Transforming police into soldiers for the War on Drugs

By the early 1990s, Michelle Alexander writes in her book The New Jim Crow, “the War on Drugs went from being a political slogan to an actual war.” Rhetoric became reality. And what qualified this shift? Arsenal. Rifles, helicopters, grenade launchers, helmets, nightvision goggles.

Alexander writes that when the Reagan administration initially declared its War on Drugs,

“many state and local law enforcement officials were less than pleased with the attempt by the federal government to assert itself in local crime fighting, viewing the drug war as an unwelcome distraction. Participation in the drug war required a diversion of resources away from more serious crimes, such as murder, rape, grand theft, and violent assault—all of which were of far greater concern to most communities than illegal drug use.”

She makes the case that the government used cash to influence police departments, and rev them up for their new mission. In 1988, Congress launched the Edward Byrne Memorial State and Local Law Enforcement Assistance Program, to honor a New York City police officer shot to death while on duty guarding a drug-case witness.  Alexander calls the program a “massive bribe”: the police’s participation was the only way the government could “win” the war, and achieve its political goals. Through the Byrne Program alone, local law enforcement agencies willing to join the fight have come into millions of dollars in federal aid.

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According to the Inspector General’s office, in some states as much as 90 percent of all Byrne grant money went to narcotics task forces. And as federal money started pouring in, so did military equipment. The Cato Institute estimates that in just one year—1997—the Pentagon tendered over one million pieces of military equipment to local police departments.

Once police departments had the money, and the weapons, SWAT teams formed in cities around the country, employed to serve narcotics warrants. Up until the drug war, SWAT teams were rarely used, and when they were, it was for emergency situations like hostage crises and prison breaks. In 1972, there were a few hundred paramilitary drug raids per year in the US. Each decade, that number soared, so that by 2001, there were forty thousand.



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