Doug,this is what I was responding to: "Yet, these laws are not implemented as harshly or as stringently in predominantly white communities so the "society" isn't less tolerant of drug enforcement; it's the policies that ensnare and humiliate law-abiding citizens in communities that contribute to the resentment and disrespect of the enforcers, not the laws themselves." Tendentious as all get-out. That leaves an ugly change out there with no temperance or moderation. It's weak. But you seem to have failed to read my last sentence that section--the one about the law-abiding having to suffer the aggressive tactics sometimes--but hey, why not caricaturize what I have to say.

3. Yup, an anecdote---hmmm, ok, minority criminals are given lenient sentences all day every day in places like DC, Chicago and NYC. The point, of course, is that a lot of people get off lighter than they should, but that's an entrenched problem in many urban areas. And I am not even going to get into your faux concern about underage drinking on campus.

4. It's not stereotyping; it's a reality. Largely-minority controlled criminal enterprises are profiting off immense suffering in Maine. I don't particularly care--as I want the criminals simply to be locked up, so the race is pretty much irrelevant, but for those who see race in everything, it would be refreshing to see some discussion of the reality.

Posted by: federalist | Jul 21, 2016 7:01:40 PM

Ha ha. I see the pivoting has to stop somewhere.

Posted by: federalist | Jul 25, 2016 11:53:55 AM

This thread demonstrates why debating anything with Doug is so annoying. I made a few simple points. The first was to criticize the bizarre-world idea about "disrespect for the law" by bringing up "drug use" across races--as if drug use is a proxy for "needs police involvement." Of course, I was completely right about that silliness. But Doug couldn't leave it at that and had to pivot to the "drug laws cause violence" (a path we've been down before). Never can pin Doug down on a position because it shifts.

Posted by: federalist | Jul 26, 2016 9:58:00 AM

Post a comment

In the body of your email, please indicate if you are a professor, student, prosecutor, defense attorney, etc. so I can gain a sense of who is reading my blog. Thank you, DAB