Why A Drug Arrest Is Not Like Other Arrests

David Simon is an author, journalist, and TV creator ("The Wire," "Treme," "Homicide: Life on the Street") who I respect more than almost any other writer working today. He’s always honest and incredibly observant of where the ethics of our society are headed. Here’s him speaking during a clip from a PBS special about one of the saddest effects of the War on Drugs.

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David Simon: We like to believe that the drug war has given law enforcement all these tools, all of this authority in which to pursue criminality and gangsterism. But actually what it did was it basically destroyed the police deterrent in a very subtle and unintended way.

Bill Cuneen: Going up to 15th street and Dixie. He's going to have some crack for him and some oxycodone pills.

Joe and I are both sergeants in Major Narcotics, and we don't do street level drug deals. We do, you know, larger quantity cases. We're looking for the dealers and the suppliers.

OK. Deal is good. Guys, move in.

Narrator: A world away from Magdalena and the streets of Miami, I began to see the real impact of the drug war on law enforcement.

Bill Cuneen: Start thinking about why you're in handcuffs and maybe you can help yourself out. OK?

So what happened is that the second guy, he's now running on foot.

Yeah, that's where we believe he might've gone in there.

I guess we're gong to have to write this up as a separate case.

Totally unrelated to the original drug deal we did, but we stumbled upon a house where a couple of big stacks of money, a good amount of marijuana. That's sometimes how things happen. You know, they're not even planned.

David Simon: Nobody respects good police work more than me. I spent more than a decade covering it, and there are a lot of detectives who I admire for their professionalism for their craft.

Bill Cuneen: Hey, what's up? Can I help you?

Man 2: No. No, sir.

David Simon: The drug war created an environment in which none of that was rewarded.

Bill Cuneen: Come on over here for a second. Let's get his ID. He's just cutting through the yard.

David Simon: A drug arrest does not require anything other than getting out of your radio car and jacking people up against the side of a liquor store. Probable cause, are you kidding?

Bill Cuneen: I don't want to say a majority of the people, but there's a good number of people probably in this area that are also involved in drug dealing.

David Kennedy: The problem is there's a real tendency on the part of law enforcement to think geographically, to go throw resources at an area. It's fish in a barrel for law enforcement. Anytime you need to make an arrest, you troll through there. Everybody committing crimes in that area gets arrested. People who are in the area who aren't committing crimes get stopped. It makes everybody angry.

Narrator: Watching arrest after arrest, I began to see for the first time the destructive impact of drug laws not only on those they target, but on those who enforce them as well.

David Simon: The problem is that that cop, that made that cheap drug arrest, he's going to get paid. He's going to get the hours of overtime for taking the drugs down to ECU. He's going to get paid for processing the prisoner down at Central Booking. He's going to get paid for sitting back at his desk and writing the paperwork for a couple of hours, and he's going to do that 40, 50, 60 times a month so that his base pay might end up being only half of what he's actually paid as a police officer.

Police Officer 2: The most important thing right here.

David Simon: We're paying a guy for stats.

Bill Cuneen: You can leave them here, and then we can go back out and do this other deal.

David Simon: Compare that guy to the one guy doing police work, solving a murder, a rape, a robbery, a burglary. If he gets lucky, he makes one arrest for the month. He gets one slip signed. And at the end of the month when they look and they see Officer A, he made 60 arrests, Officer B made 1 arrest, who do you think they make the sergeant?

There may be small errors in this transcript.

Original by "Independent Lens" on PBS, from the episode "The House I Live In." David Simon is a seriously cool guy. He once had an incredible retort to the attorney general of the United States, who wanted him to produce more seasons of "The Wire."

Dec 12, 2013

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