Answering an LA Detective

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Last week,
I wrote an article calling
for a reexamination of SWAT teams
as they are used in the United
States. The article must have struck a nerve because I received
more emails about that one piece than all my other articles combined.
Most of the emails I received simply thanked me for calling attention
to a growing problem. A few of the emails were funny (as illustrated
by the below picture sent to me by an LRC reader).

More than a
few of the emails were from citizens who recounted their own experiences
with overzealous law enforcement officers, while two others reminded
me why I am a fervent defender of the second amendment. However,
I did receive one email which I believe deserves a thoughtful reply.

The following
message came from a Los Angeles police detective (whose name I will
not reveal here). He writes:

Sir-

Respectfully,
I see that your knowledge of policing comes from TV clips and
the ACLU website. Have you ever done a ride-a-long with real officers
? You talk about heavily armed police but don’t mention heavily
armed criminals.

Here in Los
Angeles, you could talk to Ofcr Ripatti about being shot by a
robbery suspect and becoming paralyzed from the chest down or
the officer who nearly had his hand blown off by a gang member
with an AK-47 on a ‘routine traffic stop’.

Sadly, big
city violence is spreading to small towns through migration of
gangs like MS and 18th Street (yeah for open boarders). Small
police forces are facing big issues with which they are not prepared.

Yet to be
critical from the safety of a university setting is ivory tower
elitism. Again, here in LA there are 9,400 officers — only half
of which are involved in street work — and 50,000 gang members.
This does not include criminals who are ‘free lancers’. The odds
are staggering.

You are correct
in saying that the solution lies with the citizens : when they
put down their i-pods and starbucks and demand civilized behavior
from their neighbors and leadership from the folks in city hall
— then some sort of peaceful society will emerge.

Thank you
for your time,

Detective

Where to begin?

In answer to
the Detective's initial question, yes, I have been on many, many
ride-alongs. My father retired from law enforcement, thus I grew
up in a policeman's household. His friends were fellow police officers
who allowed me many times to accompany them over the years.

I know cops.
I know the bravery that many policemen exhibit when faced with uncalled-for
violence. I also know that while most policemen want to serve their
communities, some others only want respect; they crave respect,
and what better way to receive it than with a badge and a gun. Imagine
multiplying that feeling of power by adding military garb and automatic
weapons. We know those people are not the majority, but they do
exist and it would be folly to pretend otherwise.

The Detective
wrote, "Yet to be critical from the safety of a university
setting is ivory tower elitism." This is a sentiment which
I am utterly sick of hearing. I have two jobs. I have house payments.
I have a family to support. I pay a hell-of-a-lot in taxes. I live
in a "mixed" neighborhood (approximately 40% white, 40%
black and 10% Hispanic and Asian). I do not live behind walls
protected from the "real world." Furthermore, after the
events in Blacksburg a few weeks ago, I don't consider employment
on a campus where most people are forbidden from defending themselves
as being risk-free.

As I, personally,
am not a police officer, the Detective insinuates that it is hypocrisy
for me to criticize SWAT actions. This is a common strategy in politics.
Rather than debating the opponent's points, it is inferred that
the opponent does not possess the moral right to be in the debate
in the first place. This sort of stratagem does not sway me.

Police officers,
because they represent the coercive power of the state, must
be held to a higher standard than the rest of us. As an example,
let's say I owned a demolition company and that I received an order
to destroy building A. Due to a clerical error, my employees actually
destroyed building B, a single-family dwelling in which a woman
and her children lived. Furthermore, let's say that the family was
in the house when demolition began. The people were terrorized by
the violence to their home and their cries to stop were ignored.

Obviously in
a situation such as this, my demolition company would very much
be in the wrong. Not only would I owe the family restitution, it
is likely that subsequent law-suits would shut down my firm and
that the appropriate licensing body would forbid me from operating
another demolition company.

However, when
SWAT does very much the same thing:

On December
4, 1999, police in El Dorado, Arkansas, conducted a drug raid
on the home of Dovie Walker. Officers tore the woman's front door
from its hinges with a battering ram, damaged another door to
her bedroom, broke a latch on a third door, overturned and broke
Walker's furniture, and generally "demolished" her house.
Police officers had handcuffed Walker's three children at gunpoint
before realizing they had mistaken her house for the one next
door. Walker was also babysitting children of ages one, two, and
three at the time of the raid. [A] police department spokesman
told a local newspaper police had no intention of paying for the
damage they did to Walker's home….(Balko)

Luckily for
Ms. Walker, the mayor of El Dorado interceded on her behalf and
initiated restitution.

It is further
insinuated in the Detective's email that because criminals are becoming
more dangerous and more heavily armed, then the police must
use SWAT tactics. However, the Detective's first two examples have
nothing to do with SWAT (the tragic shooting of Officer Ripatti
and the shootout at the traffic stop). Neither incident could have
been avoided by paramilitary police serving a no-knock warrant in
order to seize contraband. The Detective does, however, bring up
an important point, the reason behind the arms build-up in local
police departments: the failed war on drugs.

The war on
drugs has been covered extensively on this site by such giants as
Lew Rockwell, Anthony Gregory, Gary North, and by my teacher, Mark
Thornton, who wrote The
Economics of Prohibition
. Therefore, I will not discuss
the drug fiasco in great detail. I will, however, mention a few
brief points.

While the United
States' population has increased 48% since 1970, the US prison population
has increased
700%
during the same time. That is not a misprint. 700%. Furthermore,
new
research
predicts an increase of almost 20% in the prison populations
of the South, Midwest and West by 2011! According to the
Bureau of Justice Statistics, as of September 2005, there were 2,193,798
prisoners in Federal, State or local jails, 22% of whom were convicted
on drug charges (486 thousand people). However, many more are incarcerated
due to the drug wars (violence, gangland shootings, etc.).

The Detective
is correct about the gang problem. However, I sincerely disagree
with the solution. Let us examine the chain of events:

  1. The government
    outlaws drugs.
  2. Black market
    entrepreneurs engage in smuggling operations in hopes of receiving
    greater profits than those which could be made legally.
  3. The government,
    seeing that they cannot control the influx of drugs, tie punishments
    to weight. The greater the amount of drugs (as measured by weight),
    the stiffer is the penalty.
  4. In response,
    black marketeers make the drugs more powerful. Thus, they may
    supply the same number of customers as before, but with a lesser
    physical amount of the drug so as to avoid the increased punishment
    should they be apprehended. Furthermore, black marketeers recruit
    minors to carry and sell the drug as juveniles would receive a
    lesser penalty if arrested.
  5. Users begin
    to die due to the increased strength of the drug (overdose). Unfortunately,
    because of high demand and low supply, prices remain high leading
    to even higher profits; profits which black market entrepreneurs
    attempt to protect at all costs.
  6. Protecting
    profits leads to violent attacks on nearby competitors (gang wars)
    and on the agents of the state (police) who are attempting to
    seize said profits.
  7. Because
    of increased violence by black market entrepreneurs who are attempting
    to protect profits, the government reciprocates by also increasing
    the level of violence (SWAT teams).
  8. SWAT teams
    have an incentive to seize even more private property because
    that property is used to further fund the paramilitary police.
  9. Increased
    SWAT activity leads to increased violence and an arms race with
    the black marketeers.
  10. Nothing
    is solved and the problem continues…

Of course,
the drug war cannot be ended because there are too many people with
a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. The politicians
need the drug war in order to control the population. The police
need the drug war as a means to increase employment, pay and support.
The black marketeers certainly need the drug war in order to protect
profits. However, if the war were ended, the potential for illegal
profits would end and thus the incentive for much of the violence.
Jobs would increase (for domestic production of now legal recreational
drugs), the drugs would be safer (potency would be reduced to pre-drug
war levels) and current addicts could receive treatment rather than
having their lives destroyed by prison. Furthermore, we could finally
see an end to agents of our own government terrorizing citizens.

And if it does
not end? Then the innocent, as always, will continue to be the primary
casualty of the war.

Just as the
government does with foreign wars (with which we should not be involved),
the government blames all civilian casualties on the black marketeers
in the drug war. Those black marketeers do deserve a majority of
the blame for civilian casualties. The newspapers are replete with
stories of children and the elderly who were injured or killed when
rival gangs have attacked each other in the streets. However, the
police must shoulder some of that blame as well.

Paramilitary
police serving no-knock warrants destroy private property, terrorize
innocent victims, kill pets and yes, have killed innocent citizens.
This must stop.

Therefore,
I am taking the Detective's final bit of advice. I am putting down
my coffee and am calling on the citizens of this country to join
with me in demanded that this wasteful drug war be ended. Just as
prohibition failed 80 years ago, prohibition has failed today.

Enough is enough.

May
10, 2007

Rob
Blackstock [send him mail]
teaches economics at Louisiana Tech University and is the Senior
Economist for American Economic Services.

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