More than two-thirds of some 300 US chiefs of police interviewed in a survey conducted for the Police Foundation and Drug Strategies (http://www.drugstrategies.org), a mainstream drug policy research and advocacy group with a strong emphasis on prevention and treatment that also supports some harm reduction measures, said that law enforcement has failed to quell drug use. Released this week, the survey found that 67% of police chiefs believe their drug enforcement efforts "have been unsuccessful in reducing the drug problem."
Similarly, while police chiefs surveyed continued to see drug abuse as a top law enforcement problem -- 63% said it was serious or very serious in their communities -- they also appeared to recognize that the decades-long war on drugs requires a radical rethinking. Nearly half of the chiefs (47%) said the nation's drug policy requires "major changes," while 37% called for a "fundamental overhaul."
While some may find these figures surprising, they are supported by a larger annual survey conducted by the National Association of Chiefs of Police (http://www.aphf.org). In one of a series of questions related to drug policy, that survey sent out to more than 22,000 police chiefs and sheriffs asks: "Has the national war on drugs, which has been ongoing for at least 15 years, been successful in reducing the use of illegal drugs?" In the last annual survey, a whopping 82.3% of respondents said no. Association spokesman Dennis Ray Martin told DRCNet that the latest annual survey, which is about to be released, will show a similar figure.
"It's a realistic assessment," said Police Foundation director Hubert Williams, a career police officer who served as director of the Newark Police Department for 11 years. "If the chiefs were to say otherwise, they would be telling lies," he told DRCNet.
"My old profession isn't as dumb as everybody thinks it is," laughed former Tonawanda, New York, police officer Peter Christ, a 20-year veteran of the drug wars who co-founded ReconsiDer: Forum on Drug Policy (http://www.reconsider.org) and then Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (http://www.leap.cc), both pro-legalization. "I've been arguing that legalization is the only solution for the terrible crime problem we've created. Drug use needs to be regulated and controlled -- it's not something we can make go away," he told DRCNet. "I think at least some in law enforcement understand that."
"I'm not in the least surprised," said LEAP executive director Jack Cole, a retired 26-year veteran of the New Jersey State Police. "This summer, LEAP decided to attend national and international police conferences as part of our outreach and we went to five of them. We keep track of everyone we talk to on a one-to-one basis. We're talking about maybe 200 people at each conference," he told DRCNet, "and what we've found in our informal tally is that 80% agree the drug war is a dismal failure."
But while police executives may be wary of the drug war, that sentiment seems at this point to translate not into support for legalization or regulation but for broadening anti-drug efforts to include a greater recognition of the drug problem as a public health problem. In other words, drug war and drug treatment. "Drug abuse is a medical problem, a disease," said the Police Foundation's Williams. "If America is going to be successful in ending drugs, we need a comprehensive approach."
The Drug Strategies/Police Foundation survey results supported that view. When asked to choose whether "drug abuse" is better handled by the criminal justice system or the public health approach, 35% said cops, while 18% said public health. Interestingly, 44% chose neither option, instead volunteering the answer "both."
[Editor's Note: Opinion polls are the creatures of those who commission them. The Drug Strategies/Police Foundation survey is no exception. Following the ideological predilections of Drug Strategies, the survey questions frame the problem as "drug abuse," not drug policy. Thus, 63% of chiefs said that "drug abuse" is a serious problem in their communities, when what they are really referring to is really a combination of problems related both to drug abuse -- as distinct from drug use, a distinction this poll fails to make -- and problems related to crime and violence generated by prohibitionist drug policies.]
But even if police chiefs are willing to anonymously agree that decades of prohibition have failed, few are ready to say so publicly. "That's what LEAP is for!" exclaimed Christ. "We are trying to create a safe space where people who want to agree with us can come forward. All the time, there will be cops at our presentations, and they will say nothing in public, but then they get me off to the side and tell me to keep up the good work. There are career considerations. When I was a cop, everyone knew how I felt, but I didn't speak out publicly because I had a career."
"Police are in a very bad situation when it comes to speaking out against the war on drugs," said LEAP's Cole. "They're scared to death their peers and the politicians are going to label them as soft on drugs, soft on crime. That's a real threat to a police officer. To stand up takes a lot of guts."
And it's a matter of continuing education, too, said the Police Foundation's Williams. "When Kurt Schmoke was mayor of Baltimore, and they wanted to do a needle exchange program, all the police chiefs just saw paraphernalia. But if you engage them in a serious discussion, you will see they agree prevention and treatment are part of the solution. Law enforcement alone is a poor way to address this problem." Bring on the debate, said Williams. "If we are going to address this issue, that will require a considerable amount of discussion so everyone is informed of the real facts. There must be a broad dialog to shape future policies, because law enforcement alone isn't the way."
Read the Drugs Strategies/Police Foundation survey, "Drugs and Crime Across America: Police Chiefs Speak Out," at http://www.drugstrategies.org and http://www.policefoundation.org online. Read the National Association of Chiefs of Police annual survey at http://www.aphf.org/surveyresults.pdf online.