The Jefferson Area Drug Enforcement (JADE) task force was so proud of its sweep of low-level drug dealers around the University of Virginia (UVA) in Charlottesville earlier this month that it held a press conference to celebrate the arrests of 15 of 33 indicted suspects. JADE also displayed a flair for the theatrical by dramatically bursting into campus area bars to arrest its targets -- even though it could simply have arrested them at home -- and by arranging a sting where targeted students were invited to join a new UVA secret society, but were instead driven off to jail in a van painted with the logo "Zeta Tau."
JADE consists of members of the Charlottesville Police Department (6 officers), the Albemarle County Police Department (3), the UVA Police Department (3), the Virginia State Police (1), the DEA (1), FBI (1), and the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms (2). In existence since 1995, JADE last year picked up added duties as an anti-terrorism task force, but has so far made no terrorism-related arrests.
While the cops crowed at what they considered a public relations coup, the busts have led to spontaneous protests by some UVA students and raised a host of questions about law enforcement priorities and practices in the Charlottesville area. The questions revolve around not only the show-boating behavior of the police, but also the rather paltry results of JADE's 15-month investigation, complete with undercover informants, into campus-area drug dealing.
For all the police ballyhoo about dealing with the campus area drug menace, they didn't come up with much. Fifteen months of investigating turned up 33 people, most of them charged with delivery of less than a half-pound of marijuana. Of the 15 people arrested in the first sweep, 14 were busted for dorm room-scale pot sales, while two faced cocaine distribution charges, and one poor soul was indicted for misdemeanor distribution of less than half an ounce. One was indicted for both marijuana and ecstasy sales. JADE warriors also turned up about $20,000 in cash and drugs -- a paltry average of some $600 per indicted individual. Additionally, JADE conceded that it had smashed no drug ring, only made a serious of unconnected arrests.
"What a complete waste of university, local, state, and federal law enforcement dollars," said Darrell Rogers, national director of Students for Sensible Drug Policy (http://www.ssdp.org). "That task force spent 15 months finding some kids selling a few bags of weed?" he scoffed. "Please."
Operation Spring Break Down also drew scorn from the Marijuana Policy Project (http://www.mpp.org). "It shouldn't even be necessary to say that this is an absolutely crazy waste of law enforcement resources," said MPP communications director Bruce Mirken. "Memo to law enforcement: college kids sometimes smoke pot, and civilization has yet to crumble," Mirken continued. "But the upshot of this is probably that a number of students are going to have careers and futures ruined or at least seriously derailed for what certainly sounds like no good reason."
But drug reformers weren't the only ones complaining. In an opinion piece in the UVA Cavalier Daily, associate editor Alec Solotorovsky, ripped into the operation: "Either drugs are not a major problem at the University, or JADE is not competent to investigate the problem of drugs at the University," wrote Solotorovsky. "If 33 indictments and $22,000 worth of narcotics are the extent of the University's drug problem, then our law enforcement resources could be put to better use. But if those seizures and indictments are representative of a larger drug problem, they're a sorry prize for 15 months' work."
There do appear to be normal levels of recreational drug use at UVA, if student opinion as expressed in various Cavalier articles is to be trusted. Students quoted in the Cavalier said that drug use was not unusual at the school. One UVA student who asked that his identity not be revealed told DRCNet that many students used drugs recreationally, mainly marijuana, adding, "I don't know that it's a major problem." On the other hand, the student said, "many students were shocked by the bust and felt it unjust."
The sting using the fake secret society van also offended academic sensibilities at UVA, the student told DRCNet. "A lot of people are critical of the operation because of that," he said. "Secret societies are a UVA tradition, and this just seemed like a horrible abuse of that tradition just to humiliate those kids. It seems like this was less designed to bust drug dealers than to humiliate the university."
The arrests also sparked a more visceral reaction from one group of UVA students, the self-styled Rabble (or Rabblers), who last week counterattacked with a blitz of flyers on campus denouncing the task force and chalk-drawn pot leaves on university walls. Some of the leaves had the web address of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (http://www.norml.org) written beneath. The bright green flyers sported the word "JADED" in large type and criticized law enforcement priorities. Some fliers featured a picture of a long-uncaught campus-area serial rapist, suggesting that police funds could be better spent.
"We are appalled by the actions of our government," wrote the Rabblers in an e-mail seeking assistance. "Our government is making a side show out of us, abusing their power and exploiting their people. Entrapment, unlawful surveillance -- are these not extreme measures, both financially and legally, to be taking for such a small amount of drugs?"
"There is quite a bit of resentment about the busts," one Rabbler told DRCNet. "A group of us made about 500 flyers (with 20 or so different but related messages) protesting our local and national law enforcement's recent actions, the Patriot act that allowed it, as well as the drug war as a whole," she said. "We used flyers and chalk so as not to break any rules; we want to make this peaceful and legitimate," she said.
But the Rabble is isolated, she said. "Unfortunately, we don't have a drug reform group on campus right now. We hope to change that by the end of the semester."
The task force stands by its work. "It was a pretty good yield, based on its target audience," said JADE member Sgt. CR Smith. "Most of these people were indicted on more than one charge, predominantly felonies," she told DRCNet. When queried as to the puny nature of such felonies, Smith said, "You have to start somewhere."
As for charges that aspects of the operation, such as the secret society van sting, were related more to theatrics than policing, Sgt. Smith defended the sting. "The Zeta Tau van was a very safe way to bring a number of them in," Smith explained. "It was safer for them and safer for us," she said, raising the specter of the heavily-armed, drug-crazed college pot dealer. As for making splashy arrests at campus area bars, Smith said, "If we could have gotten them at their houses, we would have." She did not explain how the home addresses of the subjects of a 15-month investigation could elude the task force.
Smith also pooh-poohed any connection between JADE's efforts and the failure of local law enforcement to catch the serial rapist. "Our budget is totally separate from the Charlottesville Police Department," she explained. "Besides, some of the things we seize produce money for us. All of our drug buy money is seized money."
So it goes down in Charlottesville. But hey, at least they aren't trying to seize the fraternities, as was the case in 1991's Operation Equinox, a drug war excess so over the top it caused a national stir (http://www.cavalierdaily.com:2001/.Archives/1996/March/20/nsoper1.asp).