War On Drugs Is Changing Our Perception Of The Police by Eric Pettersen, M.A.

© The Colorado Springs Gazette

February 10, 2000

Reproduced under the Fair Use provisions of 17 USC § 107 for noncommercial, educational use.


 

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The following story deals with changes in police attitudes as a result of the bizarre war on drugs this country has undertaken. The policies and procedures are equally applicable to domestic violence and abuse as indicated by added comments in square brackets [ ].

 

I started my career as a peace officer in a small southern city in 1969. Over the years I have watched, and participated in, the evolution from peace officers to law enforcement officers to the militaristic and legalistic officers that the police are today. This evolution has been largely driven by the war on drugs. This evolution has done a great disservice to both the police and the public.

When a peace officer arrived on the scene of a dispute the question was, "How can peace be maintained or restored?" This involved a great deal of negotiation, compromise, issuing orders and sometimes invoking the law as a last resort. The jails' limited space was reserved for real criminals. This was the era when drugs became a very hot political issue. The peace officer was ill equipped to fight a war on drugs so a new ideology had to be found.

About this time a push for 'professionalism' of the police was made. With this push came an ideology of law enforcement as the proper role for the police. Under this philosophy, the question for a law enforcement officer changed from how to resolve a problem to "Is there a crime here?" If so, an arrest needed to be made. This ideology was perfect for fighting the war on drugs [and domestic violence]. The police do whatever is necessary to find a crime (drugs) [or domestic violence] and then swoop down to arrest those involved. Under this ideology the criminal justice system was able to demand, and receive, a greater share of government largess. This enabled the system to hire more police to arrest more people to fill the new jails.

There have been several unintended consequences. The first is that those threatened by arrest for drug offenses are more likely to use force to avoid arrest. The police have countered by becoming more militarized in their equipment, tactics, and outlook. They have also become, as has the whole criminal justice system, more legalistic. Police corruption increases as the opportunity for large scale profit occurs almost daily. Members of the general public are often seen as potential criminals rather than the source of police legitimacy. It is this latter point that is the most dangerous to both the police and the public.

The police derive their authority from the government, they derive their legitimacy from the populace. Because of the war on drugs [and domestic violence], police legitimacy is eroding, not only in the minority community but increasingly in the majority community. As long as the police are perceived as representing more of a danger than the drugs they are supposedly saving us from, there is a problem.

The argument that illegal drugs cause a threat to my family doesn't convince me. If a drug user commits a crime, arrest and prosecute him. Make the crime the central point, not the drug use. Not all drug users commit crimes. However, the perception that all citizens are viewed by the police as potential drug users [or abusers] is spreading.

Those who embarked us on the drug [and domestic violence] war started what is appearing to be another Hundred Years War. The intent then and what we have now are two very different things. The possibility of developing militarized and legalistic police attitudes was not considered. Today, because of this attitude, the police are seen as an enemy by a growing segment of our society. An enemy whose power is growing in response to the need to have more power to pursue the war on drugs [and domestic violence]. Many think this power has gone past the point that can be accepted in a democratic society and is costing the police their legitimacy. These perceptions will have long-term consequences for both the police and society if they are not changed. This involves developing a strategy for dealing with drugs [and domestic violence] because the one we use now is failing.


 

Eric Pettersen, of Colorado Springs, has a masters degree in police administration and served 13 years as an Air Force Security Police officer. He also served nine years in civilian law enforcement in Florida.

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Last modified 6/18/03