Early Monday morning, the chief of detectives requests an urgent meeting with the police chief. At the meeting he tells the police chief that the department’s top narc, Detective Eveready, has gathered intelligence indicating that “Mad Dog Brown,” one of the city’s more well-known drug dealers, has obtained a large shipment of rock cocaine. Mad Dog, who is credited by police with killing a number of rival dealers after giving them a mad dog look, has said he will never be taken alive. The intelligence indicates that Mad Dog has obtained enough rock cocaine to supply the city’s drug users for a month. He is reportedly held up in a fortified apartment on the third floor of a public housing project and surrounded by colleagues armed with military-type assault rifles.
That was the scenario Joseph McNamara set up to kick off the afternoon panel he was moderating for a groundbreaking drug policy conference at the Hoover Institution. McNamara was a fellow at Hoover, a conservative think tank affiliated with Stanford University, and this conference was his baby. More than 100 police chiefs, judges, prosecutors, civil rights and civil liberties leaders, drug treatment professionals, and academics had gathered for the event, which was covered by C-SPAN. It was likely the first event of its kind — and if not, it was certainly the most high-profile. McNamara — who had 35 years in law enforcement — himself had become a critic of the drug war. But the Hoover name gave the event some credibility with conservatives and law enforcement officials. Speakers included Milton Friedman, former Secretary of State George Schultz, Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke, Baltimore Police Commissioner Thomas Frazier, Ed Messe, California Judge James Gray, San and Jose, California Mayor Susan Hammer . . .
McNamara’s co-panelists were Los Angeles Police Chief Bernard Parks, U.S. District Judge Robert Sweet, San Jose Mayor Hammer, defense attorney Ron Rose, San Francisco District Attorney Terence Hallinan, ACLU Executive Director Ira Glasser, former Santa Clara, California NAACP director Tommy Fulcher, and Robert Garner, of the Drug Abuses Services Bureau in Santa Clara.
After laying out the hypothetical, McNamara turned to Chief Parks. What was his next move? Parks responded that he’d attempt to verify the tip. If it checked out, he’d sent in the SWAT team. McNamara asked about the sort of ammunition the SWAT team used. Weren’t their bullets capable of going through walls? “They’ll go through a car engine two blocks away,” Parks answered. McNamara then changed the hypothetical. What if it wasn’t crack, but marijuana? Would he still send in an armed-to-the-teeth SWAT team? Parks said he would. What if it was a shipment of bootlegged Valium? Still with the SWAT team. Black market booze? SWAT Team.
Mayor Hammer was up next. What was her role in overseeing the police department? Would she be comfortable with her own police department conducting a heavy-handed SWAT in a crowded housing complex over illegal Valium? Hammer replied that her job was “to support the chief,” not to question him. If the raid had gone overly poorly with the public, she might go on TV to reassure the city. She added that she doubted such raids did anything at all to reduce the drug supply, that the raid needed to be carried out anyway. “I don’t know how you don’t do the raid and have any credibility with the community.”
McNamara then turned to DA Hallinan. He too said it wasn’t his job to question police tactics. Even if he thought the raid was too dangerous or an unnecessary use of force, he’d keep his opinions to himself. It just wasn’t his job to tell the police chief whether or not he thought a raid was appropriate.
McNamara also asked Sweet, the federal judge, if he’d sign a warrant to make the raid a “no-knock” in each of the various hypotheticals. Since Nixon first pushed the no-knock policy, politicians and police officials had stated over and over again that the tactic would be monitored and patrolled by the judges who would be required to sign off on the search warrants. Sweet said that while he worried about the drug war’s erosion of the Fourth Amendment, he and most judges typically didn’t second-guess or provide much scrutiny to affidavits requesting no-knock search warrants. After the fact, they might hear a defendant’s argument that contraband seized in the raid should be suppressed because the raid was unreasonable, but in his experience, judges rarely gave any consideration to whether the use of a SWAT team and paramilitary, “volatile entry” tactics were an appropriate use of force given the nature of the crime under investigation.
It went on like that. Even Glasser and Fulcher, the civil liberties activists, said they’d become involved only if they received complaints from residents of the housing complex about police misconduct after the raid. They likely wouldn’t devote any resources to criticizing the tactics themselves. Garner, the panelist with an extensive public health background and who ran Santa Clara’s, added that police in his community had never in his career consulted him about the extent of the drug problem in Santa Clara, be it about which drugs are most prevalent, which drugs present more of a public health threat than others, or what sorts of policies would best minimize the harm caused by addiction.
Finally, McNamara asked the panel: If the drug raid was a complete and total success, resulting in a confiscation of “Mad Dog’s” entire stash, with no casualties to police, suspects, or citizens, would it have any impact on drug abuse in your city? All but Chief Parks said no.
The police chief of the second largest city in America had just told the audience that he was willing to use extraordinary force to confiscate a supply of illegal drugs. It was a level of force that could well result in innocent victims, and indeed by that point already had, countless times. What’s more, he added that what drug he was pursuing and how much actual harm that drug caused had no relevance on the amount of force he elected to use. Every public official on the panel who had the power to check that decision then told the same audience that they had no interest in second guessing the chief’s decision. During a question-and-answer session after the panel, the public officials in the audience basically reaffirmed what the panelists had just said.
“It really showed the extent of the problem,” McNamara says. “You get this robot mentality with these officials. The mayor said she knew nothing about these raids, and didn’t want to know anything about them until they were over. The judge wasn’t interested in scrutinizing the raid until it was over — when any damage would already be done. Everyone else said it wasn’t their job to worry about it. And so you end up with this dangerous decision that gets made by people of lower rank with little training, with little incentive to care much about constitutional rights, with no oversight — no checks or balances. Collateral damage is just part of the game.”
In a paper on the conference McNamara later submitted to the International Congress on Alcohol and Drug Dependence, he concluded: “The session revealed that public officials, judges, mayors, district attorneys, police chiefs, public health directors, and community leaders rarely, if ever, meet as a group to discuss urban drug control goals and problems. And they never meet to discuss police drug raids unless something goes awry . . . Each of the panelists indicated a sensitivity to problems of drug control, appropriate police conduct, and public safety but felt that his or her role was basically compartmentalized.”