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LAW ENFORCEMENT : Has the Drug War Created an Officer Liars' Club?

February 11, 1996|Joseph D. McNamara | Joseph D. McNamara, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, is a former police chief of Kansas City and San Jose

STANFORD — Are the nation's police officers a bunch of congenital liars?

Not many people took defense attorney Alan M. Dershowitz seriously when he charged that Los Angeles cops are taught to lie at the birth of their careers at the Police Academy. But as someone who spent 35 years wearing a police uniform, I've come to believe that hundreds of thousands of law-enforcement officers commit felony perjury every year testifying about drug arrests.

These are not cops who take bribes or commit other crimes. Other than routinely lying, they are law-abiding and dedicated. They don't feel lying under oath is wrong because politicians tell them they are engaged in a "holy war" fighting evil. Then, too, the "enemy" these mostly white cops are testifying against are poor blacks and Latinos.

The federal government reports that more than 1.3 million drug arrests were made in 1994, 480,000 of which involved marijuana. About 1 million of the total drug arrests were for possession, not selling. Despite government drug-war propaganda that big-time dealers are its targets, only 24% of the total drug arrests were for selling. Almost all those arrested for selling are small-timers, in large part, supporting their own drug use. Often they are inveigled by undercover police to up the ante. Many of the arrests for selling are made without search warrants and almost all the possession arrests are without warrants.

In other words, hundreds of thousands of police officers swear under oath that the drugs were in plain view or that the defendant gave consent to a search. This may happen occasionally but it defies belief that so many drug users are careless enough to leave illegal drugs where the police can see them or so dumb as to give cops consent to search them when they possess drugs. But without this kind of police testimony, the evidence would be excluded under a 1961 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Mapp vs. Ohio.

I became a New York City policeman five years before the Mapp decision. We were trained to search people who appeared suspicious. I questioned the apparent contradiction posed by the 4th Amendment, which guaranteed that people would be secure in their person and house from a search without a warrant. The instructor said not to worry. A suspect could sue in a civil action but no jury would find against a cop trying to stop dope from being sold. He went on to say that if the courts really meant it, they wouldn't allow such evidence into a criminal trial. In its Mapp decision, the Supreme Court cited this police attitude and the routine violations of the 4th Amendment as reasons enough to establish a national rule to exclude illegally obtained evidence.

Gradually, as police professionalization increased, police testimony became more honest. But the trend reversed in 1972, when President Richard M. Nixon declared a war against drugs and promised the nation that drug abuse would soon vanish. Succeeding presidents and Congresses repeated this false pledge despite evidence that drug use, drug profits and drug violence increased regardless of expanded enforcement and harsher penalties. Because the political rhetoric described a holy war in which evil had to be defeated, questioning police tactics was equivalent to supporting drug abuse.

Leaders of the drug war dehumanize their "enemy"--not just foreign drug traffickers but also American users. This mentality pushes the police into making ever more arrests. Arrests that can only survive in court because of perjured police testimony. The fact that enforcement falls most heavily on people of color also encourages illegal police tactics. Non-whites are arrested at four to five times the rates whites are arrested for drug crimes, regardless of the fact that 80% of drug crimes are committed by whites. The "war" dehumanizes the cops as well as those they pursue.

The eroding integrity of law-enforcement officers and the resulting decrease in public credibility are costs of the drug war yet to be acknowledged. Within the last few years, police departments in Los Angeles, Boston, New Orleans, San Francisco, Denver, New York and in other large cities have suffered scandals involving police personnel lying under oath about drug evidence. Some officers in the New York City police and New York State police departments were convicted of falsifying drug evidence. Yet, President Bill Clinton appointed the heads of those agencies to be drug czar and chief of the Drug Enforcement Agency, respectively, and they were confirmed in the Senate. The message that politicians seem to be sending to the nation's police chiefs is that we understand that police perjury is a part of the drug war.

But recently a number of police leaders have conceded that racially disparate arrest rates and illegal police searches and testimony are a problem. Last year, for example, New York Police Commissioner William J. Bratton warned his officers not to lie about how they obtained evidence, saying that he would rather they lose the case than commit perjury. Last month, Baltimore Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier ordered his cops to stop arresting drug users and to concentrate on criminals committing gun crimes and other violence.

The vast majority of police forces are still being pushed into waging a war against drugs by politicians who ignore history and mislead the public into believing such a war can be won. Consequently, hundreds of thousands of illegal police searches take place and are lied about in court while drug-war hawks pontificate about the immorality of people putting certain kinds of chemicals into their bloodstream.

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