David Borden, Executive Director, [email protected]
Local news writers doubtless understand the criminal justice problems such as profiling, police corruption and perjury are ongoing, nationwide issues. Still, the reporting understandably tends to focus on the immediate and the local.
Last week's New Jersey racial profiling story, for example, didn't make mention of the Northern Arizona profiling scandal -- in which Coconino County police were found to have reacted to the New Jersey investigation by shredding large quantities of potentially incriminating documents. This week's story about the DEA Supersnitch Cover-Up was reported as a single story, not a discussion of a nationwide policy that one federal court found to effectively constitute bribery of witnesses.
Issues such as asset forfeiture have garnered an encouraging level of discussion, and even some modest real-world reforms. Incidents of apparent police brutality have gone further, provoking outrage and mass protests in New York City and elsewhere. Even in these cases, though, the dialogue has largely stuck to the individual issue in question, not the relations between the different issues.
It's time to connect the dots. Profiling, misuse of informants, police misconduct and forfeiture abuse are not the work of "a few bad apples," but are rather, as some activists have put it, the fruit of a "rotten apple tree" -- endemic, entrenched, interrelated national problems flowing from some deep corruption eating away at the core of our criminal justice system and eroding the public's trust in it.
And it's time to fill in the background. What forces are at work driving this wholesale violation of rights and dereliction of ethical standards pervading this system? Just as the issues cannot be dismissed as reflecting "a few bad apples," neither can they rightfully be attributed to many bad apples. Most police and prosecutors, we hope, enter their careers wishing to benefit society and set examples for others as upstanding servants of the public. Yet somehow, many end up violating the public through the kinds of abuses discussed here, while many others deliberately tolerate them. What are the root causes of misconduct by crime fighters?
We believe that much of the answer lies in a drug war whose fervor approaches that of a religious crusade. If we are fighting a war, then the ends inevitably come to be seen as justifying the means. And if we are enwrapped in a crusade, the consequences of our own actions in waging that crusade seem unimportant. After all, we are on the side of right, fighting evil; therefore, we can do no wrong.
Last year, in a little-reported statement, the International Association of Chiefs of Police called for a national commission to study problems that are undermining the public's faith in the criminal justice system, including "highly publicized incidents of use of force, racial profiling, corruption, and instances of unethical behavior of police officers and executives." A few months later, the Kansas City Star brought the IACP's suggestion to the attention of then-candidates Bush and Gore. Gore waffled; Bush said he would support it.
Such a commission would not solve all our problems and doubtless would face substantial political pressures as well as a reluctance on the part of many criminal justice leaders to fully confront the realities and consequences of our flawed national drug policies. In fact, IACP's statement made no direct mention of "drugs" or "drug policy."
Still, the dialogue needs to start somewhere. A national commission might be one way to help the public and policymakers to connect the dots and fill in the background.