The War on People Who Use Drugs, colloquially known as the “drug war”, turns 40 next week. Although the U. S. government has criminalized various substances used for medicinal or recreational purposes for nearly a century, the modern drug war began during the Nixon administration, with his announcement that the U. S. government would actively prosecute a “war on drugs”. This followed the passage of the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970; Nixon then established the Drug Enforcement Administration in 1973 to oversee all of the government’s interdiction efforts. Since then, the drug war has consumed more money, and more lives, than any of the drugs which the state has aimed to eradicate, and has completely failed to achieve any of its intended goals. Drugs are more available than ever before, and although usage has gone down for some drugs (and increased for others), it can be attributed as much to changing tastes in recreational drug usage as to the state’s interdiction efforts.
The increased funding to state and local law enforcement has led to a rapid militarization of civilian police forces. This map (created by Radley Balko) shows the proliferation of violent, SWAT team-led drug raids which have resulted in the deaths of people who have not been shown to be involved in the drug trade, most recently Jose Guerena.
The funding of drug interdiction efforts in other countries by the U. S. government, beginning in Colombia in the 1980s and continuing to the present day in Mexico, fueled a protracted and bloody war between the government and drug cartels. Nearly 40,000 people have died in Mexico since President Felipe Calderon, with the direct support of the Bush and Obama administrations, stepped up war efforts against the drug cartels in December 2006. In Ciudad Juarez alone, more than 3,000 murders occurred in 2010; its homicide rate is 4.5 times higher than New Orleans, the current U. S. “murder capital”.
Even as the evidence piles up against the effectiveness of the drug war, the statist media continue to foment hysteria over the next grave danger facing American youths. In the 1980s, it was crack, as alarmist government-led propaganda created a moral panic that raised crack’s profile and possibly fueled its rapid proliferation throughout American inner cities. These days it may be salvia. Or nutmeg. You never know if your spice rack holds the gateway drug that enslaves the minds of your children.
This is not a “war on drugs”. It is a declared war on the people by their government. Even if one believes the state, at a minimum, is necessary to protect life, liberty, and property — a sentiment I don’t share but recognize that many libertarians do — once it begins attacking, killing, and imprisoning its own citizens for the non-crime of voluntarily selling or using plants or chemical substances, the state loses any moral authority to govern.
And now Russia is declaring a “total war” on drugs. Either the Kremlin has developed highly selective amnesia, or just hasn’t paid attention over the past 40 years as other countries have tried, and miserably failed, to stem the flow of illicit drugs. But given Russia’s historic tendency to totalitarianism, this just proves that the drug war isn’t about protecting innocent people from the evil purveyors of narcotics, but about extending and entrenching state power over everyone’s lives.
Until we assume responsibility for our own actions, and reject the state’s authority to rule over us, the drugs, cash, and blood will continue to flow unabated.
“I been forced to write my own laws, and you violated one in there. I just have to find you guilty of contempt of cop.”
– Bumper Morgan, Joseph Wambaugh’s eponymous Blue Knight, justifying his brutal assault on a young man who had casually insulted him.
Jared Lunn, a 21-year-old volunteer firefighter from Brighton, Colorado, visited Denver’s LoDo district to celebrate a friend’s birthday. The evening was quite pleasant until Jared, who was carrying a pizza and minding his own business, was suddenly punched in the face and knocked flat by someone he had never met.
Shortly after the assailant scurried away the police arrived, and Jared’s night took a pronounced turn for the worse.
Perhaps Jared was unaware of the axiom that it is never a good idea to ask the police for help. Perhaps the fact that he is involved in a “public safety” role led Jared to assume that the police would treat him with courtesy and professionalism. In any case, Jared told Officer Eric Sellers that he had just been assaulted and that he wanted to press charges. Sellers told the victim to go home, and he wasn’t impressed when Jared appealed to him as a fellow “public servant.”
“Way to ‘protect and serve,’” muttered Jared in disgust as he walked away.
A violent assault on a mere Mundane is a trivial matter — but this was a clear-cut case of “contempt of cop,” and it could not go unpunished.
Sellers seized Jared and threw him to the ground. While screaming a steady stream of profanities at the terrified young man, Sellers beat him and applied a vicious choke hold. After Jared’s body went limp, Sellers wrenched his hands behind his back and handcuffed him with such violence that the victim wouldn’t have full use of his hands for a week.
This felonious assault took place in the presence of two other police officers who, in keeping with the oath-bound discipline of their brotherhood, refused to intervene.
“This guy [Sellers] does this all the time,” one of the bully’s comrades told Chris Fuchs, an eyewitness to the November 23, 2008 assault, after Jared was released. “We don’t know how he gets away with it.” The obvious reply would be: “He gets away with it because of the guilty collaboration of ‘good cops’ like you.”
"Street justice" in Denver's LoDo district.
Two months later, Sellers became annoyed with a young man named John Crespin,whose behavior struck the officer as “nosy.” Sellers pulled up into the driveway of John’s home and ordered the young man out of the car.
As John complied, his shoulder brushed lightly against Sellers’s arm. Infuriated that a Mundane had defiled his sanctified personage through incidental contact, Sellers inflicted a dose of summary “street justice” as an act of ritual purification.
Just as he did to Jared Lunn, Sellers put John in a chokehold while spitting obscenities in his face. After handcuffing the victim, Sellers used his police baton to lift the young man a couple of feet from the ground, then dropped him face-first into the driveway. The representative of the Denver city government’s punitive priesthood dragged the bloodied man off the pavement, draped him over the hood of his police car, and administered the laying on of hands.
“He started punching me in the sides while I was already handcuffed,” Crespin later told the local NBC affiliate. “I told him to quit, quit, and he wouldn’t quit. He did it one more time and he grabbed my face and said, ‘Who the f*** do you think you are?’”
After being beaten into a lumpy mess, John Crespin — despite the absence of a criminal history — was charged with “felony menacing.” Terrified and worried about being separated from his newborn child, Crespin accepted a plea bargain agreement that resulted in probation.
Sellers was later found to have used “inappropriate force” against Jared Lunn. The same review found that the officer had compounded that offense through the “commission of a deceptive act” — that is, lying to internal affairs investigators. According to the Denver PD’s existing disciplinary guidelines, this is cause for “presumptive termination.” Yet Sellers continues to draw a paycheck as a member of the police force afflicting Denver.
In fact, Sellers — who, according to his colleagues, commits criminal assaults against innocent people “all the time” — complained in a court filing that the disciplinary action against him was “excessive,” because it specified that another episode of that kind would result in immediate termination.
Denver’s Citizen Oversight Board insists, correctly, that Sellers should have been fired already (and prosecuted as well). The Denver Police Protective Association — that is, local armed tax-feeder union — has Sellers’s back, of course.
This isn’t surprising, given that in September 2008 — just weeks before Sellers assaulted Jared Lunn — the Denver police union distributed t-shirts to its members depicting a baton-wielding riot cop rising ominously about the city’s skyline.
“We get up early, to BEAT the crowds,” gloated the inscription. Each member of the Denver PD received one of the commemorative t-shirts, which were created in anticipation of the 2008 Democratic National Convention.
Sellers apparently perceived that ill-advised pun as a directive and took it to what passes for his heart. Interestingly, Sellers owes his continued employment to a figure who played a critical role in the militarized security preparations for the 2008 convention: Ron Perea, who until recently was Manager of Safety for the City of Denver.
Perea was the Secret Service Special Agent in Charge during the 2008 Democratic National Convention. His previous experience included a stint as head of the Denver Field Office for the Secret Service, a position on the executive board of the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force in Los Angeles, and five years on the Albuquerque Police Department.
It’s difficult to imagine someone whose career offers a better core sample of contemporary law enforcement at all levels. So it’s quite significant that Perea, as Safety Manager, defined his job in terms of protecting the career prospects of abusive police, rather than protecting the public. As Safety Manager, Perea had the final say regarding complaints of excessive force. His decisions reflected an obvious desire to placate the demands of the police union, rather than holding abusive cops accountable for their offenses.
Perea resigned his post on August 31, barely three months into his $152,000-a-year job, because of rising public disgust over his handling of several recent episodes of criminal violence by the Denver PD. In addition to the leniency he had displayed toward Sellers, Perea refused to discipline Officer Devin Sparks, who severely beat Michael DeHerrera on a LoDo street corner in April 2009.
“They’re beating up Shawn — what do I do?” a panicked Herrera asked his father. This apparently is what provoked Sparks to blind-side Herrera, slamming him to the sidewalk and repeatedly beating him with a leather-shrouded metal club called a “sap.”
Detective John White, a spokesman for the Denver PD, insists that this wasn’t an Orwellian “rectification” in real time, but rather a result of a camera following a pre-set program. Whether or not this is true, there is compelling evidence that Sparks and his partner, Corporal Randy Murr, took immediate action to cover up the crime. That evidence, interestingly, comes from an unimpeachable law enforcement source – Deputy Anthony DeHerrera, who overheard the officers via his son’s still-active cell phone.
“The last thing we [the elder DeHerrera and his wife] heard was, `We’ve got to get rid of the phone, they’re recording us.’” The phone went dead — leaving Michael’s parents to wonder if the same was true of their son.
After being beaten unconscious, DeHerrera was charged with “resisting” and “interfering” with the officers, but those charges were eventually dismissed.
The official report filed by Sparks claimed that as Corporal Murr was detaining Shawn Johnson, DeHerrera “was about 1 ft. away and began yelling and screaming at the officers. I advised him numerous times to get back and he refused. I then attempted to detain the defendant at which time he tensed up, made a fist and bladed his body. He then spun to his left attempting to strike me in the face with a closed right fist. I then took him to the ground where he attempted to strike me again….”
In his analysis of the video and other evidence, Richard Rosenthal, Denver’s Independent Police Monitor, concluded that the beating was an unwarranted act of violence and that the report filed by Sparks and Murr was “pure fiction.”
“In fact, the video shows that the complainant [DeHerrera] did not make any aggressive moves toward [Sparks],” wrote Rosenthal in his review of the case. “Although the complainant was not complying with [Sparks's] orders to get on the ground, the complainant did not make any attempt to strike [Sparks], either before being taken to the ground or upon being taken to the ground.” In fact, as Rosenthal observes, the reports filed by Sparks and Murr were completely untainted by the truth.
Perea, claiming that unspecified “witness testimony” substantiated the claim that DeHerrera had threatened the officers, insisted that the “totality” of circumstances justified the beating. Despite finding Sparks and Murr guilty of falsifying official reports, Perea claimed that they were guilty of “inconsistencies” and “misperceptions,” rather than “`willful, intentional, or knowing deception,’” and thus weren’t subject to summary termination.
Rather than cashiering the perjurious police officers, Perea merely suspended them three days and “fined” one of them the equivalent of three days’ pay. In a footnote to his summary, Rosenthal notes that one of the officers (most likely Sparks) “received more serious discipline because that officer had a prior disciplinary history.”
In other words, he was a recidivist and proven perjurer. Nonetheless, Perea perversely insisted that he was still qualified to prowl the streets of Denver armed with various implements of violence and clothed in the supposed authority to inflict lethal violence on anyone who refused to comply with his whims.
A Denver cop strikes a pose after he and a boyfriend beat up pedestrian Mark Ashford.
While walking his dogs in downtown Denver last March 16, Ashford saw an officer pull over a motorist for supposedly running a stop sign.
Acting out of a commendable civic concern, Ashford tapped on the windshield and told the driver he’d be willing to testify that the motorist had actually come to a full stop. This provoked the officer to demand that Ashford provide ID — a spurious, vindictive, and unwarranted order.
Ashford complied, and then quite sensibly began to record the incident with his cellphone camera. This prompted the heroic officer to call for backup. The two tax-fattened bullies — later identified as Officers John Diaz and Jeff Cook — then shoved the slightly built pedestrian up against a bridge railing, repeatedly punching him and trying to steal the camera.
After beating Ashford into submission, the officers left him handcuffed in a crumpled heap. After being booked on spurious charges — which were immediately dropped — Ashford was hospitalized with a concussion and a cut over his right eye.
Seeking to placate growing public concern regarding criminal assaults by Denver police, Chief Gerald Whitman told the local NBC affiliate that “the police department is under control” and that it actually receives fewer use-of-force complaints than departments in most other major cities.
The Denver coroner has ruled that the July 9 death of an inmate at the new jail was the result of homicide.
Marvin Booker was being processed on a charge of possession of drug paraphernalia when he got into a scuffle with jail deputies. He was shocked with a Taser device, placed in a chokehold and held to the floor as jail deputies piled on top.
Other inmates said Booker, 56, who was listed as 175 pounds in Denver court records but was actually 5-foot-5 and 135 pounds, was then carried to the holding cell at the Van Cise-Simonet Detention Facility and dropped face fir5 st. He never recovered.
The coroner’s finding means simply that another human being caused Booker’s death, rather than from natural causes, suicide or an accident. It is not the coroner’s role to determine who might have caused the death or whether the homicide was justifiable.
The Denver district attorney’s office is investigating Booker’s death to determine if criminal charges should be filed against the deputies involved, who are on paid vacations until the matter is settled. I would like to believe that someone will be held responsible for this man’s senseless death, but I’m not holding my breath. If it had been private citizens who dog-piled a homeless person and caused him to suffocate, they’d already be in jail and facing murder charges. But when it’s five deputies who are caught on video smothering a small man who had been arrested for possession of drug paraphernalia (itself a non-crime), suddenly it’s more important to “review policy.” And maybe they’ll, you know, be disciplined.
While enjoying a Mother’s Day brunch at my sister’s house, I learned that my older niece’s boyfriend has an interesting part-time job. He has a theater background, and role-plays for training seminars to help police deal with unstable individuals and hostage situations. He’s played drunks, people high on drugs, people having a psychotic episode, and people who for the moment are just very, very pissed off.
One of his recent gigs involved playing someone from the last category: a distraught father who’s holed himself up in a house with his kids and threatening to kill them. While I didn’t learn a lot of details, he apparently played his role so well that a frustrated cop ended up giving him a black eye.
I was struck by the irony of someone who volunteers to put himself in harm’s way by our Protectors and Servants (granted, he’s paid for it), when they will freely dish out the same punishment to any slob on the street unfortunate enough to find themselves in a cop’s crosshairs. It also disturbs me that whatever training the police take to deal with unstable individuals, it doesn’t seem to be working very well.
I mean, if an actor can get clocked by the police during a simulated exercise, what does that bode for genuinely troubled people when the cops have access to their Tasers and sidearms? Unfortunately to ask is to answer.