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Why Police Prefer Drug Raids Over Investigating Violent Crimes

By Mises. Originally published at ValueWalk.

Last year, I reported on a case in which the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office in Kansas had raided the home of a law-abiding, middle-class family in Kansas. The officers, arrayed in SWAT gear, terrorized the family and searched the house for hours, failing to find anything criminal.

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Drug Raids
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The raid was the result of a program used by the sheriff’s office in which the police spend hours staking out gardening centers, identifying shoppers who buy hydroponic gardening equipment, and then proceeding to conduct SWAT raids on the homes of the alleged perpetrators — who are assumed to be growing marijuana in their homes.

The victims of this particular raid, Bob and Addie Harte, sued in federal court. Last week, a federal appeals court overturned the district court’s dismissal of the case and denounced the Johnson County government for relying on police work that amounted to little more than “junk science, an incompetent investigation, and a publicity stunt.”

The Hartes now plan to continue with their suit in which they seek $7 million in damages.

The Problem of Police Priorities

Viewing the antics of the Johnson County commissioners and the sheriff’s office, one fairly quickly begins to wonder: “does law enforcement in Johnson County really have nothing better to do?”

After all, if they have the time and resources to sit around in gardening center parking lots, engage in SWAT raids of suspected pot growers, and then conduct press conferences bragging about it, there must be virtually no crime at all in Johnson County.

That, of course, is not the case. In an analysis I conducted of crime and arrests in Johnson County, I found that — while Johnson County is generally pretty safe — an enormous amount of police activity conducted by the sheriff’s office focused on drug enforcement while real crime like assault, rape, and car thefts produced very few arrests.

Johnson County, however, is hardly unique in its oversized interest in drug busts at the expense of investigating real crime.

In Oak Park, Michigan, police agencies and prosecutors are apparently more interested in throwing the book at people for growing vegetables in their front yard instead of going after criminals who engage in real violent or property crime. The case of Julie Bass in Oak Park made national headlines when the city attempted to jail her for more than 90 days because she grew peppers in her front yard. After the city government was humiliated in the national media, prosecutors eventually dropped the charges.

At the same time, the Oak Park police spent time raiding medicinal marijuana dispensaries and seizing drugs and cash in an apparent attempt to pad the department’s budget through civil asset forfeiture.

Given the enthusiasm with which the city goes after people who grow the wrong plants on their own property, many might be led to guess that Oak Park is relatively crime free.

And they would be quite wrong. Oak Park, it turns out, is a relatively high crime area. In 2011, the same year the city was harassing Bass, Oak Park reported some of the worst violent crime rates among Michigan municipalities. According to FBI crime data, Oak Park had the 38th-worst rate of violent crime out of a total of 338 towns and cities.

If we look throughout the nation, we find cases of police departments expending police time and resources to arrest people for having drywall in their cars (alleged to be cocaine) selling lemonade, or giving away free books.

Sometimes, it’s not even enough to harass peaceful citizens for these tiny infractions. The police have to invent the infractions. In Baltimore, for example, two separate cases of police apparently planting evidence have surfaced in the past month alone. The evidence against police is so damning, in fact, that the Baltimore prosecutor has already been forced to drop dozens of prosecutions that rely on testimony from the now-discredited police officers.

So, is Baltimore so free of violent crime that the police have nothing better to do than plant evidence that leads to small-time drug busts? Given that Baltimore has one of the highest homicide rates in the nation, the question need not even be asked.

These police activities simply illustrate yet again how government police agencies have little interest in prioritizing the use of their resources so as to target real property crime and violent crime.

In general, law enforcement agencies live in denial of the realities of opportunity cost and scarcity. Any police officer that is busy ticketing little girls for a lemonade stand is an officer that can’t be investigating a real crime, or apprehending a suspect in a real crime. Any police officer that’s spending hours searching vehicles for one-tenth of an ounce of marijuana is a police officer that’s not patrolling a high-crime neighborhood for real crime.

Police agencies often like to claim that they must enforce “all the laws,” but this is obviously nonsense. The fact that resources are scarce means that time and energy must be prioritized. The fact is police agencies like to prioritize the enforcement of piddling little non-crimes instead of focusing on stolen property and truly violent criminals.

Why Police Prioritize So Badly

There are numerous reasons why police tend to focus on certain types of law enforcement. Not all of them originate with the police agencies themselves.

As Chris Calton has pointed out, the political system itself encourages overuse and uneconomical use of law enforcement resources:

Legislators have an incentive to flood the courtrooms because if they want to get elected, they need to appear “tough on crime.” The product of this incentive is legislation geared toward continually creating newer infractions or criteria for arrest that signal to the voters that you, the politician, are going to clean up the streets. Naturally, the focus of these infractions tends to be on non-violent crimes because the scope of violent crimes is narrower and has long been an established part of criminal law. But any new criteria for arrest means more people being funneled through the criminal justice system, and the costs are borne by the citizenry.

A similar phenomenon exists with the prison system. Calton continues:

Where legislators and police officers have in-built incentives to send as many people through the courts as possible, a similar incentive is faced by judges and prosecutors to send defendants through the prison system. Because all judges and prosecutors share common access to prison space with no individual cost for doing so, there is zero incentive for the limitation on the sentence sought by the individual prosecutor or handed down by the individual judge.

There is, however, the incentive for these professions to win cases and appear “tough on crime,” respectively. “The effect,” as Bruce Benson and David Rasmussen tell us, “is that prosecutors and judges as a group crowd the common-access prisons much as cattle owners crowd common access grazing land.”

In other words, politicians have an incentive to expand the number of punishable infractions, and therefore they pave the way for police to lessen their focus on real crime.

Having had their prerogatives greatly expanded beyond property crime and violent crime, police are only too happy to

The post Why Police Prefer Drug Raids Over Investigating Violent Crimes appeared first on ValueWalk.

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