SWAT/Paramilitarization

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Overkill: The Rise of Paramilitary Police Raids in America

Overkill: The Rise of Paramilitary Police Raids in America (Cato Institute, 2006) POLICY FORUM Tuesday, September 12, 2006 12:00 PM (Luncheon to Follow) Featuring the author Radley Balko, Policy Analyst, Cato Institute, with comments by Norm Stamper, Seattle Police Chief (Ret.) and author of Breaking Rank: A Top Cop's Exposé of the Dark Side of Policing. The Cato Institute 1000 Massachusetts Avenue, NW Washington, DC 20001 Watch the Event Live in RealVideo Listen to the Event in RealAudio (Audio Only) Over the last 25 years, America has seen a dramatic and unsettling rise in the use of SWAT units for routine police work. The most common use of SWAT teams today is to serve narcotics warrants, usually with forced, unannounced entry into homes. These increasingly frequent raids, 40,000 per year by one estimate, are needlessly subjecting nonviolent drug offenders, bystanders, and wrongly targeted suspects to the terror of having their homes invaded while they’re sleeping. In a new Cato Institute white paper, Overkill: The Rise of Paramilitary Police Raids in America, policy analyst Radley Balko looks at this disturbing trend in police work and analyzes the drug war incentives that have inspired it. The Cato Institute gratefully acknowledges the support of the Marijuana Policy Project in making this event possible. Cato events, unless otherwise noted, are free of charge. To register for this event, please fill out the form below and click submit or email [email protected], fax (202) 371-0841, or call (202) 789-5229 by 12:00 noon, Monday, September 11, 2006. Please arrive early. Seating is limited and not guaranteed. News media inquiries only (no registrations), please call (202) 789-5200. If you can't make it to the Cato Institute, watch this forum live online.
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Harvest Season Hijinks

Every year in August, we see a flurry of marijuana eradication stories in local papers, as police target outdoor plants ripening for the fall harvest. Nowhere is this phenomenon more visible than in California where the Campaign Against Marijuana Planting (CAMP) makes Federal dollars available to local police departments wishing to send their officers on a treasure hunt in the forest.

Local papers have become shameless cheerleaders for this annual ritual, seeking to amaze the public with sexy photos of heavily armed cops repelling into dangerous terrain from helicopters alongside boastful headlines touting seizures in the millions.

Of course, for all the fanfare, many people will notice that there’s no shortage of high-grade marijuana in California. So police use deception to keep the reporters and the public interested.

Here’s how they do it:

Deception #1: Claim a “record” number of seizures every year.

Setting records implies that progress is being made. Every article on outdoor eradication efforts includes a quote like this:

From the Daily Democrat in Woodland, CA:

"I expect this year to be another big year," said [Officer] Resendez. "If we continue on the same pace, we'll exceed the number of plants eradicated last year."

Police are basically competing with themselves here, so they can’t lose. If the numbers go down, they’ll say it’s because last year’s effort intimidated the growers.

Of course record seizures are meaningless if you don’t compare them to an estimate of the overall crop size. A 10% increase in eradication is a failure if the total crop has increased by 20%, but you never get that type of analysis.

There are other factors at play as well. From the Union Democrat in Tuolumne County, CA:

"The increase in plant count is because the gardens are bigger," said Tuolumne County Sheriff Lt. Dan Bressler. "The gardens are bigger because there was so much rain this past year. Streams are full and a lot of water runoff means they're better able to supply their gardens."

Out of a dozen articles on marijuana eradication in California I’ve skimmed this week, only this one mentioned increased rain. Every other article praised record seizures, allowing readers to infer that good police work was the sole factor. It’s a notable omission since rain, unlike police, will find every plant in the forest. If anything, we should be expecting an impressive crop come October.

Deception #2:Dramatically overestimate crop values.

Big numbers get headlines and police will say anything. Here’s a typical quote from KATU News in Oregon:

The plants were four to six feet tall, growing in scattered gardens on three acres of Bureau of Land Management property near Hyatt Lake. Plants of that size can produce about a pound of marijuana each - worth about five-thousand dollars on the street.

I emailed Chris Conrad, court-qualified cannabis expert, to see what he thinks about these numbers. Here’s what Conrad has to say:

After decades of proclaiming "a pound of bud per plant" as being the average harvest, the DEA and DoJ had the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) do an actual study at their experimental marijuana garden at the University of Mississippi. The result: A typical mature female cannabis plant growing outdoors puts out 4 ounces of bud, that is 25% of their claimed yield, and it can be calculated by taking the square foot of the canopy and multiplying it by 1/2 ounce per square foot of area covered by the plant's canopy. The result, published in Cannabis Yields, 1992, notes that "a survey" of police came to a pound per plant, and that is clarified that drug police "estimate" a pound of bud per plant, but it is clear that there is absolutely no data to back that up, it is a made up number used by police to exaggerate crop values.

According to Conrad, police tend to exaggerate crop values within a range of “anywhere from 4 to 1 to 400 to 1.” Of course, with newspapers reporting that you can make $5,000 per plant, it’s no wonder so many people are out in the woods planting the stuff.

Deception #3 Pretend that marijuana eradication is dangerous.

Articles about marijuana eradication always claim the work is hazardous, citing difficult terrain and armed criminals. Again from the Daily Democrat:

[Resendez] added that there are several hazards to law enforcement officials, including the rocky terrain and the suspects. "It's pretty dangerous," Resendez said. "You'll encounter a suspect and they'll be armed. Not so much to protect themselves from law enforcement but from criminals who are trying to steal their plants."

At least he admits that growers arm themselves to protect the crop from thieves and not police. Still, the perception that growers might attack officers has continually driven a militarized approach to eradication. In his book The Great Drug War, Professor Arnold S. Trebach describes how “sensational journalism” in the early 1980s fueled a widespread perception that marijuana growers were armed and dangerous. CAMP officers have been armed to the teeth ever since.

Deception #4: Blame the Mexicans.

Every article on outdoor marijuana growing in CA must have an obligatory reference to the Mexican gangs that are supposedly behind it all. We’ve come full-circle here, since racial animosity towards Mexicans was originally used as leverage in the first efforts to criminalize marijuana.

From the Crestline Courier-News in Lake Arrowhead, CA:

“Ninety-nine percent of the plants seized in the national forests,” [Special Agent] Stokes said, “were planted by members of the Mexican National Cartel which has a huge network throughout California and the west.”

99%!? It’s a convenient generalization, since most such articles note that the growers are rarely seen or apprehended. But I’ll bet if you’re a Mexican walking around a remote California forest in August, you’re a heck of a lot more likely to get questioned by the park police.

To the extent that Mexican gangs are getting involved in outdoor marijuana cultivation, it’s entirely due to prohibition. But it also reflects poorly on CAMP, which has dedicated 20 years to fighting marijuana in California’s forests, only to find that the business is still attracting new participants. If they exist, these gangs are the best evidence that CAMP has failed.

Regardless, I believe the role of Mexican crime syndicates has been dramatically overstated. Let’s face it, the upper half of California is crawling with white people that absolutely love planting pot in the woods. They’ve been there for decades.

For more on the history of CAMP, read Martin Targoff’s excellent book Can’t Find My Way Home. And if you’re ever accused of attempting to grow $50 million worth of marijuana, make sure your lawyer calls Chris Conrad to the stand.

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