I’ve spent nearly a decade investigating and reporting on the fallout from America’s inexpedient and misguided “War on Drugs.” I’ve talked to people who’ve spent years of their lives in jail for as little as a pound of pot, documented the plight of cancer patients denied adequate pain medication as a result of knee-jerk policies designed to curb abuse, and toured urban communities where as much as a third of the male population is incarcerated or on supervised release for drug-related offenses.
But none of that could have prepared me for what must certainly be the most heinous example of how our unmitigated assault on illegal substances has completely debased the principles of justice upon which our nation was founded.
In case you missed it, the story began on January 2nd, 2013, when David Eckert – a 53-year-old resident of Lordsburg, in Hidalgo County New Mexico – was pulled over by police outside a Wal-Mart in the city of Deming for allegedly running a stop sign. This wasn't Eckert's first run-in with local law enforcement. The previous September, he'd been stopped within sight of his house for a cracked windshield, and had his car seized and searched by a drug-sniffing dog on the grounds that he appeared nervous. Despite their best efforts, police discovered no drugs on Eckert or in his car and they sent him on his way. He wouldn't be so lucky this time.
When they took him from his car in front of Wal-Mart, police say Eckert's “posture was erect and he kept his legs together,” which they took as evidence that he had something hidden in his rectum. After a drug-sniffing dog “alerted” on the driver's-side seat of Eckert's vehicle, the Deming police obtained a warrant to perform a cavity search. The first hospital they took him to refused to perform the procedure on ethical grounds, so cops took him to Gila Medical Center, in neighboring Silver City, which had agreed to perform the procedures.
And so began a Kafkaesque nightmare that could have been shot on location at a CIA black site in Eastern Europe.
Over the next 12 hours, and in spite of his repeated protests, Eckert was subjected to: two X-rays, two digital rectal exams, three involuntary enemas, and, finally, a full colonoscopy conducted under sedation. Throughout the entire ordeal, Eckert says he was repeatedly humiliated by the attending officers. After no drugs were found, he was discharged with a $6,000 bill for services rendered. That's right, the hospital expects Eckert, not the police, to pay the bill for being sodomized. He's now suing the city of Deming; Hidalgo County; the police, sheriffs and prosecutors involved; the hospital where he was taken; and the two attending physicians.
The Deming chief of police is on record saying that his officers followed the law in obtaining and executing the search on Eckert, but there are several problems with that assessment. For one thing, the warrant was issued in Luna County – where the first hospital was located – and was not good in Grant County, where the invasive procedures were carried out. Also, the final injustice carried out on Eckert – the forced colonoscopy – was conducted hours after the warrant expired.
Frankly I don't see how any of that matters. Even if the police could prove that all of their “t’s” were crossed and their “i’s” dotted, can we continue to tolerate a system that considers it justified to subject an American citizen to that kind of treatment based on evidence as superficial as clenched buttocks?
Over the past three decades we've become immune to the idea that our efforts to stop people from using drugs have been used to justify all kinds of extreme measures. A big part of the problem can be attributed to the increasingly common practice of using “war” metaphors to describe civil policy initiatives. War, by nature, is an existential crisis that evokes an us-against-them mentality. In war, you're either with us or against us, and the goal is to crush the enemy at all costs. “All is fair,” as the saying goes. When you tell people they are involved in a war – even if it's only meant metaphorically – they start acting like they are; and those of us who aren't on the front lines gradually become accustomed to behavior that falls well outside what is typically deemed acceptable under the American system of jurisprudence.
These days police don't just act like they're fighting a war, they are dressing the part too. In his new book Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America's Police Forces author Radley Balko details how America’s cops have increasingly come to resemble ground troops. The baton-wielding Officer Krupkes of the 1950s have been replaced by camouflaged Rambos with night-vision goggles, tanks and high-velocity weapons. In 1997 alone, the Pentagon handed over more than 1.2 million pieces of military equipment to local police departments, Balko reported in a 2006 paper for the Cato Institute.
Granted, criminals have changed too: Gangs are better armed and more prone to violence today than ever. Still, a suburban kid growing pot – or for that matter, a middle-aged man with coke hidden up his ass – is a far cry from a Colombian cartel. But you wouldn't know that by the way police now uniformly conduct drug raids – which are more likely to resemble an assault on a German bunker in occupied France than a criminal proceeding on U.S. soil. According to Balko, the number of SWAT raids conducted by police annually has risen from a few hundred in the 1970s to some 50,000 today — an increase that directly coincides with the expansion of the "War on Drugs." A large number of these are “no-knock” raids that rely on so-called “dynamic entry” tactics like flash-bang grenades and battering rams that were once the sole domain of urban warfare.
As long as police are encouraged to play soldier on U.S. soil, none of us are really safe. Just ask David Eckert.