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January 20, 2008 - Lima News (OH)

OpEd: American War On Drugs Pits Government Against People

By Dave Doddridge, LEAP

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I've read and reread the account of the shooting death of Tarika Wilson with great sadness.

Some of the folks in Lima have sent letters saying all the typical things Americans have been led to believe: Wilson should not have allowed drugs in her home, the police were only doing their jobs, we need to eradicate drugs from our community.

I would like to offer another perspective.

I joined the Los Angeles Police Department in 1973, just eight years after Chief Darryl Gates, spurred by the LA riots and the SLA shootout, established the nation's first SWAT team. It was designed to respond to increasingly dangerous situations involving armed/barricaded suspects or wanton disregard for the law.

After spending six years on the street and another 10 as a detective, I transferred to South Bureau narcotics in 1990. At first it was an adventure -- undercover surveillance, writing warrants, smashing doors, hauling folks off to jail and picture taking behind tables of drugs and guns.

SWAT did not serve our warrants.

We narcotics officers did. We knew dope, the neighborhood, and the people involved.

More often than not when we served warrants, the family was there complete with hysterical mothers and crying children.

The situation was often chaotic.

We tried to settle things down and get to the dope quick before it could be flushed. This is a situation alien to SWAT teams.

They are taught to escalate until control is achieved.

They don't have time to de-escalate a situation by reason or compassion.

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.

Now there are more than 1,700 SWAT teams across America. With little to do, they are now unleashed on American citizens in situations foreign in years past. When I was a young cop in the 1970s and 80s, SWAT callouts were few.

In contrast, last year there were more than 40,000 -- more than half for warrant service.

Innocents get caught up in the war on drugs, too. My squad served some 40 to 50 door-smashing warrants when I was there.

Of those, I distinctly remember two that went to the wrong house.

That's 4 percent.

Multiply that with 40,000 and we get 1,600 wrong addresses.

Things are bound to go wrong.

Accidental or questionable shootings aren't limited to Tarika Wilson and her child. They involve 37-year-old optometrists in New York, 92-year-old grandmothers in Atlanta and too many others.

SWAT teams simply should not be used to serve drug warrants on citizens, especially citizens with children at home. The official report is not out, but indications are that there was no trafficking at the Wilson house and Anthony Terry was often out of the home, making a street arrest feasible.

In Lima, as elsewhere, drugs are a problem.

But drugs aren't the problem. The problem is the War on Drugs. When you have a war, someone must be the enemy.

Police are often pitted against nonviolent citizens. Tragedies occur.

Families are broken up and lives are ruined more often by the justice system than by the drugs themselves. Seven percent of black children have at least one parent in the prison system instead of at home. The federal government is building a new prison every month to house the influx.

With 5 percent of the world's population and 25 percent of the world's prison population, something is going terribly wrong. Some $60 billion to $100 billion are wasted on this failure every year.

The War on Drugs is a leviathan, pitting government against its people, corrupting citizens and officials alike.

Prohibition increases crime and offers obscene profits to drug dealers, builders of prisons, winners of drug wars, and government agencies ostensibly set up to fight the "war."

The answer is obvious.

Re-legalize and regulate drugs.

Make it the medical and social problem that it is, and put our police back to working for the people.

After putting hundreds in jail myself and watching no effect on the amount of drugs on the street, I came to the conclusion that we must take the profit motive away from the dealers. Maybe when enough folks wake up, we can save future Tarika Wilsons.

Dave Doddridge wrote this for Medford, Mass.-based Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. The group is a nonprofit educational organization whose mission is to reduce the multitude of harmful consequences of fighting the War on Drugs and to lessen the incidence of death, disease, crime and addiction by ultimately ending drug prohibition.

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