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The Truce On Drugs


“This is a move that we’re seeing throughout really thoughtful policing, going from addressing the broad category”—drug dealing, gangs—“to the narrow one,” the lethally violent, says David Kennedy, the influential policing theorist at CUNY’s John Jay School of Criminal Justice. He points to the innovations of Charles Beck, the Los Angeles police chief, who has refocused his city’s resources away from gang policing; and Garry McCarthy in Chicago, who has used Papachristos’s work to help target interventions. Even in New York, the police department has begun to monitor social media to track the boasts and feuds that propel arguments between small groups of friends into murderous exchanges. “And then Fred [Bealefeld],” Kennedy says, “has his own very explicit version of this.”

Bealefeld didn’t have any of this information when he started in Baltimore. All he had was his list of criminals with gun priors. So his department created a registry and required each beat cop in the city to check biweekly with every local gun offender to remind them they were being watched. The state parole and probation department was overwhelmed by the mass of drug offenders, so Bealefeld asked if instead of monitoring everyone closely, they could just pay attention to a hundred gun offenders. (They could.) Other commissioners had sent out departmental commendations when cops seized large quantities of drugs, but Bealefeld stopped doing that and started sending out letters only when gun offenders were brought in.

It worked. In 2011, Bealefeld’s last full year, his department made only 65,000 arrests, down 43,000 from the figure before he took over. The cops weren’t letting serious crime go—murders were down sharply over the same period, from 269 to 196. Many of the missing arrests were for low-level drug crime. What happened was a kind of reset, a replacement of drug-war policing with another mentality that was more risky but more precise. Perhaps, as Bealefeld worries, the new mindset won’t last. But for the moment, it has meant 43,000 people last year who weren’t locked up, who didn’t have a conviction on their record, who were not subjected to the inherent brutality of the system. The message he had wanted to get across to his officers, Bealefeld says, was “that it’s always okay to go after bad guys with guns rather than guys smoking weed.”

But this seems like the easy case, a couple of kids smoking weed. At lunch with Bealefeld recently, I ask him about a harder one. I live in Baltimore, and when I first moved here, our mostly yuppie neighborhood had a local drug dealer called Shawn who lived in the adjacent housing project. He would meet his customers in the parking lot of my building, take a drive around the block, exchange heroin for money in the car, then get out. Some of the customers were high and freaked out, but Shawn himself was an obese, friendly guy selling deeply damaging drugs more or less quietly. What about him? Was he worth a cop’s attention?

Every form of decriminalization—even Bealefeld’s form of willful, selective ignorance—requires some measure of cognitive dissonance. The drug trade is vicious, and Shawn was perpetuating it, in public defiance of the cops. The likelihood that Shawn would eventually do something violent was not zero. The natural instinct is simply to lock him up, to be done with him, even if you know that in the aggregate locking up every Shawn is what gets you fatherless neighborhoods and underground tapes in which NBA stars urge citizens not to snitch. What Bealefeld was trying to do was to dwell in this dissonance, so that even if the drug plague was not fully ending, the obsession over drugs could end, so we could come to regard low-level heroin dealing as basically an economic crime, not so dissimilar from stealing a car.

It turns out that Bealefeld once worked my neighborhood and remembers when the drug dealing was far more public. He answers carefully, trying to be precise. “To the extent that they’re getting in cars and driving around and doing their transaction, it’s not the same—I would posit to you—as standing behind buildings handing out dime bags of crack. So while it is a scourge to have that going on, it’s not the same as the other,” Bealefeld says. “You have to be very upfront. You have to say, ‘We’re going to focus on these other problems first.’ ”

A few days ago, I found myself fixated on a video clip that had circulated online in late 2010 of a drug gang in Ciudad Juárez executing an extortionist who worked for their rivals. Even in the Roman advertising, snuff world of Mexican YouTube execution tapes, some images stick with you. The extortionist is a heavyset woman, 29 years old, and as the video begins she is standing between two masked gunmen, looking at the camera, her face in a state of complete collapse. She has been caught red-handed, with a sheet with 40 names of businesses alongside handwritten amounts of money. She confesses, her voice a bit blank. Mercifully, or possibly for dramatic effect, her killers don’t show her execution, just a photo of her dead body placed in a street, a rose laid on her back.


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