The latest police corruption scandal involves officer Spencer Moore, who was arrested last Tuesday in Baltimore County for drug trafficking. It’s ironic that, although there were several credible reports of Moore assaulting civilians, he ended up being arrested for engaging in a peaceful exchange of drugs. This focus on drug crimes above other crimes is ironically appropriate, given that this has been deliberate law enforcement policy since the 1990s.
As David Simon (the creator of the TV series “The Wire”) explained in a 2015 interview, the drug war arose from a widespread belief that clearing the streets of drugs would clear them of violence. This ignores the fact that drug prohibition itself is a leading cause of violence). Moreover, as Simon points out, the war on drugs severely damaged public trust in the police. Because of the drug war, investigating violent crime took a back seat to mass arrests of anyone who looked suspicious. It is unclear whether this helped reduce violent crime on the street, but it certainly led to more police brutality. This in turn set up the conditions for the Freddie Gray riots, loss of police confidence, and the recent upward spike in homicides.
So what do we do about this? Legalizing drugs would obviously solve the “problem” of cops breaking drug laws. Internal investigations of police corruption would then focus more on the cops who commit acts of brutality. But it’s worth noting that even de-escalating the war on drugs might go a long way towards solving the problem of police brutality. Simon suggests simple administrative remedies, such as not paying overtime for dealing with petty drug crimes. Certainly, the less often police try to arrest people, the fewer chances for abuse there will be. How this would affect violent crime more generally is another matter; solving that will probably require addressing several issues at once.