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Coroner Probing Marijuana Raid Killing of Unarmed Man [FEATURE]

(Update: Officer Yant cleared by inquest as predicted. Family may bring RICO lawsuit.)

On the night of June 11, 21-year-old Trevon Cole and his nine months pregnant fiancé, Sequoia Pearce, were sitting at home in their Las Vegas apartment, settling in for a quiet Friday evening in front of the TV. But Cole didn't live to see the next day. Instead, he was the target of a drug raid and was shot and killed by a Las Vegas narcotics detective as he knelt on his bathroom floor, hands in the air. (Read our earlier coverage here.)

Trevon Cole, killed in his bathroom by a police officer, had just 1.8 ounces of marijuana
Since then, questions and outrage have mounted as the circumstances surrounding Cole's death have emerged. A coroner's inquest, which is done with all fatal shootings by Las Vegas police, is set for Friday. Given the history of such inquests -- only one police killing out of 200 in the past 35 years was found unjustifiable -- justice is unlikely to be done there.

The affidavit in support of the search warrant targeting Cole gave the impression that police thought they had a major drug dealer on their hands. Detective Brian Yant, the officer who wrote the warrant and who pulled the trigger on Cole, wrote that "almost all" drug dealers keep "sophisticated and elaborate" records and that police expected to find such records, as well as guns and drug paraphernalia. Cole had a "lengthy criminal history of narcotics sales, trafficking and possession charges," Yant wrote.

Police found no guns. They found no evidence of a "major drug dealer." They did find a small, unspecified amount of pot (Pearce contends they found no drugs and were angry they could not), a digital scale, a cell phone, and $702 in cash (of which $350 was found to have come from jewelry Pearce pawned days earlier to pay rent). Oh, and a spent .223 caliber rifle cartridge in the bathroom.

The search warrant affidavit also misidentified Cole, confusing him with another Trevon Cole from Houston, Texas. The other Trevon Cole had a different middle name, was seven years, older, is three inches shorter and a hundred pounds lighter. His "lengthy criminal history"? Three misdemeanor marijuana possession arrests. The only criminal record the now dead Trevon Cole had was for unauthorized use of a motor vehicle as a teenager.

"Don't they ever run the dates of birth down there?" asked an incredulous David Doddridge, a retired 21-year veteran of the Los Angeles Police Department who now runs a private detective agency and is a member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP).

"The standard ID is name and date of birth," said Peter Moskos, a former Baltimore police officer who is now an assistant professor of law, police science, and criminal justice at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. "They had a different initial for the middle name. It should have been obvious that this was not the same guy."

Part of the problem is pressure to perform, said Moskos. "These guys are judged by how many warrants they can get," he said. "But it's better to conduct one good warrant than five bad ones."

"Each squad is trying to serve the most warrants, get the most dope, so you have a tendency to exaggerate and embellish, and sometimes even fabricate on the warrants," said Doddridge. "They invent handguns inside the house so they can get a dynamic entry warrant, and then they go in, kicking down doors, rushing in with guns drawn, forcing everybody down on the floor. It's very scary, everyone is going in with guns drawn, they're sometimes shouting over each other, it's a very tense and dynamic situation and just a tremendous opportunity for somebody to get shot," he said.

"It's really crazy, a waste of time and money, but they have to justify their existence," said Doddridge. If they're not serving warrants, they'll get sent back to patrol. You have to produce."

According to the search warrant, police had made three undercover pot buys from the Trevon Cole they ended up shooting. The total haul was 1.8 ounces of marijuana and, also according to the warrant, when police wanted to make a big score -- $400 worth -- with Cole, the alleged major drug dealer, they had to reschedule because Cole didn't have that much on hand.

Not incidentally, under Nevada law, possession of up to an ounce of marijuana is decriminalized. Yant and his dope squad buddies were going after Cole for allegedly selling them amounts of marijuana it wasn't even a crime to possess.

"Like other tragic incidents, this brings into question the need to use such force in raids on people who at best are being charged with a non-violent crime," said Mike Meno, communications director for the Marijuana Policy Project. "Especially in this case, where officers are coming into a house with guns drawn. We saw a man get killed and it turns out it wasn't even the man they were after."

Trevon Cole and his fiancé, Sequoia Pearce
"This is just another tragic incident in the failed war on marijuana," said Dave Schwartz of Sensible Nevada, which seeks marijuana law reform there. "People are being killed even for small amounts, and it just makes no sense. This is yet another death caused by prohibition, not by marijuana."

It is also another death caused by Detective Yant. The killing of Cole marked the third time Yant has controversially used his police firearm. In 2002, he shot and killed a robbery suspect, claiming the suspect, who was on the ground, aimed a weapon at him. But although the suspect's gun was found 35 feet away, coroner's inquest took only half an hour to find the shooting justified.

The following year, Yant shot and wounded a man with a baseball bat, saying he mistook the bat for a shotgun and that the man had attacked him. But the man said he never threatened Yant and dropped the bat before Yant fired. Since he wasn't killed, there was no coroner's inquest, but Yant was exonerated in a departmental investigation.

"Any time an officer is involved in three shootings, they may be justified, but it's a classic red flag example of when the department should wonder about the officer," said Moskos. "There are shoot/don't shoot scenarios where furtive movement may provide some justification for shooting, but this guy Cole didn't have a weapon. In hindsight, it's obvious he was no threat," he said.

"This guy Yant did a lot of bad things in this raid," said Moskos. "He got the wrong person, he shot an unarmed guy. The department certainly has to look at this officer."

Yant is on paid administrative leave pending the coroner's inquest and the results of a departmental investigation.

It could be that Yant is a case of the wrong guy in the wrong job for the wrong reasons. "Some guys like being street cops, some are more analytical and want to be detectives," said Doddridge. "Then you have the gung-ho types, maybe ex-military or wannabe military with their shaved heads. They want to get in on the action, they're the kind of people who gravitate to SWAT or narcotics. In these units, they are disproportionately gung-ho types. It's trouble on top of trouble," he said.

It wasn't always like that, Doddridge recalled. "Back in the day, if we had a drug warrant, we would just drive up in a black and white with our .38s, but now, somebody sells 1.8 ounces of marijuana, you call in the big boys. They have all this federal money, those Byrne grant funds, and they have to justify that. When you have a military mentality, you have to have an enemy, and that makes the war on drugs a war against the people."

"This looks like another fucked up raid and unnecessary death in the drug war," summed up Moskos. "Even in the best case scenario for police, doing undercover buys and raids for small amounts of marijuana seems like a waste of resources. Why do that?"

"The important thing to remember is that hundreds of raids like these occur across the country every year because we are militarizing our police forces and issuing orders to take down houses of people accused of nonviolent offenses," said Meno. "Trevon Cole's case is a perfect example of what can go wrong. He was sitting at home with his fiancé, there was nothing violent going on, and bang! -- he's dead. This was on a Friday night in Las Vegas," noted Meno. "You'd think there would be something more important officers could be doing on a Friday night."

And now for the coroner's inquest. It is performed by the Clark County District Attorney's office and overseen by a court hearing master with a jury of citizens hearing the facts. The goal is to simply find if the death was justified, excusable or criminal in nature.

But no one represents the dead person. The family of the deceased or their attorneys are not allowed to speak present evidence. They are not allowed to call witnesses who might contradict the police or prosecutors' version of events. They can submit written questions, but it is up to the judge to decide whether to ask them. [Editor's Note: The Chronicle has an appointment to interview Cole family attorney Andre Lagomarsino on Thursday and will be posting updated material then.]

The ACLU of Nevada has called the system a "story-telling exercise, an opportunity for the police, with the assistance of the DA, to tell their side of the story" and likened it to "the sound of one hand clapping." As noted above, in 34 years of inquests and 200 hearings, only one officer has been found criminally negligent.

Justice for Trevon Cole? Don't hold your breath. But the city of Las Vegas will most likely have to pay big time down the road once the inquest is done, and Cole's family then proceeds with its wrongful death lawsuit.

Las Vegas, NV
United States

DEA's "Project Deliverance" Will Undoubtedly Fail to Deliver

DEA acting chief Michele Leonhart, and her boss, US Attorney General Eric Holder, are bragging about a major, DEA-led operation that has netted 2,200+ arrests, with pounds of drugs and millions of dollars seized. "Project Deliverance" involved more than 300 law enforcement agencies, more than 3,000 DEA agents, and took 22 months. According to DEA's press release, they captured 1,262 pounds of methamphetamine, 2.5 tons of cocaine, 1,410 pounds of heroin, and 69 tons of marijuana, plus $154 million. Michele Leonhart announcing ''Project Deliverance'' Operationally, Deliverance was certainly a big project -- it's easy to see why they're excited. And for the thousands of people throughout the US who were arrested in it, it's a life-changing event, though for the worse. But will Project Deliverance make any real difference in drug use and the drug trade? Is the operation really a big deal, when examined next to the reality of drug use and the drug trade in the United States today? I hate to be a wet blanket, but if history is a guide, Project Deliverance will have no long-term impact on the drug trade. Though notable in its scale, the operation is only one of many carried out by the US and allied governments over decades. During that time, the measure of drug availability -- price, an increase implies a product is less available, relative to its demand* -- has gone in the opposite of the intended direction, and dramatically. For example, the average US street price of cocaine is less than a fifth in real terms than it was in 1980. Previous drug sweeps have seen their temporary gains erased in just one or two weeks. The reason is that the big sounding numbers touted by Leonhart, while large for the agency and our government, are small compared with the drug trade. Deliverance's 2.5 tons of cocaine constitutes less than one percent of the 300 metric tons of cocaine the government estimates are consumed annually in the US. So does the 69 tons of marijuana. They did get a few percent of the heroin, if numbers don't deceive, but even that's still small. And the 2,200 alleged dealers and traffickers arrested in Project Deliverance make up a similarly tiny fraction of the hundreds of thousands of people employed in the US by the illegal drug trade. Some drug businesses will doubtless be extinguished by Project Deliverance, but others will have little difficulty replacing the lost supply or filling the open positions. And how much powder or weed did the investigators let go by during the 22 months it took to complete the operation? How much will they have to let slip by during the months or years it takes to mount the next one? In an uncharacteristically "big picture" review published a few weeks ago, the Associated Press declared the 40-year drug war a failure by every measure. Will media follow that lead and go beyond the surface in their reporting on Project Deliverance? I have a few suggestions for those intrepid reporters who would like to:
  • Ask DEA or DOJ spokespersons if they expect the substances targeted in the sweep to be less available to US consumers of them, and if so for how long.
  • Ask them if previous operations, individually or collectively, have had that effect. If they say yes, ask them to be specific as to what their evidence is, and compare it with numbers like the aforementioned cocaine prices.
  • Do some follow-up, say two or three weeks from now. Ask government officials, cops who walk the drug beat, and drug users, what if any difference they saw in the supply of the targeted drugs, and if so if they see still any. Follow up again in one or two months. See if DEA will give you early access to the price data.
Be forewarned, though, DEA reps will probably be less excited to address those questions than they were for the press conference. * Nitpickers and drug war defenders may point out that demand for cocaine has also dropped since 1980, and that the price drop could be explained that way. No dice -- frequent, "hardcore" cocaine and other drug use remained roughly constant despite a drop in the number of "casual" users, and it's the frequent users who account for the vast majority of the consumption.

Feature: Reining in SWAT -- Towards Effective Oversight of Paramilitary Police Units

As is periodically the case, law enforcement SWAT teams have once again come under the harsh gaze of a public outraged and puzzled by their excesses. First, it was the February SWAT raid on a Columbia, Missouri, home where police shot two dogs, killing one, as the suspect, his wife, and young son cowered. Police said they were looking for a dealer-sized stash of marijuana, but found only a pipe with residues. When police video of that raid hit the Internet and went viral this month, the public anger was palpable, especially in Columbia.

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SWAT team, Contra Costa County, California
Then came a botched SWAT raid in Georgia -- not a forced entry, but otherwise highly aggressive, and directed at the wrong building -- that left a 76-year-old woman hospitalized with a heart attack.

And then came the tragedy in Detroit two weeks ago, where a member of a Detroit Police SWAT team killed seven-year-old Aiyana Jones as she slept on a living room couch. Allegedly, the officer had a tussle with the girl's grandmother as he charged through the door after a flash-bang grenade was thrown through the window, and the gun discharged accidentally, though the account has been disputed by the family's attorney. In this instance, police were not looking for drugs but for a murder suspect. He was later found in another apartment in the same house. Again, the public dismay and anger was palpable.

Botched (wrong address or wrong person) raids or raids where it appears excessive force has been used are certainly not a new phenomenon, as journalist Radley Balko documented in his 2006 study, "Overkill: The Rise of Paramilitary Policing in America." But most raids gone bad do not get such wide public or media attention.

The victims often are poor, or non-white, or both. Or -- worse yet -- they are criminal suspects, who generally generate little sympathy, even when they are abused.

And while they were originally created to handle very special problems -- terrorist incidents, hostage situations, and the like -- there just aren't that many of those. As a result the use of SWAT has seen "mission creep," where SWAT teams are now routinely called out to serve search warrants, particularly in drug cases. In 1980, 2,884 SWAT deployments were recorded nationwide; the number today is estimated by experts at 50,000 annually or more.

The sheer normality of SWAT teams doing drug raids now, as well the status of their victims, has resulted in effective immunity and impunity for SWAT teams that commit errors or engage in unnecessary force. Most of the time when a raid goes bad, nothing happens.

It seems to take an especially outrageous incident, like Columbia or Detroit, to inspire public concern, and even then, it is the citizenry and perhaps part of elected officialdom against the powerful law enforcement establishment. Creating effective oversight over SWAT teams and their paramilitary raids is not easy -- but it can be done, or at least started.

The now infamous 2008 raid on the home of Berwyn Heights, Maryland, Mayor Cheye Calvo by a Prince Georges County Police SWAT team is a case in point. In that raid, police were tracking a package they knew contained marijuana, and once it was delivered to Calvo's house and taken inside, the SWAT team rushed in, manhandled Calvo and his mother-in-law and shot and killed Calvo's two dogs.

But further investigation showed the Calvos were doubly victimized, not criminals. They were victims of drug dealers who would send packages to unknowing addresses, then pick them up after they were left by the delivery man. And they were the victims of a SWAT team run amok.

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SWAT team, Pasadena, Texas
But Prince Georges SWAT hit the wrong guy when it Calvo's house, and not just because Calvo and his mother-in-law and his dogs were innocent victims. Calvo was not just an upstanding member of the community -- he was the mayor of his town. And beyond that, his former day job with the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) gave him both personal connections to legislators and the knowledge to work the system.

Prodded by Calvo and others, the Maryland legislature last year passed a bill making it the first state to make any attempt to rein in SWAT. That bill requires each agency with a SWAT team to file annual reports detailing their activities and the results of their raids. The effort was opposed by law enforcement, of course, but legislators were swayed by hours of gut-wrenching testimony from raid victims.

"It was the telling of the stories of a number of people who had suffered either botched or ill-advised raids," Calvo explained to Drug War Chronicle. "It happens so often, and the stories don't get told in a meaningful way, but my incident made such wide headlines that people called me reaching out, and once those circles developed, we were able to get some political momentum," he recalled.

"I happened to be in a unique position," he said. "Through my experience at NCSL, I knew a lot of legislators and worked with the Judiciary Committee in Maryland to get a bill drafted. When we had hearings, it wasn't just one or two stories, probably more like a dozen, including people we didn't know about, but who just showed up to tell their stories. There was a wrong house raid with a dog killed, there was a warrant served at a bad address, a mother whose house was raided after her son was caught with a gram of marijuana, there was a triple no-knock raid at three homes with the same name on all three, there was a former member of the judiciary committee whose mother's home was raided because police were looking for a relative. They kicked in her door and knocked her to the ground," Calvo recalled.

"Each story helped connect the dots," he explained. "Those stories made a powerful case. We were not saying the Assembly should micromanage the police, but we wanted to shine a light on what was happening. The first step was making people aware, and getting the SWAT data makes tangible and comprehensive what is otherwise anecdotal."

Although the first formal report on Maryland SWAT raids is not due until this fall, preliminary numbers from the first six months of reporting have already generated more stories in the press and kept the issue alive. And they provide grist for the reform mill.

"It's not just the number of raids, it's that 92% of them are for search warrants, not hostage situations or bank robberies or the like," said Calvo. "It's that two times out of three, they kick in the door. It's that in some jurisdictions -- Prince Georges, Anne Arundel, Annapolis -- the majority of deployments are for misdemeanors or nonviolent felonies. Prince Georges had 105 raids against nonviolent offenders in six months, and that speaks to deeper policy problems. Baltimore County deployed only once for a nonviolent offense. That's more a model of professionalism."

Calvo said he plans to use the full year's worth of SWAT raid reporting due this fall to return to Annapolis to push for further reforms. "The legislature could impose training standards or other statewide protocols," he said. "It could impose more transparency. A full year of data will be helpful with that. Hopefully, the reporting requirement passed last year will end up being just the first step in a multi-step process to insert some better judgment into the process for when these paramilitary units are deployed."

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PolitickerMD cartoon about the Calvo raid
The dog-killing SWAT raid in Columbia, Missouri, has also resulted in activism aimed at reining in SWAT, and it has already had an impact. Under withering public criticism, Columbia Police Chief Ken Burton quickly instituted changes in the SWAT team's command and control structure and when and how it could be used. He also came out for marijuana legalization, saying he believed many police would be happy to not have to enforce pot prohibition.

The activism is continuing, however. "There is a lot going on in response to that raid," said Columbia attorney Dan Viets, a member of the board of national NORML. "The ACLU and NORML are involved, but so are groups of citizens who have not been activists before. And our police chief has been pretty responsive -- he doesn't have that bunker mentality that so many cops do," Viets said.

"For us, it's not so much SWAT as the use of search warrants for nonviolent crimes. Whether they have SWAT on the back of their jackets or not, they still do the same brutal stuff," the defense attorney continued. "The execution of a search warrant is almost always a violent act, it's a home invasion. It isn't that they're SWAT that matters, it's the fact that they engage in violence in the execution of those search warrants," he said.

"We are trying to suggest that police not use search warrants for nonviolent crime," said Viets. "They can rely on the tried and true: Send in an informer to do a controlled buy, then get an arrest warrant. Even the chief has said that they would try to arrest people outside their homes."

Similar outrage and activism is occurring in Detroit, where anti-police sentiments were loudly voiced in the days after the killing of Aiyana Jones. Police brutality activists usually isolated in their complaining are being joined by everyday citizens. The Detroit City Council is investigating. The Rev. Al Sharpton spoke at Jones' funeral. But whether the uproar results in a reformed SWAT policy remains to be seen.

"The death of that girl in Detroit was an inevitable result of the broad use of these things," said Calvo. "When you're doing 50,000 or 75,000 SWAT raids a year, it will eventually happen."

"Whatever one thinks about using SWAT tactics when looking for a murder suspect, the results in Detroit show how dangerously volatile these tactics really are," said Dave Borden, executive director of StoptheDrugWar.org, who is also the moving force behind the Americans for SWAT Reform web site and campaign. "There is every reason to believe that conducting a late night raid and detonating flash bang grenades led to the physical contact between the woman and the officer in which the gun discharged, killing the girl. That's all the more reason to avoid those tactics wherever possible, certainly in routine drug search warrants."

"In Detroit, they were going after a murder suspect, but there are a whole lot of questions about their tactical intelligence," said criminologist David Klinger, a former LAPD and Redmond, Washington, police officer and author of "Into the Kill Zone: a Cop's Eye View of Deadly Force," who now works for the Police Executive Research Forum. "Did they know there were children present? Why didn't they just do a contain and call?" where police secure the perimeter and tell the suspect to come outside, he asked.

While sending in the SWAT team in Detroit may be justified, said Klinger, the use of SWAT for small-time drug raids is not. "If you're sending in a SWAT team for a small amount of marijuana, that doesn't make sense," said Klinger. "There are some domestic agencies that don't understand that they should be utilizing some sort of threat assessment. That's one of the big issues regardless of who has oversight. A lot of it is a training issue about when SWAT should be utilized."

There are different pressure points where reformers can attempt to get some control over SWAT deployments. They range from the departmental level, to city hall or the county government, to the state house, and to Congress.

"The first level of oversight should be within the agency, whether it's the chief or some other officer with oversight over SWAT," said Klinger. "You need to make sure they have appropriate command and control and supervision, appropriate surveillance, tactical intelligence, and evidence of something out of the usual as opposed to just 'there's drugs there.' There needs to be a threat matrix done -- are there unusual fortifications, is there a history of violence, are weapons present other than for self protection?"

Neill Franklin is a former Maryland police officer with SWAT experience. He is also the incoming head of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP). For Franklin, SWAT has limited legitimate uses, but aggressive, paramilitarized policing has gone too far. He blames the war on drugs.

"Back in the 1970s and 1980s, we didn't use SWAT teams to conduct search warrants unless it was a truly documented violent organization," he said. "As the drug war escalated, we started using SWAT to execute drug-related warrants. When I first started as an undercover officer, the narcotics team executed the warrant, along with two or three uniformed officers, but not with the high-powered weapons and force we use today. The drug war is the reason for using these teams and the driving force behind them," said the former narc.

"Because police have become accustomed to serving so many warrants, they've also become accustomed to using SWAT for every warrant," said Franklin. "In the past, they were more selective. You had to provide the proper intel and articulate why a SWAT team was needed, what was the history of violence, what was the prospect of violence. Some departments now are very strict -- you have to ID the house and the people you're after, you have to photograph the house and the door you're going to go through, you have to know who should be in that house, what special circumstances may be involved, and whether there are children or animals in the house -- but now, I think a lot of departments aren't doing the proper intel."

"You need a threat matrix that talks about unusual weapons," said Klinger. "Does some guy have an automatic shotgun? Is he a major dealer? That's when you might want to send in SWAT, but it's not a good idea to routinely use SWAT."

In addition to doing surveillance and gathering intelligence, police need to ensure they are using the right personnel for SWAT teams, said Franklin, alluding to the fact that such teams are often accused of having a "cowboy" mentality. "These guys are self-selected and handpicked," he said. "You need people in good physical shape, but you have to have a process for selecting the right people with the right personalities."

Franklin also pointed a finger at judges. "I think a lot of the time, judges give warrants out too easily," he said. "A lot of them are just boilerplate, already typed up; you just fill in the blanks and a little detail. They are too easy to draft and get approved by a judge. The judges need to be a bit more strict and ask some questions to ensure a no-knock warrant is justified."

But departmental policies are where to begin, Franklin said. "Policy is the critical point," said Franklin, "policy is the key. And maybe judges need to be involved in asking those policy questions. Are there kids in the home? Dogs? Special circumstances? Do you have photos? I don't think judges are asking enough questions, and there is too much rubber-stamping of warrants. The judges are too loose on this; they need to tighten up."

The next levels of oversight -- and opportunities for intervention -- are the local and state governments, said Klinger. "It generally stops with the mayor and city council, but now Maryland has a law where they have to report, and I don't have a problem with that. We are a representative republic, and the power of the police is very strong. The government operates by the consent of the governed, and the governed need to have information about what their police are doing. Why not?"

There is plenty of work that could be done at the state level, said Eric Sterling, head of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation (CJPF). "You could amend a state criminal procedure statute to require that a specialized kind of warrant would be needed to use a SWAT team. You could spell out particular things that had to be established, you might require additional verification of informant information beyond an ordinary search warrant, or specific evidence about possession of weapons and evidence about their connection to criminal activity, you could require higher degrees of confirmation about the address, you could require specific findings regarding the presence of children or the elderly, that a buy be done not by an informant but by a member of the law enforcement agency, that there be continuous surveillance of the property for some period before the raid takes place to verify who is present," Sterling said, ticking off a list of possibilities.

As Missouri attorney Viets noted above, it's not just SWAT, it is aggressive tactics like dynamic entry and no-knock raids that are also under scrutiny, whether done by SWAT or by other police units. It is those situations that are most dangerous for police and citizens, with the breaking down of doors, the yelling of commands, the flash-bangs, the confusion. And even the cops are talking about it.

"There is a big debate going on in the SWAT community," said Klinger. "Do you do a dynamic entry, or do you do something less? Some agencies will do a breach and hold, where they get through the front door, but stop there until they make contact with people inside. Another version is the 'contain and call-out', where they announce their presence and ask the people to come outside. Then, officers can carefully, slowly go through the place, and you know that if someone has a gun, he's after you. Sometimes we need to be aggressive, and there's nothing wrong with a dynamic entry, but you want to make sure you're using SWAT in the appropriate circumstances. We want to be minimally aggressive."

"It's those no-knock warrants, whether it's SWAT or not, where people tend to get hurt, where their animals are slaughtered," said Franklin. "That seems to be the norm now. You hear SWAT personnel joking about this all the time. If you know there's an animal in the house, why don't you just have Animal Control along? Unless that dog is so aggressive he's actually ripping people apart, he could be secured. Mostly they are just doing what they are supposed to do: barking and holding their ground."

[Ed: In many cases including the raid in Columbia, a warrant has nominally been served as a knock-and-announce, but the waiting is so short that it effectively equivalent to a no-knock. The term "dynamic entry" roughly applies to both kinds of situations, and "no-knock" is often used to refer to both kinds.]

"I don't know why they're shooting dogs," Klinger said with a hint of exasperation. "Unless they were being aggressive and attacking, you need to rethink what you're doing if you're shooting dogs. Just take a fire extinguisher with you and zap the dog with it. Shooting dogs unnecessarily suggests a lack of training about how to discern what is and is not a threat."

As long as the war on drugs continues, so will the issues around SWAT, no-knock raids, and search warrants. "The vast majority of these warrants are drug related," said Franklin. "The ultimate solution is ending prohibition. That would resolve so many issues."

Somewhat surprisingly, Klinger agreed. "We should just legalize drugs and call off the hounds, but if we're going to have drug prohibition, we have to be able to enforce it," he said. "If the rest of the polity says no to legalization, we can't have a regime where dopers just sit in their homes and do what they want. But if we are going to have the prohibition model, we need appropriate oversight over policing it."

Sterling pointed out some other pressure points for SWAT reform until we get to that day when drug prohibition is just a bad memory. "A private way of thinking about this is to use the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies, Inc. to include in accrediting criterion better control or management of the way in which SWAT teams are used," said Sterling.

There are also reform possibilities at the federal level, Sterling said. "If you want to set national standards, Congress arguably has the power under the 14th Amendment in terms of equal protection to enforce the Fourth Amendment," he said. "You could provide that SWAT activity carried out outside the limits of such a special warrant could result in civil liability, denial of federal funds to the agency, or potential criminal penalties. There are examples of this in the wiretap law. It's very, very strict in its requirements about what law enforcement agencies have to do and it has very strict reporting requirements. There is certainly precedent in national law for how we regulate highly invasive, specialized law enforcement activities."

Sterling, a Maryland resident himself, said the Maryland SWAT reporting law passed after the Calvo raid shows political space can be created to support reform, but that it isn't easy. "It took raiding the mayor and killing his dogs and their being completely innocent white people to get relatively minor legislative action," he said. "The record keeping requirement is clearly a baby step toward challenging SWAT, and there was very decided knee-jerk law enforcement opposition to it."

It's going to take some organizing, he said. "You have to have a collection of groups deciding to make this an issue the way they made addressing the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity an issue. I'm not aware that this has developed yet, and perhaps this is something the drug reform community should be doing. We could take the lead in trying to raise this with more powerful political actors."

Feature: Police Officer Deaths in US Drug War a Rare Occurrence, Despite Popular Belief

Tomorrow is National Law Enforcement Memorial Day, a day to mark the service of those law enforcement officers who died in the line of duty. Fortunately for drug law enforcers, last year did not leave a lot of fallen officers to memorialize. And while it may cut against the grain of countless pop culture depictions about dangerous drug dealers, last year was not unusual.

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lioness statue, National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial (courtesy wikipedia.org)
Doing drug law enforcement is just not that dangerous. According to statistics on police line of duty deaths compiled by the Officer Down Memorial Page, only three law enforcement officers were killed enforcing drug laws last year, and those three were not undercover narcs doing drug buys or SWAT team raiders busting down doors, but DEA agents who died in a helicopter crash in Afghanistan. (One officer, Michael Crawshaw of the Penn Hills Police Department in Pennsylvania, was killed responding to a drug-trade murder in which one drug trafficker killed another over a drug debt. This officer death was certainly related to the drug war; we rightly or wrongly did not include him in the count because he was responding to a murder, not a drug crime.)

By contrast, according to FBI preliminary figures, 48 law enforcement officers were "feloniously killed in the line of duty"-- none of them doing drug law enforcement. But that was less than half of the 126 line of duty officer deaths last year. Auto accidents killed 34, drunk drivers killed nine, heart attacks killed nine more, seven died after being struck by vehicles, and four died in aircraft accidents (including the three DEA officers). Duty-related illness, 9/11-related illness, and motorcycle accidents accounted for three each, two died after being shot accidentally, and one was beaten to death.

According to historical data provided to the Chronicle by the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, which also compiles statistics on police line of duty deaths, last year's low death toll among officers enforcing the drug laws is not a fluke. In the decade between 1978 and 1988, an average of 6.5 officers were killed each year; in the following decade, the number was 6.2; and in the last 10 years, an average of 4.3 officers were killed each year enforcing the drug laws. The single bloodiest year for drug law enforcement was 1988, when 12 officers died.

In 2008, the number of police who died maintaining drug prohibition was seven; in 2007, it was four; it 2006, it was five; in 2005, it was four. When placed in the context of the more than 1.5 million drug arrests made in each of those years, it is clear that only one in every several hundred thousand drug arrests leads to an officer's death. During the past 10 years, the odds were less than 1 in 350,000.

But while drug law enforcement is not in itself that dangerous for police, certain police tactics raise the risk -- for both law officers and the recipients of their attention. Of the 20 officers killed enforcing the drug laws since 2005, nine were killed in drug raids and five were killed doing undercover work.

Two of the 2008 officer deaths demonstrate the risks involved in aggressive forced-entry raids. In Virginia, Chesapeake Police Detective Jarrod Brent Shivers, who also doubled as the door-rammer for the SWAT team, was killed by Ryan Frederick, who shot through a door in fear for his life in reaction to the home invasion. Frederick, who had recently been burgled, was eventually sentenced to 10 years in prison. The cops were looking for a marijuana grow, but found only Japanese maple trees which the informant apparently mistook for pot.

FBI Agent Samuel Steele Hicks died in another raid gone bad. While serving a forced entry narcotics search warrant in Indiana Township, Pennsylvania, Hicks was shot and killed by the suspect's wife, Christina Korbe, who fired blindly from a bedroom at what she later said she thought were intruders. Although Korbe was not a target in the investigation of an 18-year drug conspiracy, she has since been charged with a string of drug offenses in addition to facing a murder charge.

Aggressive law enforcement tactics, such as dynamic entries (kicking in the door) and SWAT-style assaults have also left dozens of homeowners dead. (See Cato Institute analyst Radley Balko's now famous report, "Overkill: The Rise of Paramilitary Policing in America and the police militarization archive at his blog, The Agitator for page after page of stomach-turning reports.)

In November 2006, undercover Atlanta narcotics officers doing a forced entry raid shot and killed 92-year-old Kathryn Johnston after the woman fired at the people breaking down her door in a high-crime neighborhood. In this case, at least, the police were held accountable, in part because their conspiracy to cover up their fabrication of evidence for a search warrant quickly unraveled. Three of them went to prison.

  • On January 6, 2008, police in Lima, Ohio, shot and killed a 26-year-old mother of six, Tarika Wilson, during a raid aimed at her boyfriend. The police shooter was eventually found not guilty for killing her.
  • The following day in North Little Rock, Arkansas, a police SWAT team raided the home of Tracy Ingle. Awakened by a ram battering his door and thinking he was under attack by armed robbers, Ingle grabbed a broken pistol to scare them off. Officers fired multiple shots, wounding him five times. He spent a more than a week in intensive care before police removed him, took him to the police station, and questioned him for five hours. He was charged with running a drug enterprise even though no drugs were found.
  • In May, Connecticut police raiding an apartment after being informed that people were smoking crack there, shot and killed Gonzalo Guizan, who was unarmed. Police said he charged at them. All they found was a crack pipe.
  • This year, at least two people, Florida grandmother Brenda Van Zweiten and Memphis resident Malcolm Shaw were killed in separate SWAT-style raids on their homes the same week in March. In both cases, police claimed the victim was armed. Whether Van Zweiten, who was raided over small-scale drug dealing out of her house, or Shaw, who was raided over simple drug possession (!) intended to attack police or were merely trying to defend themselves from intruders breaking into their homes, will never be known because they are dead.

It's not just people. Dogs also seem to be a favorite target of drug-raiding police. That has certainly become an issue in the February SWAT raid in Columbia, Missouri (see related story here), which has resulted in widespread outrage after a video of the raid found its way to YouTube last week. In that incident, police executing a search warrant over alleged marijuana sales killed one dog and wounded another, and terrified the suspect's wife and child, but found only a tiny amount of weed and a pipe.

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DEA memorial for agents killed in Afghanistan
Another infamous dog-killing SWAT raid occurred in 2008 in Maryland. Cheye Calvo, the mayor of the Washington, DC, suburb of Berwyn Heights, saw his two dogs shot and killed by a Prince George's County SWAT team that burst into his home after his mother-in-law accepted delivery of a package containing marijuana. Calvo and his family were twice victimized, once by the pot traders who used his address to have their dope sent to, and again by the gung-ho, itchy trigger finger police.

It is unclear how many people were killed by police enforcing the drug laws in general or conducting drug raids in particular. Although in 1999 Congress authorized legislation requiring law enforcement agencies to submit such data, it neglected to fund the program. The incidents mentioned above are only some of the most egregious and well-publicized, but they suggest that even if doing drug raids isn't particularly dangerous for police, it is for their victims.

There is a better way, said a pair of former drug enforcement officers consulted by the Chronicle. It might be succinctly expressed as: "Chill out."

"There is no question that in the bulk of those raids, these are not folks with any history of violence, said former SWAT team member US Special Forces sergeant James Hanson, now communications director for the veterans' group Warrior Legacy Foundation. "That should be the first hurdle: Does he have a propensity for violence? Drug warrants almost never have that level of threat. The fears police claim to have are overstated."

But, he suggested, those fears can come to fruition precisely because of aggressive policing tactics. "If you dig deeper on the two or three that happened in 2008, it was the dynamic entry that triggered the violent incident," said Hanson. "Dynamic entry into a house is the most dangerous thing about it. Just wait for the guy to go to the 7-11, for goodness' sake," he exclaimed. "That way, you're not busting down doors, endangering kids, and escalating the situation."

Cops didn't used to need paramilitary squads to do drug busts, said retired LAPD detective Dave Doddridge, who had long experience enforcing prohibition. "We weren't scared, we'd go knock on doors," he recalled. We didn't need the overkill. When I first joined the department back in 1973, at roll call, they would read off the houses, and we would drive up in a patrol car and knock on the door. We managed," he said.

"I spent several years down in South Central kicking in doors and raiding homes, and probably served 50 search warrants," the former narc added. "We weren't SWAT, just a couple of narcotics detectives with our vests on, and none of us got seriously injured. There was seldom any resistance."

SWAT was originally envisioned as elite squads designed for rare but dangerous situations, such as hostage situations, barricaded suspects, or terrorist attacks. But in a case of mission creep gone mad, they are now used routinely for drug raids -- as noted above, to the tune of 50,000 or so a year.

"In a lot of these cases, because, thanks to funds from Homeland Security, they have a SWAT capability, they have to have a reason for having it," said Hanson. "Using SWAT to serve drug warrants allows them to say it's worthwhile, and overstating the potential for violence is part of that."

"SWAT definitely takes control of the situation, but that's not necessary for a family home," said Doddridge. "Maybe if there's a gang with a big drug house and they're manufacturing you should send in SWAT, but if it's a house, just send in an informant, buy the drugs, and get an arrest warrant. You don't need SWAT for that."

But the SWAT philosophy is well-entrenched in American policing. Changing that mentality, or at least reining in SWAT's overuse and abuses will be a difficult challenge. But it can be done.

In the Columbia SWAT raid case, public outrage led quickly to new restrictions on SWAT team deployments and new rules for their use executing search warrants. Similarly, public outrage in the case of Cheye Calvo, the Maryland mayor, led to the passage of the first state law in the country aimed at reining in SWAT. That law requires every department that has a SWAT team to report regularly on its activities.

"The Maryland law is a perfect example of what needs to be done," said Hanson. "There was no auditing of how many times these teams were used in dynamic entries -- nobody from the civilian side was looking at it. If we're going to ask police to serve drug warrants, we get to decide how they do it. We don't want to put police at risk, but neither do we want to put citizens at risk. There are too many instances of bad warrants, wrong addresses, or lying informants."

Doddridge, who has become a member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) since he retired from the force has another idea. "We need a crack team of attorneys who are good at lawsuits to just go around and start suing like crazy," he suggested. "When they have to start worrying about paying money, that'll make them start looking over their shoulders."

Feature: Reed College in the Crosshairs of Prosecutorial Drug Crackdown

While Oregon sees hundreds of drug overdose deaths a year -- from both illegal and prescription drugs -- a pair of publicity-seeking state and federal prosecutors have made a small Portland liberal arts college where two students have died of heroin overdoses in the past two years the public focus of their attack on the drug trade. Last week, Reed College President Colin Diver was summoned to the federal courthouse in downtown Portland, where he was warned that the school could face a cutoff of federal funds, including student loans, if it is not found to be taking "adequate steps to combat illegal drug activity," starting with this weekend's annual school year-end bash, Renn Fayre, which the prosecutors vowed will be filled with undercover police determined to quash drug use and sales.

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Renn Fayre (sarako on flickr.com)
According to the Oregon State Medical Examiner, 119 people died from heroin overdoses in 2008 and 127 in 2009. Including prescription drug overdoses, 492 Oregonians died of ODs in 2008, 270 from prescription opiates. For some reason, the State Medical Examiner did not include prescription drug deaths in the 2009 figures.

In Multnomah County alone, where Reed is located, 63 people died of heroin overdoses in 2008 and 71 in 2009. That's more than one a week for both years. But no other single overdose or pair of overdose deaths has excited the reaction displayed by state and federal prosecutors who went after Reed last week.

Reed makes an excellent target for drug warriors. For decades, the academically rigorous school has had a reputation as a counterculture haven where drug use is accepted. While that reputation is overblown and outdated, students say, it makes the college a handy lightning rod for those engaged in the culture wars.

Enter US Attorney for Oregon Dwight Holton and Multnomah County (Portland) District Attorney Michael Schrunk. In an email to Divers that they asked be forwarded to the Reed community, the prosecutorial pair used the deaths of the two students as a battle cry for a crackdown.

After lamenting the loss of the students, they wrote: "But while now may be a time for reflection and grief, it is also a time for action. It is now time for the Reed community to abandon the myth that drug use is a safe and acceptable form of exploration. It is time for Renn Fayre and Reed to adopt a zero tolerance policy prohibiting illegal drugs flat-out."

It isn't beatnik days anymore, prosecutors wrote, in a bid to appeal to Reed's countercultural heritage: "The illegal drug trade has changed radically since the days when giants like Alan (sic) Ginsberg and Gary Snyder '51 roamed campus here. The fact is that the drug trade is now fueled by one of the most potent forces in the West: greed."

The pair then explained at length how "drug cartels" are "targeting middle class and wealthier kids," then went on to say they made no distinction between non-lethal drug like marijuana and drugs like heroin. "Don't get sucked in by this bogus Siren call. The fact is that if the Reed community insists that this is 'not our problem' and tries to draw distinctions between 'hard' and other drugs, you will send the message that drug use can be safe... It is time for the Reed community to embrace the notion that drug use is not safe and it will not be tolerated -- without fine print, without provisos, and without conditions."

They then issued a blunt warning: "As the top federal prosecutor in Oregon and the Multnomah County District attorney, we have a responsibility to this community -- including you and your families. We cannot, and we will not stand by if drug use is tolerated on your campus. We cannot, and we will not stand by if Renn Fayre is a repeat of years past -- where even in the wake of Alejandro Lluch's death drug use and distribution were allegedly rampant."

Finally, the prosecutorial pair gallantly offered their assistance: "We stand ready to help in any way we can. If need be, we will use all the tools available to us in federal and state law enforcement. We owe that to the people of our community, including you."

A suitably cowed President Diver responded with his own email to the Reed community: "My message regarding drug use at Renn Fayre 2010 is very simple: Do not use illegal drugs. That means no marijuana, hallucinogens, designer drugs, cocaine, amphetamines, opiates, or other illegal substances."

Diver said he got a forceful and direct message from the prosecutors: "Shut down illegal drug use and distribution at Reed College, starting with Renn Fayre. Based on ongoing criminal investigations, including conversations with current and former students and other sources, these officials have heard numerous allegations about drug use at Reed, and particularly at Renn Fayre."

Diver also mentioned the threats he received: "In the course of the conversation, the US Attorney pointedly referred to a federal statute that makes it a criminal and civil offense for anyone knowingly to operate any facility for the purpose of using illegal drugs. We were also reminded of federal legislation that allows all federal funding -- including student loans -- to be withdrawn from any college or university that fails to take adequate steps to combat illegal drug activity."

On Wednesday, Diver was forced to clarify. According to Inside Higher Education News, the US Attorney only cited the federal crack house statute, under which Reed could face large fines, not the Drug-Free Schools Act, which is the statute that could impact student loans, Diver said. While the US Attorney "referred to federal legislation that could be applied to the college if it failed to crack down more forcefully," he never cited the Drug-Free Schools Act, Diver conceded.

In his email to the Reed community, Diver also delivered a more immediate warning: "We have been told that, during next weekend's Renn Fayre celebration, undercover Portland police officers will be circulating on campus, uniformed Portland police officers will be on alert to respond immediately to calls, and prosecutors stand ready to process criminal charges."

The prosecutorial shakedown has stirred controversy both on campus and in the broader Portland community, with many defending Reed's students, while others say the "druggies" need to be brought under control. In any case, Reed's reputation has complicated its relations with law enforcement.

"There's always a market here for a 'Reed is strange and weird' story," Bear Wilner-Nugent, a Reed alumnus, one-time director of Renn Fayre, and Portland criminal lawyer told USA Today this week. "I think it's going to scare students using drugs to be more underground. I think it's going to discourage students from seeking help for drug problems. It's a waste of resources on what is a tiny fingernail clipping in the drug problem," he said. "It's showboating."

Wilner-Nugent will be attending Renn Fayre again this year, and he said it compares favorably with end-of-semester parties at other schools. "There's a less macho attitude to it, there is less drinking and so you don't see the sexual harassment compared to other institutions," he said. "They are busting one of the saner and healthier college parties in the nation."

"This is the first time any college president has been threatened with the loss of federal funding because of campus drug use, so that's pretty interesting," said Jon Perri, West Coast coordinator for Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP). "We need to be criticizing those prosecutors, as well as law enforcement, for sending in undercover agents and spreading misinformation about drug dealers coming in to target rich white kids. And we need to keep after Reed President Divers, who after his sit-down with prosecutors, basically said don't do illegal drugs, then mentioned a long list of drugs that doesn't include alcohol, which does more harm," Perri pointed out.

"Our chapter there is actively participating in the planning for Renn Fayre, and they will be waging a Good Samaritan policy campaign, while the feds are coming in and trying to do the same old stuff," Perri. "Reed SSDP is trying to pitch it as instead of trying to increase penalties, try something that will save lives."

Perri said he worked with students at Reed to reactivate the Good Samaritan campaign after the second student death. Good Samaritan policies allow drug overdose victims or their friends to seek help without fear of arrest, or, in the case of colleges, academic discipline. "I encouraged them to get it back up and running," he said. "They were wary of starting a campaign because they didn't want to be seen as politicizing those kids' deaths, but that's what the prosecutors have now done."

While by all accounts there has been drug use at Renn Fayre in past years, it is a much milder, less raucous event than many end-of-year campus parties, with a penchant for hallucinogens -- not heroin -- and an abundance of weed. Renn Fayre also features full-body human chess, softball tournaments, a great feast, and lots of music. And alcohol for those over 21.

"Everyone here fears that come Saturday there could be mass arrests for marijuana possession and underage drinking," said Reed SSDP chapter head McKenzie Warren. "It some senses, it's not totally surprising because there has been a lot of local press aimed at Reed, but there is a lot of worry," she reported. "ODs happen all the time, but the homeless population isn't going to get the same focus as a well-known private liberal arts college," said Warren. "Over the years, Reed earned a reputation as a crazy drug-taking school. Maybe it once was, way back in the 1970s, but these days the reputation outstrips the reality."

Reed SSDP is working with other campus groups to protect students from the tender ministrations of law enforcement, Warren said. "We have a number of groups working on harm reduction this weekend, we've had a Reed alumni who is a lawyer come and give talks on how to deal with the police, especially with respect to dorm rooms, and we printed up 1,500 ACLU know your rights cards. We've also been putting up flyers and posters."

And it will push for a full-fledged Good Samaritan policy. "We have only half a Good Samaritan policy," said Warren. "The school just adopted a new implementation plan for our drug policy, and it differentiates pot and alcohol from harder drugs. There is a Good Samaritan policy for alcohol and marijuana, but not for harder drugs. The administration is trying to crack down."

A Good Samaritan policy for alcohol makes sense; for marijuana, the need for it is much less. But a Good Samaritan policy that excludes the drugs that are most likely to kill people doesn't make much sense. There is work to be done at Reed, and the Good Samaritan battle looks like a good way to counter the weight of the prosecutorial offensive.

Drug War Chronicle Book Review: "Drug War Zone: Frontline Dispatches from the Streets of El Paso and Juarez," by Howard Campbell (2009, University of Texas Press, 310 pp., $24.95 PB)

Phillip S. Smith, Writer Editor

Howard Campbell's "Drug War Zone" couldn't be more timely. Ciudad Juárez, just across the Rio Grande from El Paso, is awash in blood as the competing Juárez and Sinaloa cartels wage a deadly war over who will control the city's lucrative drug trafficking franchise. More than 2,000 people have been killed in Juárez this year in the drug wars, making the early days of Juárez Cartel dominance, when the annual narco-death toll was around 200 a year, seem downright bucolic by comparison.

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The violence in Mexico, of which Juárez is the current epicenter, has been setting off alarm bells in Washington, and the US has responded with thousands more law enforcement agents on the border and more than a billion dollars in aid to the Mexican government. In other words, what we've been doing hasn't worked, so let's do even more of it, even more intensely.

We've all seen the horrific headlines; we've all seen the grim and garish displays of exemplary violence; we've read the statistics about the immense size of the illegal drug business in Mexico and the insatiable appetites of drug consumers in El Norte ("the north," e.g. the US). What we haven't had -- up until now -- is a portrayal of the El Paso-Juárez drug trade and drug culture that gets beneath the headlines, the politicians' platitudes, and law enforcement's self-justifying pronouncements. With "Drug War Zone," Campbell provides just that.

He's the right guy in the right place at the right time. A professor of sociology and anthropology at the University of Texas-El Paso who has two decades in the area, Campbell is able to do his fieldwork when he walks out his front door and has been able to develop relationships with all sorts of people involved in the drug trade and its repression, from low-level street dealers in Juárez to middle class dabblers in dealing in El Paso, from El Paso barrio boys to Mexican smugglers, from journalists to Juárez cops, from relatives of cartel victims to highly-placed US drug fight bureaucrats.

Using an extended interview format, Campbell lets his informants paint a detailed picture of the social realities of the El Paso-Juárez "drug war zone." The overall portrait that emerges is of a desert metropolis (about a half million people on the US side, a million and a half across the river), distant both geographically and culturally from either Washington or Mexico City, with a long tradition of smuggling and a dense binational social network where families and relationships span two nations. This intricately imbricated web of social relations and historical factors -- the rise of a US drug culture, NAFTA and globalization -- have given rise to a border narco-culture deeply embedded in the social fabric of both cities.

(One thing that strikes me as I ponder Campbell's work, with its description of binational barrio gangs working for the Juárez Cartel, and narcos working both sides of the border, is how surprising it is that the violence plaguing Mexico has not crossed the border in any measurable degree. It's almost as if the warring factions have an unwritten agreement that the killings stay south of the Rio Grande. I'd wager they don't want to incite even more attention from the gringos.)

Campbell compares the so-called cartels to terrorists like Al Qaeda. With their terroristic violence, their use of both high tech (YouTube postings) and low tech (bodies hanging from bridges, warning banners adorning buildings) communications strategies, their existence as non-state actors acting both in conflict and complicity with various state elements, the comparison holds some water. Ultimately, going to battle against the tens of thousands of people employed by the cartels in the name of an abstraction called "the war on drugs" is likely to be as fruitless and self-defeating as going to battle against Pashtun tribesmen in the name of an abstraction called "the war on terror."

But that doesn't mean US drug war efforts are going to stop, or that the true believers in law enforcement are going to stop believing -- at least most of them. One of the virtues of "Drug War Zone" is that it studies not only the border narco-culture, but also the border policing culture. Again, Campbell lets his informants speak for him, and those interviews are fascinating and informative.

Having seen its result close-up and firsthand, Campbell has been a critic of drug prohibition. He still is, although he doesn't devote a lot of space to it in the book. Perhaps, like (and through) his informants, he lets prohibition speak for itself. The last interview in the book may echo Campbell's sentiments. It's with former Customs and Border Patrol agent Terry Nelson. In the view of his former colleagues, Nelson has gone over to the dark side. He's a member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition.

If you're interested in the border or drug culture or the drug economy or drug prohibition, you need to read "Drug War Zone." This is a major contribution to the literature.

Feature: Busted for Handing Out Clean Needles -- The Mono Park 2 Fight Back in California's Central Valley

Hit hard by a double whammy of drought and economic slowdown, California's Central Valley has become a hotbed of methamphetamine and other injection drug use. Now, the dusty town of Modesto, in Stanislaus County, has become a focal point in the statewide and nationwide battle over how to help injection drug users. Last week, two volunteers at an unsanctioned needle exchange were in court in Modesto hoping to reach a plea bargain after they were arrested in April for handing out syringes. Now known as the Mono Park 2, they're looking at serious jail time for trying to save lives.

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mobile needle exchange/clinic site in nearby Fresno
The deal was supposed to be that Stanislaus County District Attorney Birgit Fladager would drop drug paraphernalia possession charges against exchange volunteers Kristy Tribuzio and Brian Robinson if they agreed to quit handing out needles until there was a legal program in place. But that didn't happen. Instead, at the last minute, the DA rejected the plea deal. Another hearing is set for November 9. If the DA and defense attorneys cannot reach agreement then, the case will go to trial.

The case has its genesis in longstanding efforts to win official approval for a needle exchange in Modesto. California law allows for needle exchanges, but only as a local option. The county board of supervisors must declare a health emergency in order for needle exchanges to operate legally.

In a 2008 report, Containing the Emerging Threat of Hepatitis through a Syringe Exchange Program (begins on page 22), the Stanislaus County Civil Grand Jury recommended the county authorize syringe exchanges and implement them either directly or through a community based contractor. The effort also had the support of county public health officials, including Public Health Department, the Advisory Board for Substance Abuse Programs, the Local AIDS Advisory Implementation Group, and the Hepatitis C Task Force, who cited a high incidence of Hepatitis C. They cited research indicating that needle exchanges reduced the spread of blood-borne diseases, brought injection drug users into contact with public health workers, and did not result in increases in drug use.

But despite the input from the public health community and the grand jury report, the Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors a year ago voted unanimously against allowing needle exchanges. In so doing, they heeded their own prejudices and those of law enforcement over science-based policies and the advice of the public health community.

County Sheriff Adam Christianson and DA Fladager both spoke out against needle exchanges, saying they would enable drug users to continue their addiction. Fladager said needle exchanges sent the wrong message to young people and encouraged them to think the county would take care of them if they become addicted.

"All of the challenges we are faced with in Stanislaus County, the gangs, methamphetamine, crimes, all have elements of drug addiction," Christianson said. "A syringe exchange program enables people to continue with their drug addiction."

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used syringes collected by exchange -- they might otherwise have been discarded in public places
Noting that Hep C was not a big issue for the county because most patients are covered by insurance, Supervisor Bill O'Brien also objected on bizarre moral grounds. "Then there's the human issue. Giving a drug user a clean needle is not the best thing for him. Illegal drug use has a risk, and making it safer promotes it," he said.

Supervisor Jim DeMartini thanked the grand jury for the report, but then dismissively added, "Like many well-intentioned programs that don't work out, this will never work out and deliver the benefits promised."

Too bad the sheriff, the DA, and the county board don't agree with the nation's drug czar. "Needle exchange programs have been proven to reduce the transmission of blood-borne diseases," Gil Kerlikowske told Congress during confirmation hearings earlier this year. "A number of studies conducted in the US have shown needle exchange programs do not increase drug use. I understand that research has shown these programs, when implemented in the context of a comprehensive program that offers other services such as referral to counseling, healthcare, drug treatment, HIV/AIDS prevention, counseling and testing, are effective at connecting addicted users to drug treatment."

Given the knowledge base about the effectiveness of exchanges and the evident human need for them in Modesto, needle exchange advocates were not content to simply roll over and die. Instead, they created an unauthorized needle exchange in the city's Mono Park, also known as needle park by residents because of the used needles littering the ground there. The program was publicized and went along on a low-level basis without a hitch until April, when, after an elaborate undercover sting, police swooped down and arrested the exchange volunteers.

Kristi Tribuzio just happened to be volunteering with the needle exchange the day the bust went down. Now, she's one of the defendants. "There was a direct need for this, and when I found out there was an existing exchange -- I saw a flyer on a telephone pole -- I asked how is this happening?" she said. "I got involved; I was just going out there for the people. An undercover cop came up and did an exchange, and then, a little later eight to 10 undercover officers drove up with a drug dog and arrested us. It was pretty harsh and crazy," she recalled.

"Looking back, Brian and I think it was maybe naive of us to just go out there and do something that was helping people in line with other syringe exchange programs," said Tribuzio. "We didn't understand what the consequences could be."

Now, she and Robinson face up to a year in jail for violating the paraphernalia law. For Tribuzio, there were other consequences, including the loss of her contract position with the Stanislaus County drug and alcohol education and prevention program. "I was laid off two days after I was arrested. Because I was a contract worker, they didn't need a reason to fire me, and no official reason was given. Ironically, my employer supports needle exchange," she said. "Maybe that's why they laid me off instead of firing me for cause. Now, at least, I can get unemployment."

Tribuzio had previously worked as a substitute teacher, but she can't do that now, either. "I'm getting an MA in education, and I have a teaching credential, but my credential is now suspended," she said. "Imagine, a teacher in San Francisco could be doing just what I did, and there would be no problem."

That's because needle exchanges have been authorized by the San Francisco County Board of Supervisors, just as they have in most large California cities. But in more conservative locales, like the Central Valley, the fight is more difficult, and therein lies the problem -- and the solution -- said one prominent harm reductionist.

"What we need is to get legislation authorizing syringe exchanges on a statewide level rather than our current system, which requires that they be authorized by local authorities," said Hilary McQuie, Oakland-based Western director of the Harm Reduction Coalition. "Requiring local authorization means we have to deal with 54 jurisdictions instead of just one, and the politics makes it really difficult in conservative places like Fresno or Modesto. It will be really difficult to get syringe exchange approved in Modesto without a statewide mandate," she said.

Short of that, needle exchange advocates need to carefully lay the groundwork beforehand, she said. In that respect, the Modesto needle exchange perhaps suffered from political naivete. "The effort with the grand jury in Modesto was done in good faith, but the grand jury finding required a response from the Board of Supervisors within three months," she noted. "They hadn't really lined up their support with the Board, and the Board ended up voting against it. That was problematic."

While personally difficult for Tribuzio and Robinson, the battle over needle exchanges in Modesto has moved the issue forward locally and stirred support from around the country and the world. A Mono Park 2 Defense Committee has formed to back them. At last week's hearing, more than a dozen supporters were present in court, and the pair had letters of support from some 35 public health and harm reduction organizations here and abroad.

"We've gotten a ton of support from the harm reduction community," said Tribuzio. "This whole thing has been stressful and overwhelming for us, but they've given us a wealth of training, knowledge, and support, more than we ever expected. We've gotten support from people in other exchanges, and letters of support from around the world. We've also been building alliances with people in the community. Things in the Central Valley are crazy, and we can't turn our heads away in the face of disease. Now, at least, people are paying attention."

While Robinson and Tribuzio wait for their legal problems to be resolved, they continue to work with at-risk communities. "After the bust, we started Off The Streets, and that does everything except for needle exchange," said Tribuzio. "We're doing needs assessments, trying to get our fingers on the pulse of the community, trying to help where we can."

For McQuie, the trials and tribulations of the Mono Park 2 are, sadly, par for the course. "This is how most of the programs got started, doing them illegally, so they're in good company," she said.

Law Enforcement: Georgia Narcs Gun Down Young Pastor

America's war on drugs claimed another victim last week: Jonathan Ayers, 29, a Georgia pastor shot and killed by undercover narcotics agents in his car at a gas station in Toccoa, Georgia, on the afternoon of September 1. After being shot, Ayers drove off, but crashed less than a block away. He died while being treated at a local hospital. No drugs were found.

According to police, undercover officers from a three-county northeast Georgia drug and prostitution task force saw Ayers with a woman wanted for cocaine sales and followed him to the gas station after he dropped her off. While Pastor Ayers went inside to use the ATM, the officers waited by the pumps in an unmarked black Cadillac Escalade. Once Ayers got back into his car, the officers emerged and identified themselves as police. They ordered Ayers to open his car door, but he instead backed up, striking one officer, and then tried to drive away. Police fired twice, fatally wounding Ayers.

"The target was seen meeting with the deceased and at one point getting out of the car of the deceased. They went down from a local establishment down to the Shell Station," Stephens County Sheriff Randy Shirley told WNEG TV the next day. The undercover officers "identified themselves as police and Mr. Ayers backed up into one of the agents, and then pulled his vehicle forward in a fast motion toward the other agent... at which time the agent fired two shots into the automobile," he said.

Shirley conceded that Ayers had not intentionally struck the officer, who had ran behind the vehicle just as it reversed, but was driving toward the other officers "in a threatening manner." But video of the incident shows Ayers driving away from the officers as they opened fire.

Shirley also conceded that Ayers was not a target of the investigation, contradicting what police had told WNEG a day earlier. It wasn't the only clarification police had to make. Ayers' relatives told AccessNorthGa.com that police first told them he had died in a traffic accident, then that he had been shot, and then that he had been shot by a police officer.

The woman suspect police were following was later arrested and charged with cocaine sales. Her name has not been released.

The Georgia Bureau of Investigation is investigating the shooting. The officers involved remain on administrative duty.

Ayers' family, friends, and parishioners said the pastor, whose wife is four months pregnant with their first child, was more likely behaving as a Good Samaritan for a sinner in need than involved in anything nefarious. They suggested he may have had his car windows up and not heard the undercover officers identify themselves and was attempting to flee from armed men confronting him.

Ayers was buried last Friday after a funeral service at his church drew more than 400 people. Parishioner Roger Shirley (no relation to the sheriff) said he was certain Ayers had already forgiven his killers. "I know I will eventually. But I can't right now," he said.

Undercover Cop Arrested for Selling Drugs to an Undercover Cop

In yet another perfect illustration of the colossal stupidity of modern drug enforcement, here's the story of a drug transaction in which both parties turned out to be police:

An undercover Iredell County Sheriff's Office deputy recently purchased drugs from undercover Statesville police officers, raising questions about communications between the two agencies.

Statesville Police Chief Tom Anderson said undercover officers from his department were working a week-long case when they met with someone interested in selling a small amount of marijuana.

After the arrest, investigators from the sheriff's office arrived and confirmed the seller was an undercover deputy and he was released, Anderson said. [Statesville Record & Landmark]

Pete Guither gets it right:

Good thing they were able to stop that small amount of marijuana they were selling from reaching the streets.

Seriously, this is what happens when you have police posing as perps at every level of the drug business. Drug enforcement is all about creating crimes that would never otherwise have occurred, and there are about a million ways that it can go wrong. As funny as this story is, the harsh reality is that frequently when police sell drugs, it's not part of a planned operation. It's because they are actually just straight-up selling drugs.

Law Enforcement: At Least Four Killed by Police Doing Drug Enforcement Actions So Far This Month

There is talk of marijuana legalization in the air, talk about sentencing reform, talk about second chances for drug offenders. But despite all the talk, the drug war rolls on, and the day-to-day grind of it can be a deadly business. So far this month, police officers enforcing the drug laws have killed at least four people.

None of the cases below is an obvious case of police misconduct, although the judgment of some of the officers involved can certainly be questioned. The departments to which the officers involved belong stand behind their men. But four people are dead after having encountered police officers doing drug war business, and at least one of them was not even the target of the cops.

In New York City, Shem Walker, 49, was shot and killed by an NYPD undercover officer Saturday night on his own stoop. The officer was part of a team of narcs, and was standing on Walkers' stoop to provide backup for a narc doing a buy-and-bust at a bodega a couple of doors down the street. Walker went outside to have a cigarette, encountered the undercover officer, told him to get off his porch, then got into a scuffle with him and a second narc standing on the stoop next door. Walker died lying in front of his house after taking a bullet to the chest.

"He said, 'Mommy, I'm going out for a smoke.' That was the last time," Walker's mother Lydia Walker said as she sat in her wheelchair Sunday morning before breaking down. "My son was the peacemaker," she said. "He wasn't involved in no violence. He always tried to make peace."

Walker's sister, Audrey Nurse said he was only trying to protect the family home. "Mind you, guys hang out on our front steps and my brother was always chasing them off. That's the only thing anyone can say about my brother. He comes and takes care of my mother. He is a peaceful guy. This is ridiculous."

In Gwinnett County, Georgia, an as yet unnamed man was shot and killed in a predawn drug raid on July 1. According to police, Gwinnett County police officers entered the home after knocking and announcing their presence, only to be met by a man pointing a gun at them. They shot him dead. Another man at the residence was arrested on a cocaine trafficking warrant, but it was not clear if any drugs were recovered at the scene.

Outside Holden, Louisiana, Donel Adam Stogner, 42, died after being choked by a deputy who was trying to force him to spit out a bag of suspected dope. The incident took place in the predawn hours on Sunday, July 5, when Livingston Parish Deputy Chris Sturdivant pulled Stogner over for weaving in traffic on I-12. The entire 8-minute encounter captured on the deputy's dash cam can be viewed here.

The encounter begins with the deputy asking Stogner for his driver's license, then asking Stogner what he has in his right hand. "I don't have nothing in my hand," says Stogner. "I swear to you."

But the tape appears to show Stogner placing something in his mouth. "Spit it out," the deputy yells, as he attempts to handcuff Stogner and he resists, if not exactly passively, also not aggressively. Stogner never strikes the deputy although the deputy strikes him repeatedly. Still, the deputy was unable to cuff Stogner until more deputies arrived on the scene. Shortly after their arrival, one deputy asks another, "Is he breathing?" He wasn't.

Stogner had been arrested for methamphetamine possession a week earlier. Preliminary coroner reports found meth in his system and concluded that he had died of severe coronary artery disease, an enlarged heart, and a fracture of the hyoid bone in his neck. The coroner ruled the death accidental, and Livingston Parish law enforcement said Deputy Sturdivant acted appropriately.

In Marrero, Louisiana, just six days later, Demarco Washington, 33, was shot and killed after a car chase following a drug investigation. Undercover deputies attempted to stop him, but he fled in his vehicle. Marrero was wanted on drug warrants, and collided with a police cruiser before driving away across lawns. According to deputies, Washington then exited his vehicle and pointed a gun at them. They shot him, and he was pronounced dead at the scene. Washington had previously been arrested for armed robbery, illegally carrying weapons, burglary, marijuana possession, distribution of drugs within 1,000 feet of a school, and battery on a police officer.

One man protecting his front porch, one man in the all-too-familiar predawn drug raid scenario, one man possibly trying to avoid another meth arrest, one man desperate to avoid going back to jail -- all dead. And let us not forget the police officers. How does Deputy Sturdivant feel knowing he choked a man to death to try to make a nickel and dime drug bust? How does the NYPD narc feel knowing he shot a man to death who was only trying to shoo thugs off his porch?

The drug war grinds on, and the toll isn't always measured in arrests, seizures, or prison sentences.

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