Racial Discrimination in the Progression of the War on Drugs

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Katherine Beckett and her colleagues studied racial disparities among drug possession arrests in Seattle Washington and found significant results. In one study, it was found that the Seattle Police Department targeted crack dealers and users, even the data showed, crack was not a commonly used drug in the area (Belenko, & Spohn, 2015, p. 147). Another study found that blacks were significant over represented from drug arrests involving crack, amphetamine, and marijuana (Belenko, & Spohn, 2015, p. 146). The overrepresentation comes from the fact that whites made up 68.8% of crack users in Seattle, and only 26.3% crack possession arrests while blacks made up 63.1% of arrests, and only 15.6% of all crack users (Belenko, & Spohn, 2015, p. 146). The same was found with drug transactions. Most transactions involve a white dealer, but yet 64% of those arrested were black (Belenko, & Spohn, 2015, p. 147). While I believe the findings do indicate racial disparities as it is clear blacks make up a smaller portion of crack users, but a large portion of crack possession arrests, I also believe more research is needed in this area.

For example, another study that focused on drug arrests in Seattle, found that when comparing drug-related activity to 911 calls, the calls were similar in regards to the ethnicity of those arrested (Belenko, & Spohn, 2015, p. 148). Another error is that Beckett’s study focused on two areas of Seattle known for drug activity. In 2015 Seattle’s mayor launched a project called 9.5 blocks that was aimed to focus on areas known for violence, drugs and crime. 9.5 Blocks, narrowed sidewalks, moved bus stops, and got rid of newspaper stands, decreasing opportunity for crime (Oxley, 2017). This project was considered a success as over 100 people were arrested, crime dropped 35 percent, and narcotics related calls dropped 45 percent (Oxley, 2017). In July of 2017, 42 people were arrested from the area where 9.5 Blocks was implemented, and as one of Seattle’s detectives put it, “arrests will slow down activity, but overtime it will come back” (Oxley, 2017). New York City in 2000s implemented quality of life policing and even though blacks made up less than one quarter of the population they made up 52% of marijuana arrests for use in public (Belenko, & Spohn, 2015, p. 142). Police invest more energy into arresting people within inner cities and on the streets, and others have found that street-level drug dealing and open air drug markets are concentrated in racial minority communities (Belenko, & Spohn, 2015, p. 145). These findings reveals that criminal activity is more publicly seen in racial minority community areas. Law enforcement is tasked with creating public areas a safe environment so this could potentially be the result of what statistics are showing, higher minority arrests for crimes when they represent much less of the population.

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The shift in the war on drugs was a pivotal moment when operation hammer was implemented. Up until then the war on drugs was focused on organization leaders. This new approach however, aimed to immobilize the “octopus” rather than give it an opportunity for another one to come around as head of New York City police department’s narcotics division once said (Kerr, 1987). The War on Drugs, while originally a war on drug users and dealers in general, faced significant racial disparities after 1980. In 1989, for example, 80% of felony drug arrests in California were with black or Hispanic offenders (Belenko, & Spohn, 2015, p. 142). The Los Angeles Police Department implemented a policing strategy that resulted in arresting 1,000 Black/Latinos over the course of one weekend for drug related offenses (Belenko, & Spohn, 2015, p. 142). Operation Pressure Point was a street level operation in New York City that reduced drug sales and related crime (Kerr, 1987).

The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988 was a mandatory minimum sentence statute. It prescribed the death penalty for major drug traffickers and anyone that caused another’s death while being involved with a drug felony (Belenko, & Spohn, 2015, p. 107). The law also gave the government power to seize assists of anyone convicted for drug offenses. It also created a new cabinet-level White House Office of National Drug Control Policy which had to submit an annual National Drug Control Strategy to Congress (Belenko, & Spohn, 2015, p. 107). The first ever National Drug Control Strategy stated that pressure needed to be put on the entire drug market which is why the Anti-Drug Abuse Act also focuses on giving federal funding to law enforcement agencies (Belenko, & Spohn, 2015, p. 148). Dramatic increases in arrests for drug offenses during the 1990s were attributed to changes in local, state, and federal laws and practices (Belenko, & Spohn, 2015, p. 148).

In the Florida v. Bostick case, Terrence Bostick appealed his conviction arguing that a bus sweep that violated his Fourth Amendment rights (Belenko, & Spohn, 2015, p. 127). Florida Supreme Court consented with Bostick originally, using the Terry v. Ohio case that prohibited police from searching someone without probable cause (Belenko, & Spohn, 2015, p. 127). Originally under Florida law the officers were required to have reasonable suspicion before detaining, and during the trial the officers admitted they never had any basis for illegal activity (Montalvo, 1991). However, U.S. Supreme Court reversed Florida’s court decision, stating that the police did not need probable cause to search because the individual voluntarily agreed to cooperate (Belenko, Spohn, 2015, p. 127). Law enforcement also has a public interest in those that traffic drugs so the main court case became focused on this objective. In determining whether the state violated Bostick’s constitutional rights, they had to consider the degree of contact and its basis.

The United States Supreme Court recognizes three types of encounters, voluntary, mere communication, and short detention (Montalvo, 1991). It is difficult to prevent crime until the moment it occurs so while I do agree with stop and frisks within reason, I also believe most can be limited. For example, with the Florida v. Bostick case, rather than singularly choosing individuals to search, I believe racial discrimination could have been avoided by bringing a dog onto the bus. Dogs are the most effective method for detecting drugs (Farrah, 1998). The dogs reaction can also stimulate probable cause, avoiding any misjudgement.

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