If we switched the TV on a bit early, we would get to see the end of the previous show, which for a long time was one of those police docu-dramas where the cameras follow a group of real police officers as they go about their daily business. The contrast could not have been more stark. Real police work turns out to be amazingly pedestrian. The officers pull someone over for a faulty tail-light and find drugs in the glove-box. A serious offender is caught because someone calls the police and reports their current whereabouts. There's no need for complex forensic evidence because someone saw them commit the crime. Real criminals are rarely that clever, and real police rely much more on persistence and due process than fancy technology. A real police station is a slightly run-down building with a lot of messy desks and a tea-room with cracked china.
I thought of this because I've just finished reading a book called Good Cop, Bad War, written by former British detective and undercover operator Neil Woods.
In the early 1990s Woods was a pioneer of what British police call Level 2 undercover policing. Level 1 is the glamourous stuff, infiltrating the world of high finance, global arms deals and so forth. Level 2 is less glamorous but probably more dangerous, working at street level to get evidence against local crime networks. Pretty much all Level 2 work is about the drug trade.
Woods' job, essentially, was to go into communities where he was unknown, impersonate an addict with the aid of some op shop clothes and a cover story, introduce himself to local street addicts and get them to introduce him to their suppliers. From there he would work his way up the chain until he was able to deal with more serious criminals, at which point arrests would be made.
At the start of the 1990s hardly anyone was doing this in England, and he was the first in the North and Midlands. His first missions were almost absurdly simple, like the everyday police work I saw on TV. He just had to ask, run a bit of a gauntlet about who he was, and he would be in. No-one suspected he might be a cop. He could then buy drugs from dealers higher up the chain, take them to the lab for testing and: Bingo!
There was the odd dangerous moment but a lot of success. Woods had a talent for reading people, for convincing them he was genuine, for spotting danger and averting it. He also had a good eye for evidence and a very agile mind, and soon he had a serious reputation as a crack undercover operator. As this type of work grew he was asked to train other undercover cops, and was asked to join more and more operations in different towns in between his normal work in more conventional policing.
His doubts began to get serious when he was called in to help rescue an operation in Leicester. By this time undercover work was managed by a special group, the East Midlands Special Operations Unit, with its own command structure, policy manual and mandated procedures. It sounded great but there were drawbacks. Two undercover teams were operating in the city, and their respective Detective Inspectors were fierce rivals and constantly trying to outdo each other. This meant there was pressure to deliver quick results, and this meant the undercover guys were often pressured to do things a real junkie would never do - like score twice in a day, or repeatedly ring a violent gangster who refused to sell to you. Even his cover officer, who was supposed to look after his interests, would be pressuring him to work faster.
One evening, feeling stressed by the pressure and danger he was being put into, he was watching a documentary on the Cuban Missile Crisis and he realised what was going on - just like the Cold War, the War on Drugs led to an arms race in which the police and criminal gangs continually tried to outdo one another in the game of evasion and detection. And like any war, it is the innocent who get hurt - the low level junkies and user dealers who get caught between the police and the serious criminals.
In the end, despite the pressures, the team managed to make a success of the operation, but it was a close thing. Towards the end of the operation, with the local gangsters starting to suspect something was up, the team asked him to help with one last bust. He set up a rendezvous to sell a notorious gangster some stolen jackets and met him and his minders in a deserted park, wearing a clunky piece of surveillance equipment with a recorder the size of a brick in the pocket of his cargo pants, and a camera/microphone unconvincingly disguised as a button. He almost got away with it, but before the deal was struck and he was out of there one of the minders rumbled him. He ran for his life as they tried to run him over, only just escaping with his life. Afterwards he learned that the unit actually owned some state of the art concealed recording devices. His superiors explained that it was reserved for Level 1 operations. Woods told them where to stick it and swore off undercover work.
His resolve didn't quite last, but a couple of years later a job in Brighton, in the south of England, finally ended his undercover career. Brighton was one of the first places in England to use undercover policing and had quite a reputation, but lately they had been getting nowhere as the number of overdose deaths went through the roof. Woods was asked to help, and went out on the streets of Brighton to find that it was impossible to even catch sight of a dealer. If he asked a street junkie to help him score, his contact would disappear out of sight and come back with stuff, but he could never get so much as a glimpse of anyone higher up the chain.
Eventually he managed to find out why. He got close enough to a street dealer for this man to explain to him, as a kind of warning, that the drug gangs of Brighton had developed a foolproof system to protect themselves from undercover cops. They would only sell through selected user/dealers. If any of their sellers ever so much as allowed their supplier to be seen by anyone else, their next batch of drugs would be contaminated and their death would just seem like an accident. It was no loss to the supplier, who would just recruit a new addict to do their dirty work. The addicts of Brighton lived in fatalistic terror, knowing that every time they injected could be their last.
Yet when he took this information back to his superiors and recommended that the way to solve the problem was to properly investigate the overdose deaths they had written off as accidents he was ridiculed and accused of cowardice. Once again he told a Detective Inspector where to shove his operation, and this time he meant it.
Although this was the final straw, his doubts had been steadily growing over the years. He had joined the police because he wanted to protect the innocent and defenceless. However, the more undercover work he did, the more he realised that the the junkies he befriended on the streets were just such defenceless people, people who had often been victims of horrendous violence, who had addictions for which there was little treatment available, and who were themselves at the mercy of violent, unpredictable suppliers. He also found them frequently kind and generous, sharing their last shilling with one another and doing their best to keep one another safe. Yet his relationship with them put them in great danger, and at the end they would be arrested along with the more serious gangsters he was targeting. Often they were jailed for just as long as the murderers and kingpins who supplied their drugs. His conscience became more and more troubled by this procedure.
In addition, the more he learned about the business of drugs, the more he realised the futility of the War on Drugs. This futility was summed up beautifully at the celebratory drinks at the end of one successful operation where his colleagues said, 'Congratulations, you have successfully disrupted the drug trade in this town for a whole seven minutes.' As fast as they removed one violent criminal gang, another one would move in to take its place. With each step in the war, the stakes would be raised, the violence of the drug trade would ramp up and addiction would continue untouched.
His conclusion, after 14 years infiltrating the drug trade? The War on Drugs is futile and counterproductive. It costs billions but makes no difference to the supply of drugs. Indeed, it makes criminals rich - of all the enterprises a serious criminal could engage in, the drug trade is by far the most lucrative and is the funding source for a lot of other types of crime including gun running and even terrorism. With this amount of money on offer, the police themselves become compromised and are forced to accept that the corruption of some of their number is inevitable.
Meanwhile it damages highly vulnerable people. They are abused and sometimes even killed by their suppliers, and arrested and jailed by the police. While billions are poured into law enforcement, drug treatment and rehabilitation programs are woefully under-resourced, and many addicts won't use them for fear of exposing themselves to arrest.
As a result, after attempting to continue his police career and work for reform from the inside, and after struggling for years with PTSD from his various experiences of violence, he finally resigned from the police and started to campaign for drug law reform in earnest. At the time of writing this book he was the UK chairperson of LEAP (Law Enforcement Against Prohibition), an association of current and former police and customs officers who are convinced drug laws need to change.
What Woods is describing is a classic case of first and second order change. Our drug policies are currently mired in an ever increasing cycle of first order change - more of the same. We outlaw a substance, criminals supply it on the black market. We police it more heavily and increase the penalties for those who are caught, and criminals find more brutal and nefarious ways to protect themselves.
Here in the Asia-Pacific we must surely be near the end-point of this game. The Indonesian Government has recently executed low level Australian drug mules (with the connivance of Australian police) in the hope it would deter others from trying the same thing. Meanwhile the President of the Philippines has decided to do away with legal process altogether, allowing police to simply shoot anyone they believe is a drug dealer. So far over 3,000 have been shot and the number may be as high as 8,000. Since none of them were charged or tried there is no way of knowing how many, if any, were actual drug dealers. It becomes hard to tell the difference between criminals and police. Yet no-one has noticed any reduction in drug supply.
LEAP's position is that instead of being outlawed, the supply of various substances should be licensed and placed in government hands. Drugs should be distributed via safe injecting rooms where addicts can inject under medical supervision and where they can be offered treatment and rehabilitation without fear of arrest. In places where this has been tried, he says, drug-related deaths and rates of addiction go down, and other crime reduces as well since organised criminals lose one of their main income sources.
Surely it's worth a try. What do we have to lose? How many billions of dollars do we need to waste, and how many lives need to be lost, before we accept that the War on Drugs is not working and try something different?