APD Chief Gorden Eden continues to justify drug war excesses despite recent outcry over department targeting homeless in drug sting.
By Tom O’Connell
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M., June 16, 2016 – The head of the Albuquerque Police Department confirmed Tuesday that his force has little interest in changing its approach to drugs, even after APD was exposed last month for targeting the homeless in a drug sting.
Chief Gorden Eden sat on a panel that included James Ginger, the independent monitor overseeing the Department of Justice’s consent decree reforms, at a community meeting where the public was invited to ask about reform.
So I asked Eden and the rest of the panel if there were any interest in implementing drug reforms locally since the pace of change at the federal level is glacial.
Eden’s response was in lockstep with the response I got from APD public information officer Tanner Tixier last year when I asked him to comment on Santa Fe’s progressive new Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program, which seeks to divert opiate users from the criminal justice system to social services.
Not only had Tixier never heard of LEAD, but he didn’t want to know anything about it. He raised his voice and bellowed: “If it’s so progressive, why isn’t it everywhere?”
That was a tough question to answer, and the rest of our conversation quickly went even further south.
Study: Cost of Drug Reform Cheaper Than Drug War
The research performed by cities that have adopted LEAD showed that it could be a money-saver for taxpayers, and even cut down on property and violent crime. A cost-benefit analysis by the Santa Fe Community Foundation found taxpayers could save $1 million over three years by diverting a sample population of 100 nonviolent drug offenders away from serial incarceration.
Even so, any change to current drug policy always seems to face knee-jerk opposition from drug-war stalwarts.
When it was my turn to speak Tuesday during public questions, I introduced myself as the reporter who broke the story about the drug stings for BurqueMedia.com. I mentioned Tixier’s angry and uninformed response to my LEAD question, said I was there as both a journalist and a citizen concerned about the excesses and failures of the drug war, and asked if Tixier’s attitude was indicative of APD’s stance on drug enforcement.
Chief Eden stood up and took the floor. He said the controversial buy-bust operations he’d defended account for just 4 percent of the narcotics division’s operations. He then indicated that APD’s enforcement of standard drug-war policy is necessary and good, and that he has no plans to change course anytime soon. He insisted that APD is only giving the community what it wants. Citizens and businesses don’t want to see drug use or be bothered or robbed by drug users. They want police to put those people in jail cells.
But did the policies themselves create the need for the U.S. to come to house the largest prison population of any other country on the planet?
U.S. incarceration rates—we have about 5 percent of the world’s population but 25 percent of the world’s prisoners—make incarceration in “Apartheid South Africa or the Soviet gulags look like child’s play in comparison,” said Drug Policy Alliance executive director Ethan Nadelmann on June 12 at a fundraiser in Albuquerque for the New York City-based organization. “That’s not America. There’s a new generation growing up thinking that’s somehow normal.”
The Albuquerque Journal painted a much rosier version of Chief Eden’s drug policy views. I had to leave before the very end of the meeting, when a UNM professor asked Eden the same questions I asked, according to Journal reporter Ryan Boetel, who covered the meeting.
“Eden did say he would lobby the legislature in the future alongside advocates for addicts and the mentally ill for more resources,” Boetel wrote of Eden’s response. And then he quoted Eden directly as saying: “Those are things I can’t change by myself. We need more options. Incarceration is not always the best option.”
That’s a clear discrepancy that should probably be revisited with Eden.
Revisiting APD’s Targeting of Homeless With Drug Sales
Eden’s got a hard job to do and he’s under the national spotlight, so I can understand his being defensive, especially toward a reporter who exposed a law enforcement practice that encapsulates all the bad things about our drug war—in a story that went viral around the country.
A leaked city document detailed a request by APD to take two pounds of drugs out of the evidence room—equal amounts of cocaine, heroin, meth and crack—to sell to citizens, whom they would then arrest. The document also sought permission to manufacture crack cocaine. On May 9, an APD operation netted eight extremely low-level arrests of people experiencing homelessness. They offered the clothes off their back, sex, as little as $3 and even colic medicine in exchange for tiny amounts of drugs.
“These kinds of low-level drug busts are destined to fail because, as long as there is a demand for drugs, there will be a supply,” the Drug Policy Alliance’s Emily Kaltenbach said of the operation. “It would be better to focus resources on treatment and harm reduction, like Santa Fe is doing with its LEAD program, which gets people help instead of arresting them.”
Chief Eden justified targeting the homeless to the Albuquerque Journal last month, saying the eight people arrested on May 9 had previously been arrested for property crimes.
“Thus, other criminal activity in and around District 6 may have been reduced by this reversal operation,” he was quoted. He also suggested that arresting these people is the only way to get them help for their drug problems.
Tanner Tixier was quoted in a different publication also saying that crime had gone down after those arrests, which BurqueMedia.com has been unable to confirm.
‘With Supporting Your Habit Comes the Crime’
Many shrewd people from both sides of the drug war—those who have made a living from it, and those who have been screwed by it—agree that it has little to do with keeping Americans safe.
A former IV meth user told me last year how backward the system is, based on firsthand experience. She was busted on federal charges after robbing a pay station at a national park to pay for drugs. Maintaining a black-market drug habit isn’t cheap, so users “have to steal and rob and break into houses to support their habit,” she told me. “With supporting your habit comes the crime. And if you get caught with the littlest amount of drugs, you go to jail, and you’re a felon, and you can’t get a job or place to live. When you get out, all you know are drug addicts, so all you can do is revert back to crime. It’s like a revolving door.”
Even many law enforcement professionals, current and former, are coming out in favor of reform, arguing that our drug policies are to blame for many of the problems associated with drug use. Our policies, they say, create the need for police enforcement of the policies. It’s a self-perpetuating system.
“Our drug policies are by far more harmful to society than drug use or abuse could ever be,” Neill Franklin, a former Baltimore cop and current executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), told me last year. “The number of deaths that result from the policies are at a level we can’t accurately calculate.”
Franklin questions how the government decides which drugs to make illegal, because the numbers show that legal drugs such as alcohol, tobacco and painkillers kill far more Americans than illegal drugs do.
“We don’t dare travel down that road to prohibit alcohol and tobacco, so why do we treat someone so different who’s addicted to heroin than addicted to alcohol?” he asked.
‘Heroin Is Cheaper and More People Are Dying’
“The war on drugs is over. And we lost,” Leonard Campanello, the police chief of Gloucester, Mass., was quoted in an interview last year. Campanello spearheaded a LEAD-like program in his community to combat the opiate epidemic ravaging the Northeast. “There is no way we can arrest our way out of this,” he said. “We’ve been fighting it for 50 years, and the only thing that has happened is heroin has become cheaper and more people are dying.”
Alternative policies like LEAD and the East Coast’s Police Assisted Addiction and Recovery Initiative (PAARI) attempt to shift law enforcement’s focus away from punishment and toward a more practical, healthcare-based approach to drug use, say reformers—one that doesn’t stamp users with a criminal conviction that makes it hard to get housing, work and education.
As former South Carolina cop Raeford Davis recently told Vice: “You arrest people for selling drugs, they become criminalized, and it destroys any opportunity they had to be productive members of society.”
With a conviction and without basic life skills and support, serial incarceration is the only answer for many caught up in the drug war.
And that revolving door of justice runs on tax dollars and blood.