When I think of the destruction wrought by the war on drugs, I think of the many police officers killed in the line of duty attempting to enforce our country's draconian drug policy. In particular, one face stands out in my memory: that of Detective Gerald "Blackie" Sawyer.
In 1971, President Nixon declared the War on Drugs. In 1972, I worked with the Drug Enforcement Administration to design and implement a joint drug task force for the LAPD, where I was a commander. The next year, Blackie, a 10-year veteran of the LAPD, husband and father of two whose father had also been a police officer, became a key undercover member of that task force. After months of work setting it up, on November 6, 1973, Blackie entered a Santa Monica hotel room intending to make a $144,000 cocaine buy. The sellers had no intention of making a deal. Once he produced the buy money, Blackie Sawyer was executed.
He was the first LAPD Narcotics officer to be killed in the line of duty. Though I was too blind to realize it at the time, many, many more good police officers across the nation toiling in the war on drugs would follow. Like Blackie, many would also receive a hero's funeral and be awarded the Medal of Valor. But what ends have their deaths served?
Blackie's murderers were acquitted. I was angered, frustrated, and infuriated by what I first regarded as a vicious betrayal. The verdict, a blatant miscarriage of justice, "shocked" the judge and "outraged" the DA. The community screams of disbelief were loud and long...yet no one was interested in why or how our citizen jurors had come to their decision.
As each year passed, and we all worked hard trying to achieve what I came to see as the unachievable goals of the war on drugs, I ultimately put myself in the shoes of the Sawyer jury. I came to see them as citizens charged with finding a just verdict by having to sort through police officers posing as armed hoodlums, a collection of informants, jailhouse snitches and other potentially unreliable witnesses drawn from the world of a treacherous criminal marketplace.
Today, my reflections go not to the injustice of the jury's decision but to the futility of Blackie Sawyer's death and the deaths of all of the many other courageous police officers who have been killed over the past forty years because of the drug war. Because our government decided to criminalize drug use, lock up drug addicts and produce that treacherous criminal marketplace rather than treat addiction as a health problem.
Ultimately, I came to see Blackie's death as the sacrifice of an honorable, committed police officer for a misguided and failed policy.
As a country, we recently agonized though a pitifully empty debate on gun control that came to no useful end, and rarely was the drug war made a part of that discussion. Rarely was it mentioned that much of the market for guns comes from violent crime syndicates financed by the war on drugs -- like those who killed Blackie -- and dealers protecting their territories, all of whom buy their arms with profits that, in a world of legalization and regulation, would have gone into
It's time we address the idea that, just like it did when we ended alcohol prohibition, ending the drug war would reduce the slaughter that the illegal market generates in our communities. Since Nixon declared the war on drugs in 1971, a total of 3,293 police officers have been killed in the line of duty by gunfire. Too many of our peace officers are being injured and killed because of a wrong-headed policy that the federal government has so far refused to change.
Supreme Court Justice Kennedy summed it up best when he said, "Our resources are misspent, our punishments too severe, our sentences too loaded." I would add to that: And our police officers too often sacrificed on the altar of the war on drugs.