Thursday, February 02, 2006

Drug war focus lets violent criminals go unpunished

Is the focus on the so-called drug war by US law enforcement causing clearance rates for burglaries, robberies, rapes and murders to go down? That's the implication of an analysis of FBI crime statistics by former New York corrections official Scott Christianson, published recently in the Christian Science Monitor ("Questioning US arrest statistics," Jan. 18).

We've all heard police and politicos claim credit for reductions in reported crime nationwide over the last decade or so, and there's a certain facile logic to the notion that more arrests should reduce criminality. But from a statistical perspective, it appears police effectiveness has little to do with that decline -- in fact, those who commit serious crimes are less likely to be caught by police today than at any time in modern history. That's because the criminal justice system has empirically become less effective at investigating and solving serious crimes in recent years, even as the number of arrests skyrocketed. According to the Monitor:

discussions of police performance often fail to note another important but overlooked trend, apparently unrelated to the falling crime rate: Federal statistics reveal that the nation's "clearance rate" - the percentage of cases for which police arrest or identify a suspect - has fallen dramatically. And this shift is fraught with implications.

The arrest clearance rate for reported homicides recently dropped to about 60 percent compared with about 90 percent 50 years ago. This means that a murderer today has about a 40 percent chance of avoiding arrest compared with less than 10 percent in 1950. The record for other FBI Index Crimes is even more dismal: The clearance rates have sunk to 42 percent for forcible rape, 26 percent for robbery, and 13 percent for burglary and motor vehicle theft, all way down from earlier eras.

Can you believe that? At a time when blustering politicos call for "zero tolerance" on drugs, 87% of burglaries and 58% of rapes go unsolved. Why in the world would we prefer to tolerate those crimes in order to crack down on drugs? That's exactly what this article says is happening:

So, if reported crime has been going down and arrests have gone up, what accounts for the plummeting arrest clearance rates for murder, robbery, rape, burglary, larceny, and motor vehicle theft?

Part of the answer must involve drug law enforcement - victimless offenses that aren't reported to the police or included as FBI Index Crimes. Instead of arresting suspects for burglaries and other serious reported crimes, cops today spend much of their energy going after illegal drugs. Their arrest rate for drug possession (especially marijuana) has shot up more than 500 times from what it was in 1965.

And what are some possible implications of this shift?

For one thing, it may give criminals the impression they can get away with nondrug related crimes.

For another, it may lessen public support for the police. Polls show those who live in "high crime" neighborhoods are generally the most dissatisfied with the police. Maybe this is because they have reported to the police that they have been victimized by robbery and other serious crimes, then witnessed that the police are not arresting anyone for it but are instead aggressively waging a "war on drugs" in the community.

Nevertheless, the matter of falling arrest clearance rates hasn't received much scrutiny from the police or the public.

Maybe it hasn't received scrutiny, but it should - especially since our prisons are overflowing with nonviolent offenders to the point where violent felons must be released to make room. Christianson says this trend should prompt "serious discussion" of law enforcement's priorities -- I'd say it should prompt a radical overhaul, and soon, before violent crime rates climb again and we're all wondering why.


Writer said...

The impression I get from your article is that quick, random criminal acts provide a more certain payoff with lower chance of getting caught than organized long-term criminal activity. So, if I wanted a career in crime, I would be better off with burglaries and auto theft. Of course, violent crimes like rape have no monetary value.

I think the main reason so much work is put into fighting drugs is because legislators keep putting money into it. As long as there is funding for fighting drugs, the police are glad to do it. That's how they can get bigger grants to buy cars and equipment that they would otherwise not get with a simple city budget. If they focus on solving petty and violent crime, they will have to do it without the latest and greatest gadgets.

Law enforcement is simply going for what brings in the money. Local and state governments often don't initiate high standards or policies for the sake of having them. They are often trying to meet guidelines to land them some grant money. The same is true for police; the drug war pays better.

Anonymous said...

Crimes are not just solved with money. Crimes are solved by cops who know how to solve them. Learing requires experience so look at the numbers and see if it's a lack of experience or is something wrong with the numbers.

Drug crimes are different than drug case. Drug crimes take no time to solve; drug cases are exhuastive endeavors.

So if drug arrest numbers are high that means the numbers are being produced from arrests of drug crimes in general not drug cases.

Remember most police departments classify drug crimes with other offenses so their numbers reflect high resolution rates even though a drug crime requires no resolution.

It seems to me Christianson is right on point. No one knows how to investigate anymore because the arrests are for low level drug crimes which falsely show high resolution rates for all crimes in general based solely on the existence of a HIGH NUMBER of arrests.

The proof it's not working is in the number of drug criminals in jail and the number of crimes that aren't being solved.

It pays to arrest drug crimes because they're easy and it pays (money).

When was the last time you heard of a police department willing to use their asset forfeiture money to help pay for the incarceration of the drug defendants they arrest.

Asset foreiture pays for the arresting effort; you pay for the results.

Anonymous said...

This is my first visit to this site. I find it hard to believe that people can be so disillusioned and basically ignorant. This article is a perfect example. Why do you people even think that there are burglaries, robberies and murders? It ALL leads back to drugs. This site is pro-drug, anti-police and extremely misinformed. It offers questions, problems and complaining, NEVER has one solution been offered up, except hinting towards the legalization of drugs.
If this is a true representation of the ACLU I am extremely disappointed. I believe that the founders of the ACLU would be extremely disappointed in how far off base a few “wingnuts” have taken this organization.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

@anonymous 2: For what it's worth, this is my own personal site, not officially affiliated with the ACLU. ACLU of Texas' blog is here. Admittedly a couple of things are cross-posted, but Grits frequently offers opinions and stances that don't represent ACLU's positions, just like most bloggers aren't representing their employers opinions on their sites.

As to your complaint, according to federal surveys, upwards of 100 million Americans have used illegal drugs at some point. The idea that most of them committed major crimes like burglaries, robberies and murders is ridiculous demagoguery. To actually improve public safety rather than just increase arrests with little benefit, those are the crimes we really need to be combating. Best,

Anonymous said...

"Why do you people even think that there are burglaries, robberies and murders? It ALL leads back to drugs."

"ALL" of it?

I suspect you may have been overdosed on drug war propaganda.

If all mankind's problems lead back to drugs...why aren't we warned more about it from the recent and distant past by those who were interested in character, behavior, and relationships between peoples?

If all the bad acts and character traits of mankind were caused by drugs, why in the world isn't there something to warn us about in the old texts? Why aren't there eleven commandments?

Greed, anger, fear, hatred, stupidity, or laciviousness never caused a crime? It was drugs? Dang. You mean to tell me when Absalom was caught in the tree by his luxuriant long hair and died there, it was because he was after his father's, David's dope supply? They were fighting over drugs?

I'm an older person. We had crimes and plenty of them and have always had them....long before many people at all ever heard of wide spread
recreational drug use.

If drugs are indeed the root of all evil...what are we going to do? Drugs are also medicine...and we actually need, not just want, them sometimes.

If we could eradicate the world of drugs we could end crime? We wouldn't even need police or courts anymore? That's amazing.

What, may I ask, brought you to this profoundly enlightened state of understanding?

Anonymous said...

It never ceases to amaze: the answer is right in front of most people's faces, but they look high and low, around the corner and under the stairs and behind the sofa rather than see what should be obvious: prohibition adds to the motivation to commit criminal acts because it makes them profitable. And then ask yourself if you want to continue paying for this nightmare.

And in the case of an addict (a real, honest-to-God, narcotic- or stimulant-withdrawal suffering one, not someone that smokes cannabis) they have an even greater incentive to commit crimes - to afford the hyperinflated cost of what would be worth pennies on the dollar if legal.

As to anti-police, that's too broad a generalization...which is typical of most prohibitionists. If that assertion were indeed the case, then why do you think this site is so supportive of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition?

What drug law reformers object to is the continual erosion of our Constitutional rights that politicians and bureaucrats keep telling us we must surrender - just for a little while, of course, until we win the DrugWar. A war that is 92 years old and counting.

What we also object to is the waste of our taxpayer's dollars in what amounts to a gravy train for those same politicians and bureaucrats, who go on and on about a war they know they can't win. They and their kind are the ones who are putting our Boys in Blue in the line of fire unecessarily with their posturing and legislation about something that didn't bother our great-grandfathers one bit.

Anonymous2, if you truly wish to learn just how this entire mess got started, I suggest that you click on this link and read for yourself just how a few supposedly well-meaning people began what amounts to an eternal civil war against some of our own people.

Anonymous said...

To Anonymous 9:48am; I am a former law enforcement officer with over 20 years of drug law enforcement so your comment that this cite attracts comments from people who are anti-police; who want drugs legalized; and who aren't informed is absurd, uninformed, and just plain wrong.

But since you are; please enlighten us or me what led you to be so informed and somehow trump what I know and you say you do.

I am not for complete legalization but I damn sure know that the drug war is a monster, fed by numbers, and the lion share of the numbers are drug users and addicts. I know because I arrested alot of them and the same people are being arrested again just not by me.

This cite is an open forum to discuss solutions and if this was your first visit and you reached a conclusion that fast; you are probably genetically related to someone who started this drug war.

Think on that not because you need to but because you are part of the problem; not the solution.

Anonymous said...

I enjoy this site a great deal and visit it often. I have been in law enforcement Texas for over 20 years as well. I can see how it would appear anti-police to a new viewer like anonymous. I would encourage that person to read on.
My opinion is not worth anymore than anyone elses on this site but I'll give it anyway.
I have to agree with a "few" points offered up by "anonymous".
The war on drugs is a complex situation. A great deal of crime does lead back to drug activity and the profit associated with it. Not "all", but a great deal. I don't believe any "real" police officer could deny that. But the answer is not as simple as saying lets make it all legal and then there would no profit. That theory hasn't worked in other places and won't work here. In addition the profit would not be removed it's merely transferred to someone else. Making drugs legal would make them cheaper and more readily avaiable. Agreed? (ie easier to get.) Easier to get means more people using and abusing. Which leads to more addicts, which leads to more addicts in treatment. Then you tax dollars aren't going towards confining offenders in prison, it's going towards addicts in treatment and other programs associated with addiction treatment.
My point is, the answer is "not right in front of your face" as one person put it. However, the one thing that I do agree with is there is a lot of people complaining and not much being offered up as a viable solution.

Anonymous said...

to JD Biggs

If you spent 20 years in law enforcement, name one of those public functions where there was profit in the function; and the profit was unregulated.

I don't know who you worked for but you can't say that your departments isn't always looking for extra funding. The minute they look, they're hooked and when the funding starts (asset forfeiture) it subsidizes the things you couldn't afford. It becomes just as addictive to a police department as it does to the trafficker so don't look for solutions just yet; STOP THE MONEY or at least use it to fund more treatment not more EFFORT.

I don't have the answers and I worked in drugs for over 20 years but when the goal of the trafficker is the same as the goal of the police; they're driven by the same motive so what's criminal about one but not the other.

Henson, for being a civilian, sees it because Tulia taught him that drug law enforcement has become inherently corrupt and that reflects on every other legitimate police function.

Anonymous said...

And one more thing

Say you saw it here because I will predict that Asset Forfeiture will be the next Enron Scandal. It's unregulated money that Police Department use with ARTFUL Language. It's controlled by a Chief who doesn't have oversight, accountability, or controls.

I know an auditor with the DOJ IG's office and they only do spot checks on millions and millions of dollars to verify the department got; not what they spent it on.

Once this ball starts rolling, and it will in some big area like New York, it will make Ken Lay look like an amateur.

Anonymous said...

Your exactly right about the money. All seizures should go somewhere other than the seizing agency. ie treatment.
However, Henson and the other people against the Task Forces (and I am not defending the TF's) think they have won a battle by disbanding them. Nothing could be further from the truth. However, they unknowingly have opened a pandora's box. Instead of 30-40 Task Forces to oversee and/or hold accountable for their actions, we will now have an untold amount of counties, District Attys, and municipalities in search of the almighty dollar. Just wait and see, it is gonna be a gold rush. Your right, it will be bigger than enron.

Anonymous said...


One last thing and I'll get off the box.

About drug task forces and why Henson favors disbanding them.

I worked in one and supervised one in different states. They were the same in both states; Financed federally, state ran, and locally staffed.

There was no accountability, oversight, or controls and these cops who were probably ok when they got there became morally and ethically bankrupt.

Here's why. You can't put a group of people with different masters together and follow one. If you could, religion wouldn't be controversial.

Second, these drug task forces are away from a policed structure (off-cites).

Third, the productivity of these task forces is determined by numbers, so high numbers usually gets the task force and the task force employees AWARDS.

Fourth, their work involves money, drugs, and deceit; among crooks and informants who take drink and operate in bars late at night with very seedy people.

I can't think of anything more dangerous about the cumulative effect of those four things without COMPETENT OVERSIGHT and controls. That's what ALL drug task forces are and Tulia just reflects the culture.

Henson is right on about the inherent corruption in task forces but he also sees that their effectiveness is measured on the back of addicts, re-offenders, and users.

This so called drug war has unnecessarily expanded; it's not good for law enforcement. It's an upside down pyramid in desperate need of an enima.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Thanks, guys, for getting my back here!

JD, that last anonymous comment was right on the money for me. I think that addiction should be a medical, not a criminal justice matter, and I do think getting rid of the task forces a) refocused a lot of federal dollars away from failed strategies, and b) raised this issue of a "numbers game" mentality in the drug war out in the open political arena, really, for the very first time, certainly in Texas. As I say here often in response to your impatient debating partner ;-), the way you eat an elephant is one bite at a time.

Rep. Pena at A Capitol Blog, BTW, two sessions ago had legislation to take (some) asset foreiture money and divert it to treatment. Now that money's tighter, maybe that could have legs, too. Believe me, your criticisms of asset forfeiture are all singing my song, or rather, perhaps, the next song. I'm still busy chewing on the last first bite of that elephant. Best,

Anonymous said...


Impatient? I just think you need to see that elimenanting the Asset Forfeiture (money) will quickly reduce the size of your elephant.

Anonymous said...

I'm thankful that so many officers and ex-officers converse here.

Has law enforcement integrity been hurt by our so called "Drug War", when the Captain, Commander, or Chief has to tell his men and women to "Shake that moneymaker. Get out there and get us some cash off the highway...or wherever you can find it"?

I don't like it and it and I know that it makes some officers feel that they are prostituting for money rather than protecting the meek and helpless, which is what most of them wanted to do when they joined the force.

Any officer that went in service, to protect those who need protecting and finds himself locked into a an exercise wheel that keeps him running towards a sign that says, "More Money. More Money. We need more money", has got to be discouraged over that state of affairs.

Also, something that bothers me, and perhaps others have noticed that when a married officer goes narcotics undercover...their marriages all too often, after a few months or a year or so, ended in divorce.

What's that about?

Anonymous said...

I think I must have asked a rude question at the last of my comment, or one that no one cares to try and answer.

Maybe it's not really a problem and I'm just imagining it or it's just a weird coincidence, or it's just too painful and personal to consider.


Anonymous said...


Undercover (UC) work does not necessarily cause divorces because there are several examples of UC agents with happy and productive marriages.

Rather than look at UC work as a cause of anything, look at it from a cost benefit and for that consider this.

It only works on low level violators and UC work at higher levels is often doing something (driving a truck, depositing money, picking up packages) that keeps you in the organization.

At the lower levels, you grow your hair longer, get a tatoo, you're in bars, you lie and deceive daily, you drive a nice car, and you buy drugs just like someone who isn't in a role. I know guys who have done that for years and they changed quickly from a cop to a crook almost overnight; not because they wanted to but because their supervisor were patting them on the back for results and not looking closely how they got there.

Remember this when it comes to UC work. It is a very important tool when it used in controlled situations. It's an exception to the rule but today it's the rule.

Hope that helps

Anonymous said...

Thank you.

I think you may have answered my question with the words, "... lie and deceive daily". That can't be good for anyone. I guess it just gets easier and easier to "lie and deceive" or it becomes a habit.

Undercover work to solve murders, kidnapping, rapes, assaults, and thefts has real value. I have no problem paying for that.

I don't think it's worth the money or the effect it can have on the UC's integrity and personal life, for the sake of the drug war fiasco.

There are happy marriages that survive narcotics UC. However, I've seen it happen more than once or twice and it's a disturbing thing to see.

There are way too many "unintended consequences" or "side effects", if you will, to this system of pure prohibition.

Anonymous said...


I worked UC but I didn't like it when I had to lie and deceive. It bothered me so the answer to your question about UC work in drugs is a question that is usually answered by looking at results.

If the UC lives that way at work, doesn't discriminate work from life, they will have a serious problem. This isn't rocket science. I don't like locking people up for years. I don't like lying. I don't like deceiving but I did it, not liking it, to earn money, have an impact on something bad, and protect at the level I was suppose to protect at. I was always conscious of that but I found as a rule that most drug agents either were forced to abandon it or just plain quit caring.

Anonymous said...

Thank you.

What you say is saddening.

We've got to find a better, saner way than the way we are doing it now. We've got to.

Too many people, on both sides of this so called "war on drugs", are getting hurt.

There's got to be a better way. We've got to be smarter and more advanced than this as a people.

It seems that, maybe, the place to start on a better way might be with real, true, down to earth and Godly honesty and the regaining of some respect for each other, all of us, all the way around.