David Borden, Executive Director, [email protected], 5/30/03
Two weeks after the death of Alberta Spruill during a "no-knock" raid on her apartment prompted by incorrect information from a confidential informant, New Yorkers continue to express rage and shame and dismay. Police leaders have been fired, city officials have apologized for the failure of current practices that led to the tragedy.
The fundamental travesty is the use of such paramilitary-style police tactics in the first place. It has become commonplace in the US drug war for teams of black-clad anti-drug officers to knock down doors without warning, often in the middle of the night, setting off stun grenades, tackling confused residents to the ground and handcuffing them or waving guns in their faces or holding guns to their heads -- sometimes even children.
What police portray as a necessary strategy in the war on drugs is in reality a horrifying display of Stalinist-style police state tactics run amok. There is no good reason to rely on paid, confidential informants -- who often are deeply involved in criminal activity themselves -- and to take the extreme measures employed by Alberta Spruill's killers based on the "information" they provide. And there is no excuse or valid rationale for no-knock drug raids to begin with. Tragedies like Alberta Spruill's are nothing new; they are the inevitable result when SWAT teams are let loose in ordinary, everyday situations, as has become the norm. To allow no-knock drug raids to continue is to guarantee that more innocent people will die from them.
And die for nought. Even if Alberta Spruill had had illegal drugs in her dwelling, for use or distribution -- even if she'd had pounds, or tons -- invading her home to find that supply would do nothing to reduce drug use or abuse, nor anything in the long term to shrink the drug supply. The drug trade is illegal, but it is no less a market because of that. Just as food suppliers expect some of their product to go bad in transit or rot on grocery store shelves before being purchased, drug traffickers know that some of their heroin and marijuana will be seized and not reach the users whose dollars provide their profits. So they simply produce and distribute a quantity of cocaine and methamphetamine equal to the total of the consumer demand for the drugs, plus the losses they expect from drug seizures, added together. Indeed, the trafficking organizations have more accurate data on those numbers than any agency or think tank ever could, because they're the ones doing the selling, and they don't share their records.
Some will still say we have to do something about the drugs; we can't just leave them to leave the homes in which they're hidden to be sold on our cities' streets to our nation's adults and youth. Efforts should be made to prevent mistakes and unnecessary tragedies, they'll say, but we have to get the drugs off the streets, and the element of surprise is necessary to preserve the evidence, protect the lives of police officers, etc.
But doing the wrong thing can be worse than doing nothing. What could be more wrong than continuing the police-state raids, and killing more Alberta Spruills, even if only occasionally, all the while knowing that even raids done correctly and without casualties do nothing to reduce the drug problem?
There is only one right answer to the Alberta Spruill tragedy, only one way to solve the problem and give her death real meaning: Ban no-knock warrants, stop the drug raids, stop the war on drugs. For decency's sake.