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The Truce On Drugs


Each drug raises different questions. The problem of marijuana is how to accommodate a drug we no longer fear. The problem of cocaine and of heroin is how to control those substances that we do fear but can’t eradicate, and how to weigh their harms. In Baltimore, Bealefeld began to fix on these questions. He was a narcotics-unit lifer, the grandson and great-grandson of city cops. But he had joined the force in 1981, five years or so before the city really suffered the ravages of crack and cheap heroin, and in his memory there existed a model of policing in which the drug traffic played a far smaller role. At community meetings as commissioner, Bealefeld listened to agonized citizen monologues about the drug dealers and the ruin that accompanied them—the casual display of guns, the crazed addicts. But when Bealefeld really pressed them, trying to identify the source of their fear, he realized they weren’t worried about the drug trade itself but about the violence. To Bealefeld, it started to seem as if the pre-drug-war way of thinking might still apply. What if being a good cop didn’t mean turning yourself into a soldier in the drug war? What if the drug war was actually a distraction?

Bealefeld has an obsessive streak, and soon he was pouring over the matrices that predicted violence: What made you likely to be a murderer? It was true that nearly all of Baltimore’s murderers and murder victims had drug arrests in their past. But in many parts of Baltimore, nearly everyone seemed to have some involvement in dealing—the narcotics-unit lingo was “8-88,” meaning there were participants in the drug trade as young as 8 years old or as old as 88. Trying to organize policing around drugs, given these circumstances, could only mean a broad roundup of the neighborhood, and though this had worked very well in New York, it had worked much less well when smaller departments (New Orleans, Philadelphia, Baltimore) tried the same model—and it had the additional effects of overwhelming jails and probation systems and alienating the community. “We are fishing with a net,” Bealefeld started to say publicly, “and we need to be fishing with a spear.”

The spear he found was gun priors. Encoded in Baltimore’s murder records was a singularly interesting piece of data: Over half of the murderers in his city had previously been arrested for a handgun violation. The universe of offenders in Baltimore with prior gun convictions was very small, and most of them were serious criminals. Focusing on them seemed plausible. The commissioner did not publicly declare the war on drugs a failure, though he believes that to be the case, or petition the legislature to decriminalize possession. “We just deemphasized it,” he says.

By this point, the drug war was nearly a quarter-century old, and its accompanying mythology of kingpins and vast international distribution networks had its own power. “My workforce,” Bealefeld says, “grew up watching 60 Minutes episodes of Jamaican posses hatcheting off people’s heads, and the drug wars in Colombia, helicopter gunships, and—craziness. They’re like, ‘That’s me. I’m all in.’ ” It seemed to Bealefeld as if even the most basic policing instincts were now built around drugs. When someone like Shaidon Blake materializes from the chaos of the street, and bodies seem to turn up around him, Bealefeld says, “The boys love those ­cases—‘Let’s do a wiretap!’ ‘Let’s get the helicopters!’ ‘Let’s get all the police shit!’ ” Bealefeld’s “educated guess” is that 5 percent of all drugs in Baltimore move through sophisticated criminal organizations with a clear hierarchy—nearly all the activity is more chaotic, low-level. And yet the myth of the kingpin persists. The habits of drug policing were so ingrained that cops, rolling up on corners, would simply follow first movement, chasing whoever ran. “It’s almost instinctual,” Bealefeld says. But the most dangerous person—the guy holding the gun—almost never ran. Bealefeld had surveillance footage that he showed in training of a group of cops approaching a crew standing outside Lexington Market and then chasing those who bolted. Left standing on the corner with the one cop who remained was a suspect with a sawed-off shotgun stuffed down his pants. Most of the cops were chasing the drug slingers, and they were missing what was really important.

Quietly, in experiments in a few influential police departments around the country, a new set of tools for policing is being tested, as cops have come to realize that violence tends to be driven not by neighborhoods but by small and identifiable populations of exceptional individuals. Working with arrest records on the crime-ridden far West Side of Chicago, a young Yale sociologist named Andrew Papachristos discovered that he could create a social map of violence (including only people who were arrested together with other members of the network) that encompassed just 4 percent of the people in the neighborhood but virtually all of the murderers and murder victims. Each time you “co-offended” with another member of the network, it turned out, you grew 25 percent more likely to be murdered. The universe of the violent and the vulnerable, Papachristos found, was far tinier than the universe of people involved in drugs, or in gangs; it was a small circle of people who all knew one another.


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