Boston And Militarism: The Modern Drug War

Boston And Militarism: The Modern Drug War

(This is part four in a series of posts on the Boston Marathon bombings, the government response, and Boston unique historical perspective on militarism and civil liberties. You can read the introduction here, part two here, and part three here.)

The most persistent and significant contributor to police militarization and the erosion of civil liberties has of course been the modern drug war. (Perhaps rivaled over the last decade by the war on terrorism.) And in the 30 years since Ronald Reagan accelerated the push to a martial approach to drug prohibition, Boston has seen a number of constitutionally questionable crackdowns, but has also produced some interesting push-back and public debate.

In the early 1980s, Boston authorities introduced widespread stop-and-frisks, barricades, and other high-intensity policing tactics in high-crime neighborhoods like Roxbury and Matapan. Critics claimed police were implementing a "search on sight" policy of black men in some neighborhoods, doing away even with the low bar of needing reasonable suspicion before conducting stop-and-frisks. Police admitted a search-on-sight policy, but only for anyone known to be or suspected of being in a gang, along with anyone who associates with those people. They also claimed to be following a vague policy that allowed them to search anyone they felt "causes fear in a community."

According to a subsequent lawsuit, black men were stopped, patted down, and in some cases strip searched for no more than wearing the sports logo of a particular professional sports team. A Boston Globe investigation found 15 people who had been stripped searched on the street, but were never arrested.

State Sen. William Owens said the tactics were alienating an entire generation of black men, and that had effectively imposed martial law on some communities. Tensions boiled over in 1989 when a plainclothes officer shot 30-year-old Rolando Car during a stop-and-frisk after mistaking Carr's keys for a gun. Suffolk Superior Court Judge Cortland Mathers later ruled that the policy was ''in effect, a proclamation of martial law in Roxbury for a narrow class of people, young blacks."

A few years later, police erected barricades in the community of Lawrence, about 40 minutes north of Boston. Residents of Lawrence were issued passes that they had to show to get into and out of the neighborhood. Anyone entering Lawrence had their vehicle license plate documented by police manning a barricade. A letter was then sent to the registered owner of the vehicle to let him know the car had been spotted in Lawrence. The director of the ACLU in Massachusetts said of the tactics, "This is martial law, without the federal troops." Police Chief Allen Cole described the tactics as a form of community policing.

One of the more interesting feuds came in the early 1990s, when the Clinton administration imposed a zero tolerance policy on drugs and weapons in federally-subsidized public housing. The new policy: warrantless searches of anyone living in public housing. Boston Housing Authority Administrator David Cortiella fought the plan, which he called a declaration of martial law on the poor. In a 1994 editorial, the Boston Globe chastised Cortiella, scolding that asking poor people to give up their Fourth Amendment writes was "no more dramatic than violent crime in America." The Globe editorial added, "It's not as if police SWAT teams will routinely slam through doors."

In fact, that is exactly what happened. Two years later, ABC News aired dramatic footage of a SWAT team raiding a public housing facility in Toledo, Ohio. The violent raid turned up less than an ounce of marijuana in the bedroom of a teenager who lived in the house. That was enough to evict the entire family. ABC, the Clinton administration, and local authorities deemed the raid a small victory in the war on drugs. After a series of particularly violent, warrantless raids on public housing units in Chicago, a federal judge ruled the practice unconstitutional. The Clinton administration responded with a new plan -- require public housing tenants to sign over their Fourth Amendment rights in their leases. The White House argued that the searches would then be consensual.

Boston also hasn't been immune to the massive increase in drug raids outside of public housing since the early 1980s. In 1988, Boston Det. Sherman Griffiths was shot and killed during a police raid on a residence they suspected was occupied by Jamaican drug dealers. The suspected shooter, 34-year-old Albert Lewin was acquitted three years later after a series of investigations revealed widespread corruption and perjury within the department. In the raid that ended one of their colleague's life, one BPD sergeant admitted in testimony that he had fabricated the informant whose alleged tip led to the raid in the first place. Waiting to establish probable cause -- in other words, respecting Lewin's constitutional rights -- was too time consuming. Sources in BPD told the Globe that "enormous public pressure on police to arrest drug dealers . . . has led some detectives to find 'workable' solutions to what police see as unworkable constitutional requirements for warrants."

The Lewin/Griffiths case also brought to light that Boston narcotics cops were routinely falsifying search warrants in drug cases -- which means they were routinely raiding homes without probable cause. A Boston Globe review of 350 drug warrants found that fabrication of informants, exaggeration of probable cause, and boilerplate language was common. By one estimate, the number of drug warrants served by Boston police jumped from around 300 in 1985 to more than 3,000 by 1990.

The problem wasn't just in Boston. In a federal trial held at about the same time, a Philadelphia narcotics cop admitted that he and his colleagues fabricated informants on hundreds of search warrants. These warrants then authorized violent forced-entry raids on private homes.

City officials, judges, and prosecutors had little interest in holding them accountable. One former high-ranking BPD officer had at one point hired an attorney to look into the growing problem of falsification of drug warrants, and to discipline officers found to have lied or used boilerplate language on such warrants, but his efforts were thwarted by the police union.

As the Boston Globe noted in a 1990 article, the residents of the city didn't seem particularly concerned either -- these raids on innocent were being conducted in mostly poor, mostly minority neighborhoods. "I don't think the electorate is too concerned with the rights of drug dealers," one criminologist told the paper.

And so the raids went on. In 1995, the Rev. Accleyne Williams, a 75-year-old retired minister, died of a heart attack after struggling with 13 members of a masked, heavily armed Boston SWAT team that stormed his apartment on such a raid. The police later revealed that an informant had given them incorrect information.

Doctors later concluded that Williams had literally been scared to death. One BPD source told the Boston Globe that was entirely the point. The raid team, for example, wore black ski mask hats to terrify their suspects. "The psychological impact of confronting a masked face with a shotgun pointed at you can be devastating," the source said.

According to the Boston Herald, "a warrant authorizing the raid was approved by Suffolk County Assistant District Attorney Mary Lou Moran, even though the application supporting the warrant did not specify which apartment on the building's second floor was to be targeted. It also failed to provide corroboration of the confidential informant's tip that a Jamaican drug posse operated out of the building." In fact, the police officer who signed the affidavit for the warrant swore that the informant was trustworthy, even though he had previously falsely implicated a friend in a shooting three years earlier.

Another police source told the Herald: "You'd be surprised at how easily this can happen. An informant can tell you it is the apartment on the left at the top of the stairs and there could be two apartments on the left at the top of the stairs . . . You are supposed to verify it, and I'm not making excuses, but mistakes can be made."

Another Boston Herald investigation later discovered that three of the officers involved in the Williams raid had been accused in a 1989 civil rights suit of using nonexistent informants to secure drug warrants. The city had in fact just settled a suit stemming from a mistaken raid five years earlier. According to witnesses, one of the officers in that raid apologized as he left, telling the home's terrified occupants, "This happens all the time."

Interestingly, both Boston and Massachusetts have in recent years put up more resistance to police militarization than most cities and states. In 2009, for example, city police leaders and head of the FBI's Boston office argued in favor of arming the city's patrol officers with military-grade weapons to prevent a terrorist attack like the 2008 attacks in Mumbai, India. But ultimately, the city decided against the weapons, deeming them unnecessary.

That same year, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick went even further. After a Boston Globe investigation found that vast amounts of military-grade guns, vehicles, and other weapons were being transferred to the state's police agencies by way of the Pentagon's 1033 program, Patrick suspended the state's participation in the program pending an investigation into how the equipment is being used. As we saw in the response to the marathon bombings, the move was in some ways merely symbolic. That program and others had already been arming Boston's police agencies for decades. The SWAT teams have been in place for years.

But that Boston and Massachusetts have pushed back even a little sets both apart from most of the rest of the country. And it's particularly interesting given the city's rich history as a hub of continuing debate over the proper way to ensure safety while protecting and preserving civil liberties.

Popular in the Community


What's Hot