How the War on Drugs Creates Perverse Incentives for Police

Radley Balko has an interesting piece at Huffington Post on the ways in which the War on Drugs creates perverse incentives for police departments:

Arresting people for assaults, beatings and robberies doesn’t bring money back to police departments, but drug cases do in a couple of ways. First, police departments across the country compete for a pool of federal anti-drug grants. The more arrests and drug seizures a department can claim, the stronger its application for those grants.

“The availability of huge federal anti-drug grants incentivizes departments to pay for SWAT team armor and weapons, and leads our police officers to abandon real crime victims in our communities in favor of ratcheting up their drug arrest stats,” said former Los Angeles Deputy Chief of Police Stephen Downing. Downing is now a member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, an advocacy group of cops and prosecutors who are calling for an end to the drug war.

“When our cops are focused on executing large-scale, constitutionally questionable raids at the slightest hint that a small-time pot dealer is at work, real police work preventing and investigating crimes like robberies and rapes falls by the wayside,” Downing said.

And this problem is on the rise all over the country. Last year, police in New York City arrested around 50,000 people for marijuana possession. Pot has been decriminalized in New York since 1977, but displaying the drug in public is still a crime. So police officers stop people who look “suspicious,” frisk them, ask them to empty their pockets, then arrest them if they pull out a joint or a small amount of marijuana. They’re tricked into breaking the law. According to a report from Queens College sociologist Harry Levine, there were 33,775 such arrests from 1981 to 1995. Between 1996 and 2010 there were 536,322.

Several NYPD officers have alleged that in some precincts, police officers are asked to meet quotas for drug arrests. Former NYPD narcotics detective Stephen Anderson recently testified in court that it’s common for cops in the department to plant drugs on innocent people to meet those quotas — a practice for which Anderson himself was then on trial.

At the same time, there’s increasing evidence that the NYPD is paying less attention to violent crime. In an explosive Village Voice series last year, current and former NYPD officers told the publication that supervising officers encouraged them to either downgrade or not even bother to file reports for assault, robbery and even sexual assault.

Even when police officials don’t consciously prioritize drug crimes ahead of violent crimes, the vast expenditure of law enforcement resources on the former probably reduces the amount of police effort that can be devoted to the latter.

Later in the article, Balko notes that the War on Drugs also incentivizes police departments to shift resources away from violent crime because drug busts allow them to earn extra money through asset forfeiture, while solving violent crime usually does not:

The most perverse policy may be asset forfeiture. Under civil asset forfeiture, police can seize property from people merely suspected of drug crimes. So long as police can show even the slightest link of drug activity to a car, some cash, or even a home, they can seize it. In the majority of cases, most or all of the seized cash goes back to the police department. In some cases, the department has taken possession of cars as well, but generally non-cash property is auctioned off, with the proceeds then going back to the department. An innocent person who has property seized must go to court and prove his property was earned legitimately, even if he was never charged with a crime. The process of going to court can often be more expensive than the value of the property itself.

Asset forfeiture not only encourages police agencies to use resources and manpower on drug crimes at the expense of violent crimes, it also provides an incentive for police agencies to actually wait until drugs are on the streets before making a bust.

I wrote about the ways in asset forfeiture threaten constitutional property rights here.