Are Narcotics Corrupting the Police Force?

The War on Drugs criminalizes civilians. What does it do to law enforcement?


Six Philadelphia Police officers facing federal corruption charges.

Well, it finally happened: Philadelphia’s war on drugs finally caught some white guys in its net.

The bad news: They all happened to be working members of the Philadelphia Police Department.

It’s actually a great thing, the timing of the indictment of a half-dozen Philly narcotics officers (above) on corruption charges. It comes while Mayor Nutter still has on his plate a decision on whether to approve or veto City Council’s bill to decriminalize marijuana in the city.

The corruption allegations should give the mayor — and the rest of us — pause, a moment to ask this very simple question: Is the war on drugs inherently corrupting to the city’s law enforcement? And if that is the case, what should change about the way we prosecute that war?

Consider the evidence: The drip-drip-drip of corruption stories from the Philadelphia Police Department in recent years has largely puddled around the Narcotics Bureau.

It’s easy to guess why: That’s where the money is. When Narcotics Bureau officers bust down the doors of a real drug dealer, they’re liable to finds tens of thousands of dollars in currency — money that’s easy enough to make “disappear” from official case reports, and maybe use to order a pizza or two. And if you’re not a drug dealer — just some poor sap who doesn’t like banks and keeps your money stuck under your mattress — well, your money can disappear just as easily as the bad guys’.

Of course, this is only a step removed from the way law enforcement agencies legally use “forfeiture” to nab money from suspected drug dealers — and, it seems, lots of innocent folks — without the burden of proving those people are actually violating the law. When cops take money from innocent people on behalf of the city, that’s legal. When they do it on their own behalf, that’s illegal. Maybe the line is clear, but the distinction is probably thinner than anyone in charge would like to admit.

The problems go beyond filthy lucre.

In their zeal to make busts, the feds’ evidence says that the allegedly dirty cops in the Narcotics Bureau frequently cut corners — barely investigating allegations of drug dealing before busting down doors. Sunday’s Inquirer story detailing the history of the indicted officers suggests the “investigators” cut-and-pasted almost precisely the same descriptions of drug suspects, over and over, into their applications for search warrants. Nobody — not the officers’ supervisors, not the judges signing the warrants — seems to have noticed this until defense attorneys started comparing notes.

And that’s when they were even searching for drugs. Remember all those bodegas that got hit by narcotics investigators a few years back? The officers in those cases were searching for plastic baggies — items that could potentially be used by drug dealers, but not necessarily. Nobody liked that the unit was destroying surveillance cameras in the bodegas, but nobody seemed to care that a high-profile squad was spending its time on possible drug paraphernalia either. It’s as though the police department decided to spend taxpayer dollars looking for E-Z Widers.

Bottom line: Even when the unit is acting legitimately, its actions are often … gross.

Ramsey’s response to all of this is telling: He wants the ability to rotate members out of the unit after five years. Last week, he got most of that power. Note, though, that he’s not trying to rotate officers off of the homicide unit. Maybe that tells us everything we need to know.

What does all this mean for marijuana decriminalization? Probably nothing. But maybe it should. We talked a few weeks back about how keeping marijuana illegal can make criminals out of all kinds of otherwise-innocent Philadelphians. Last week’s federal indictment suggests it could be having the same effect on law enforcement. Maybe it doesn’t have to be this way.

Follow @JoelMMathis on Twitter.