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April 16, 2008 -- Ann Arbor News (MI)

OpEd: Increasingly Militarized 'Drug War' Has Skewed Police Priorities

By Charmie Gholson

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

In early March, the Michigan State Police and Michigan's multijurisdictional drug teams participated in "Operation Byrne Blitz," a statewide drug sweep that led to 223 arrests and the seizure of more than 460 pounds of marijuana.

It was publicized as part of a national effort to interrupt drug trafficking. Personally, I believe it was part of a sensationalistic media ploy, meant to scare citizens and prevent Congress from cutting the federal Byrne grant money -- federal money used to fight our U.S.-style war on drugs.

Several weeks ago, the state attorneys general banded together to paint a horrific picture of societal pandemonium if these funds aren't restored. As "Operation Byrne Blitz" proved, there are criminals on the loose. How much safer is your community because of these busts?

On March 3, The St. Louis Post-Dispatch published an investigative report authored by Joe Mahr, "Being elusive is easy -- Fugitives can run and need not hide." The report details the abject failure of law enforcement to search for and incarcerate federal fugitives.

From the report:

* More than one third of felony warrants are not entered into a national database routinely checked by police across the nation.

* Few fugitives are hunted, and most states do not screen for criminal warrants before issuing a new license.

* When fugitives are found in other states, authorities routinely refuse to pick them up, including those wanted for violent crimes.

* Among these missing felons include 40 percent of Michigan's rape warrants.

Yes, you read that correctly. Forty percent of Michigan's rape warrants aren't even entered into the database. How safe do you feel now?

Here's the real kicker: The primary reason for lack of pursuit (of felony fugitives) is stretched budget and staffing shortages.

Excuse me? We don't have the money or people to follow up on 40 percent of Michigan's rape warrants, but somehow the investigators of "Operation Byrne Blitz" had enough of both to coordinate a statewide sting and carry it out in a spectacular show of force?

According to Dave Doddridge, former Los Angeles Police Department narcotics officer and a speaker for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, "In 1991, Washington suddenly began offering lots of protective armor and equipment. We gladly took it, now looking more like military than police, and little realized that we were becoming addicted to our own kind of dope -- image and prestige. In their mad dash to prosecute the war on drugs, Washington was sponsoring SWAT teams all across the land with the stipulation that, the more dope you seize, the more M-16s and armored personnel carriers you get."

Doddridge says there are now more than 1,700 SWAT teams across America, many with nothing to do but serve drug warrants. With little to do, they are now unleashed on American citizens in situations foreign in years past. On Jan. 4 of this year, one of these SWAT teams shot and killed 26-year-old Tarika Wilson, in front of her six children, while serving a drug warrant for her boyfriend.

In fact, according to a Cato policy paper "Overkill: The Rise of Paramilitary Police Raids,(pdf)" authored by Radley Balko, "these increasingly frequent raids, 40,000 per year by one estimate, are needlessly subjecting nonviolent drug offenders, bystanders and wrongly targeted civilians to the terror of having their homes invaded while they're sleeping, usually by teams of heavily armed paramilitary units dressed not as police officers but as soldiers."

We should all be asking these questions of our sheriff's department: What's the ratio of narcotics officers compared to those assigned to the warrant squad -- and what hours do they work? How about the sex crimes squad? Or the child abuse squad? How about homicide? What are the budgets for these units? What is the budget for the narcotics unit?

It is easily proven that non-violent drug offenses account for a significant number of occupied jail beds in the U.S. And it's costing us ridiculous amounts of money to investigate, prosecute and incarcerate them. Currently we have about 2.3 million in custody. Why?

Why are non-violent drug offenders filling our prisons -- building prisons is the fastest growing industry in the country -- while the criminals who are a serious threat to society are left to mingle among us? Allowed to continue raping, robbing and killing?

To me the answer is simple, because I'd rather have my sheriff's department chasing psychopathic felons than pot dealers: Refocus our priorities. Shift the funds, manpower and time so you can simply enter the names of rapists into the databases. Then, check the darn thing before you issue a driver's license, and when you find a wanted felon -- put him in the jail cell. How hard can that be?

Obviously, it's much harder than arresting potheads.

Charmie Gholson, an Ypsilanti resident, is a writer, drug reform advocate and host of Renegade Solutions, a public affairs radio show on WCBN.

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