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A New Bottom Line for the War on Drugs

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Now that two of the Atlanta police officers responsible for killing 92-year-old Kathryn Johnston have pled guilty to manslaughter, planting evidence and a cover-up, it is time for policymakers to change the policies that led to her death. Obvious reforms are requiring substantial evidence before a warrant to raid someone's home is issued and severely limiting the use of "no knock" raids. Less obvious is the need to change the underlying incentive structure under which law enforcement agencies operate.

Drug war tragedies happen, in part, because law enforcement agencies are graded on such Vietnam-like "body count" statistics as the amount of drugs seized and the number of people arrested. Yet arrests and seizures have little if any impact on drug availability or the problems associated with substance abuse. Furthermore, measuring success by these statistics alone can breed corruption and impropriety.

Because the amount of funding narcotics taskforces receive is often based on how many people they arrest and the amount of drugs they seize, individual officers can advance their careers significantly by making a large number of arrests, even if they are just drug users. This incentive structure has led to fabricating informants, raiding homes on false evidence, lying to judges, and planting evidence. Anything to increase the "body count." Federal prosecutor David Nahmias recently told The New York Times:

"The [Atlanta] officers...were not corrupt in the sense that we have seen before. They are not accused of seeking payoffs or trying to rob drug dealers or trying to protect gang members. Their goal was to arrest drug dealers and seize illegal drugs, and that's what we want our police officers to do for our community. But these officers pursued that goal by corrupting the justice system, because when it was hard to do their job the way the Constitution requires, they let the ends justify their means."

Corrupting the justice system is what happens when policymakers tie budgets, promotions, and salaries to statistics like arrests and seizures. As the plea agreement makes clear, the Atlanta officers cut corners in order to ''be considered productive officers and to meet [the agency's] performance targets." Atlanta's police union has complained that narcotics officers are under pressure to meet quotas for arrests and warrants. This is a common story one hears in state after state.

Even when police officers play by the book, grading them by arrests and seizures is a recipe for failure. The easiest way to boost their numbers is to arrest low-level offenders - from people smoking marijuana on the street corner to drug mules and the homeless. These arrests do much to pad the official reports, but do nothing to stop major traffickers or reduce the problems associated with substance abuse.

It is time for a new bottom line. Drug law enforcement agencies should be graded on their ability to break-up crime networks and apprehend violent offenders. Arrests and seizures should be strategies for achieving these goals, not measurement criteria to judge success or failure. A recent book by the American Enterprise Institute explains:

"Retail-level drug enforcement should focus on what it can accomplish (reducing the negative side effects of illicit markets) and not on what it can't achieve (substantially raising drug prices). Thus, instead of aiming to arrest drug dealers and seize drugs - the mechanisms by which enforcement seeks to raise prices - retail drug enforcement should target individual dealers and organizations that engage in flagrant dealing, violence, and the recruitment of juveniles. Arrests and seizures should not be operational goals, but rather tools employed, with restraint, in the service of public safety." (from the February 2005 AEI book, An Analytic Assessment of U.S. Drug Policy)


This pragmatic approach is taking root in Texas, where a series of scandals has spurred massive change. State narcotics officers are now judged less by arrests and more on how well they disrupt and dismantle dangerous crime organizations. Gathering intelligence and building connections takes precedent over arresting low-level offenders. Drug arrests have fallen by more than 40 percent in the last year, but drug seizures have more than doubled. The state is moving closer to its goal of taking down the top Texas "gatekeepers" to the major drug cartels.

Georgia officials have an opportunity to do something similar. Mrs. Johnston's death is about more than bad apples in the Atlanta police department. It's about the corrupting incentives of a failed drug policy. Changing the criteria by which drug enforcement agencies are evaluated will not bring her back, but it will ensure that her death was not in vain.