• 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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