The first time I heard a police officer argue that the war on drugs wasn’t working was in 1994.
I was teaching at an alternative high school in South Shore, and the officer was a Chicago police veteran who’d been asked to lead the faculty through a brief drug-education seminar. After just a few minutes, though, the officer announced that in his view little would change without a major shift in public policy. “I think drugs should be legalized, to tell you the truth,” he said.
He wasn’t worried that the availability would drive up use and abuse, since “You can already get anything you want out on the street.”
Yet the war on drugs had succeeded at one thing, the officer argued: turning street gangs into multimillion-dollar enterprises that felt emboldened to battle over turf and market share, even when innocents were in the way. At the time South Shore, like many other neighborhoods, was reeling from nearly daily outbreaks of gang- and drug-related violence—we would regularly hear gunshots during the school day, and the citywide murder tally that year would end up being 930, one of the highest in Chicago history.
Eighteen years later the violence remains ugly and frightening. Chicago finished 2011 with 435 murders, the lowest total in decades, but the bloodshed is up this year, and yesterday Mayor Rahm Emanuel and police superintendent Garry McCarthy held the latest in a series of press conferences to assure the city that they’ve got a strategy for coping with it: they're going to wage a “ground war” on gangs and drug markets.
If it sounds a bit like the various crackdowns and strategies of the past, well, this time they're certain it will work.
“The gangbangers and the gang members and the gangs do not own this city—we do!” the mayor declared at Harding playlot, a small park at 3917 W. Division in the West Humboldt Park community, home of some of the city’s most vibrant drug markets.
Just two months ago Emanuel issued a press release congratulating the police department—and, by extension, himself—for an “aggressive strategy” that resulted in the city going 24 hours without a reported shooting.
But with the recent warm weather came a spate of violence that prompted the mayor and his police chief to reassure the public that they’re going to put even more pressure on gangs. They say the approach is already yielding fruit, in the form of drugs, guns, and cash seized by police—then photographed for distribution to the press.
They noted that police had recently shut down two west-side narcotics markets, resulting in the arrests of dozens of gang members and drug buyers.
Of course, police have busted scores of corner markets over the years. But McCarthy and Emanuel said this time will be different.
For starters, police will be relentless in rounding up not just drug dealers but drug users. “If we allow these locations to regress to their previous conditions, if we allow people to buy those narcotics and fuel that narcotics market which fosters the violence in our neighborhoods, we’re doomed to failure,” said McCarthy. “The idea is to go at it like a ground war.”
But that’s not all—they’ll also count on area residents to keep the drug markets away. “The first line in protecting the neighborhood is the community—it is not the police department,” Emanuel said. “Does the community come outside the church, outside the family room, and reclaim those street corners as ours? Nobody here gets a pass.”
Declaring a crackdown on crime is as safe a political maneuver as they come, just as it was two decades ago, and two decades before that. In short, we've heard this before.
Chicago first introduced a community policing initiative during the crime wave of the 1990s. It’s never been fully implemented—in fact, it’s been cut back drastically over the years, along with the police ranks. Yet thousands of community members already work tirelessly with police, churches, and other organizations to hold their neighborhoods together. Dozens of them are in west Humboldt Park.
Unfortunately, when they clean up a corner, the drug markets move to another corner.
When the sellers are locked up, new sellers are ready to take their place, for one simple reason: there's money in it. They always seem to find customers.
No one needs to point out that the police and federal authorities have already tried locking people up for dealing and using drugs. It’s gone on for more than four decades. It’s cost billions of dollars, filled our prisons, and left countless people—mostly black men—with records that make them almost unemployable—except in the drug markets.
The violence continues. Seventeen people were slain in Chicago last week.
Meanwhile, our leaders keep doing what they do.
The Chicago police only released the names and charges of 12 of the men swept up in the drug busts touted by McCarthy and Emanuel. All but four were arrested for possessing or dealing marijuana.
That’s a substance most Americans believe should be legal. But under our current policies, it’s money for gangs. Cops know this better than anyone, and most I know quietly believe that prohibition doesn't work.
In the past McCarthy has suggested he's one of them, saying he’s open to softening penalties for pot possession. But that's not on the radar anymore.
After the press conference, I asked him about a truly new approach to the violence—reforming our drug laws.
“That’s not something I’m going to comment on,” he said. “I’m going to use existing narcotics laws to try to stop violence.”
I noted that McCarthy himself had just said that much of the violence is fueled by drug money. So wouldn’t we reduce it by taking the drugs away from criminal organizations?
“Maybe,” the police chief said. “But I’m not going to comment on it. I’m in a different place.”