Driven By Drug War Incentives, Cops Target Pot Smokers, Brush Off Victims Of Violent Crime
CHICAGO -- As Jessica Shaver and I chat at a coffee shop in Chicago's north-side Andersonville neighborhood, a police car pulls into the parking lot across the street. Then another. Two cops get out, lean up against their cars, and appear to gaze across traffic into the store. At times, they seem to be looking directly at us. Shaver, who works as an eyebrow waxer at a nearby spa, appears nervous.
"See what I mean? They follow me," says Shaver, 30. During several phone conversations Shaver told me that she thinks a small group of Chicago police officers are trying to intimidate her. These particular cops likely aren't following her; the barista tells me Chicago cops regularly stop in that particular parking lot to chat. But if Shaver is a bit paranoid, it's hard to blame her.
A year and a half ago she was beaten by a neighborhood thug outside of a city bar. It took months of do-it-yourself sleuthing, a meeting with a city alderman and a public shaming in a community newspaper before the Chicago Police Department would pay any attention to her. About a year later, Shaver got more attention from cops than she ever could have wanted: A team of Chicago cops took down her door with a battering ram and raided her apartment, searching for drugs.
Shaver has no evidence that the two incidents are related, and they likely aren't in any direct way. But they provide a striking example of how the drug war perverts the priorities of America's police departments. Federal anti-drug grants, asset forfeiture policies and a generation of battlefield rhetoric from politicians have made pursuing low-level drug dealers and drug users a top priority for police departments across the country. There's only so much time in the day, and the focus on drugs often comes at the expense of investigating violent crimes with victims like Jessica Shaver. In the span of about a year, she experienced both problems firsthand.
On the night of May 13, 2010, Shaver was smoking a cigarette with her friend Damon outside the Flat Iron bar in Wicker Park. She said she saw a woman walking away from the bar alone when two men began shouting profanities at her. The men then began walking toward the woman. "I made eye contact with her, and she looked like she was in trouble," Shaver said.
Shaver shouted at the men to leave the woman alone, at which point she says the the two men turned their attention to her, approached her, and began shouting at her. Damon told the men to leave Shaver alone. They jumped Damon and began to beat him. Shaver said she then tried to pry the men off her friend, and managed to free him long enough for him to get away and call 911. Shaver said she was punched repeatedly, including in the face. She fell, stood up, and was hit in the face again. The men then robbed her and left. When she woke up the next morning with bruises, she went to the hospital. Doctors found a concussion and several contusions.
Two weeks later, Shaver still hadn't heard from the detective assigned to her case. When she finally went to the police station in person to get an update on the investigation, she was told there was no record of the incident. She filed another report, but was told it was unlikely police would be able to track down the witnesses again, and that even if they were, the witnesses' memories were likely to have faded. Shaver says she decided to investigate on her own. She went back to the Flat Iron and questioned customers and employees herself. A bartender gave her the men's nicknames: "Cory" and "Sonny," the guy who hit her. Shaver learned that Sonny was also a reputed cocaine dealer. She heard he had a violent streak, and had been banned from a number of neighborhood bars.
"I was scared," Shaver said. "I'd heard bad things about this guy, and he knew who I was."
Shaver is thoroughly tattooed, which makes her easy to recognize. So she dyed her hair, covered her tattoos with clothing, and kept investigating. She worked her way through social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace until she was able to put actual names to her attackers' faces and nicknames. And yet she still couldn't get anyone at Chicago PD to help her. "I gave them the guy's name and everything," she said. "There were even hip hop videos online with him in them. I told them, 'That's the guy!' They still wouldn't listen to me."
In August 2010, three months after the attack, Shaver contacted a reporter for Time Out Chicago, who began asking around about her case. Shaver also met with Chicago Alderman Joe Marino. Shortly before the Time Out article went to press, a detective finally called Shaver down to the police station to identify her attacker. But even with her identification, the police didn't arrest "Sonny." He wasn't charged with the assault until the following month, when he was arrested on an unrelated domestic violence charge.
Shortly after she finally identified her attacker at the police station, Shaver said the detective in charge of her case told her, "Now I don't want to hear any more bitching from you."
Arresting people for assaults, beatings and robberies doesn't bring money back to police departments, but drug cases do in a couple of ways. First, police departments across the country compete for a pool of federal anti-drug grants. The more arrests and drug seizures a department can claim, the stronger its application for those grants.
"The availability of huge federal anti-drug grants incentivizes departments to pay for SWAT team armor and weapons, and leads our police officers to abandon real crime victims in our communities in favor of ratcheting up their drug arrest stats," said former Los Angeles Deputy Chief of Police Stephen Downing. Downing is now a member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, an advocacy group of cops and prosecutors who are calling for an end to the drug war.
"When our cops are focused on executing large-scale, constitutionally questionable raids at the slightest hint that a small-time pot dealer is at work, real police work preventing and investigating crimes like robberies and rapes falls by the wayside," Downing said.
And this problem is on the rise all over the country. Last year, police in New York City arrested around 50,000 people for marijuana possession. Pot has been decriminalized in New York since 1977, but displaying the drug in public is still a crime. So police officers stop people who look "suspicious," frisk them, ask them to empty their pockets, then arrest them if they pull out a joint or a small amount of marijuana. They're tricked into breaking the law. According to a report from Queens College sociologist Harry Levine, there were 33,775 such arrests from 1981 to 1995. Between 1996 and 2010 there were 536,322.
Several NYPD officers have alleged that in some precincts, police officers are asked to meet quotas for drug arrests. Former NYPD narcotics detective Stephen Anderson recently testified in court that it's common for cops in the department to plant drugs on innocent people to meet those quotas -- a practice for which Anderson himself was then on trial.
At the same time, there's increasing evidence that the NYPD is paying less attention to violent crime. In an explosive Village Voice series last year, current and former NYPD officers told the publication that supervising officers encouraged them to either downgrade or not even bother to file reports for assault, robbery and even sexual assault. The theory is that the department faces political pressure to produce statistics showing that violent crime continues to drop. Since then, other New Yorkers have told the Voice that they have been rebuffed by NYPD when trying to report a crime.