While growing up around Philadelphia in the 1970s, I had a number of interactions with police—none of which were particularly harrowing. On the night before Memorial Day, for instance, a friend and I were drinking beer (yes, we were underage) in a cemetery by the Delaware River when we saw lights flashing and were approached by officers.
Apparently, the police had gotten a tip that someone might be stealing the brass placards from the gravestones and we were in the wrong place at the wrong time. We didn’t have any ID, so my friend handed a stuffed animal with his name on it to the officer. The policeman laughed, realized that we weren’t up to any serious mischief, made sure we were OK to drive home, and sent us on our way.
Quite frankly, I couldn’t imagine that scenario playing out in the same benign way today. I thought of that interaction as I’ve watched the angry, nationwide protests unfold over the disturbing death of George Floyd, where a Minneapolis officer placed his knee on his neck for nearly nine minutes. Many of my conservative friends, especially those who grew up in the world similar to the one I described above, have been caught off-guard by the depth of anger.
Even if some left-wing activists used the crisis to promote riots and mayhem, such mass protests do not happen in a bubble. Tens of thousands of people don’t take to the streets because of outside agitators, but because they are angry about things they’ve often experienced themselves. And many Americans—especially in minority communities—have experienced the brunt of an overall policing approach that has become overly militaristic.
Police strategies have changed dramatically in the past few decades—and not because of soaring crime. Despite recent spikes, crime rates now are much lower than at any time since the 1960s, and police can absolutely take some credit for that. I’m not naïve here. Police abuse has been a problem as long as there have been police. I’ve read about the segregated South and the way police routinely terrorized African-Americans. But something significant has happened in the years following my cemetery experience.
I point to the nation’s War on Drugs as a prime culprit. Recent commentary has correctly focused on various reasons for our current policing mess. Just as teachers’ unions make it impossible to fire bad teachers, police unions make it impossible to fire overly aggressive and even corrupt officers. Then “limited immunity” protects cops from being sued even when they violate people’s constitutional rights.
The federal 1033 program provides decommissioned military-style hardware to police departments. So, instead of sending a beat cop to deal with a routine arrest or disturbance, police nowadays like to bring out the toys—i.e., those tank-like vehicles, SWAT teams and flash-bang grenades that are more appropriate for invaders than peace officers.
But few people have talked about the war on drugs, which started in the 1980s, and conditioned police departments to behave in this more militarized way. Police first took this approach during alcohol Prohibition, as others have noted, and then stepped up the efforts after America’s leaders looked for ways to combat a spreading drug epidemic. This issue isn’t only about race, of course, given how aggressive police behave even in suburban Southern California. But these ham-fisted policies fall disproportionately on minority communities.
One of the earliest drug-war policies is “civil asset forfeiture,” which lets law enforcement quickly snatch the proceeds of drug kingpins. Police don’t need to prove that you did anything wrong before they confiscate your car or other property. The police agency merely needs to assert that the property was used in the commission of a drug crime.
“Today, the old speed traps have all too often been replaced by forfeiture traps, where local police stop cars and seize cash and property to pay for local law enforcement efforts,” wrote two federal officials who helped create the program, in a 2014 Washington Post column. “This is a complete corruption of the process, and it unsurprisingly has led to widespread abuses.” It’s led to widespread anger, too, as police mainly seize poor people’s cars rather than cartels’ assets.
It wasn’t hard to predict what would happen when police take on a siege mentality and are provided with military hardware and exempted from constitutional limitations. In a 1996 editorial, William F. Buckley’s conservative National Review wrote that “the war on drugs has failed” and is “encouraging civil, judicial and penal procedures associated with police states.”
Twenty-four years later we’re seeing the fruits of those policies, even if most observers don’t see the connection. By all means, let’s review police-disciplinary procedures, union protections, racial bias, and other causes of police abuse—but let’s not forget the way the drug war has often turned minor interactions like the one I had into violent confrontations.
This column was first published in the Orange County Register.