The politics of drug busts | Bleader

The politics of drug busts


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Blocks of marijuana seized by police--and displayed for reporters
  • Blocks of marijuana seized by police—and displayed for reporters

At just before 9 PM last Friday night, the Chicago Police Department sent out an e-mail announcing the “takedown” of a drug market at Ohio and Hamlin in west Humboldt Park.

It was an unusual time to announce the successful conclusion of a two-month undercover investigation, though, by an odd coincidence, it was right in the middle of an area I’d profiled in a Reader story published the day before.

More details were released on Saturday, when police brass said they’d arrested nine gang members and seized $6,700 in cash and $3,000 worth of heroin.

"This operation illustrates the combined efforts of police and community members diligently working to identify criminal activity and bring to justice those individuals threatening the safety and sanctity of citizens," Al Wysinger, the department’s first deputy superintendent, said in a written statement.

It may have done that. But what’s certain is that the announcement illustrated the latest efforts of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration to prove it’s winning its new “ground war” on drugs, even though it happens to look a lot like the four decades of the dubious war on drugs that preceded it.

In mid-March, Chicago went through an early wave of warm weather, and with it a horrifying stretch of violence: in the two weeks from March 16 through March 29, police counted 103 shootings and 32 murders.

The bloodshed was bad enough, but under Compstat, the system of police accountability brought to Chicago by Superintendent Garry McCarthy, it was also a major political problem—success is measured by a steady reduction in numbers, and the numbers for 2012 were going in the wrong direction. By March 29, the homicide count had climbed by 42 over 2011, an increase of 56 percent, and shootings were up 37 percent.

In the time since, the police department has been issuing nearly weekly press releases to demonstrate their “relentless efforts” to crack down on corner drug dealers:

• On March 26, police said they’d dismantled a drug operation in Austin and arrested 12 dealers, eight of them for possessing or delivering marijuana.

• On the same day, McCarthy and Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced another “takedown” in west Humboldt Park that resulted in the recovery of drugs and guns. They called on the community to help them hold the corners from drug dealers, but didn’t say which corners police had retaken. And for good reason: a police source later told me that was because no corners had actually been retaken. Instead, a never-specified group of offenders were arrested on warrants across the west side.

• On April 4, police reported seizing blocks of pot worth $6 million from a southwest-side home, along with $5,000 in cash, a digital scale, and a money-counting machine. No arrests were reported, though a press release noted that “Officers have developed several leads as they proceed with this continuing investigation.”

• On April 20, police announced their next drug bust, this time in North Lawndale on the west side. Nine men between the ages of 17 and 54 were arrested for delivery of a controlled substance.

Sadly, the only thing new about this approach appears to be the details of each successive bust. In some cases, even those sound the same.

“Police said Friday they had begun a crackdown on a major drug-selling operation in Humboldt Park and had arrested 4 of 10 men charged with selling narcotics on a residential corner of the neighborhood,” the Sun-Times reported. Police said the dealers were bold: “They would yell from the street corner, ‘What do you want?’”

That was July 18, 1981.

Residents in Humboldt Park I’ve spoken with are happy that they’ve seen more police lately. In that respect—and it’s an important one—the Emanuel and McCarthy “ground war” may be accomplishing something.

But the strategy has done little to disrupt the overall drug business. Between late January, when the mayor first announced a buildup of officers in the heart of the west and south sides, police made more than 1,800 drug-related arrests there. That’s about the same as it's been for years.

Residents see what’s happening: police are essentially pushing drugs and dealers from one spot to another, and there aren’t enough cops to keep up.

A couple of weeks ago, I drove up on two squad cars with lights flashing at the corner of Ohio and Saint Louis, just a couple blocks from where the drug bust was announced last Friday. Next to them, an unoccupied red Buick was perched half on the sidewalk, its front end crumpled like an accordion.

The officers weren’t really sure what had happened—the driver had been shot somewhere nearby and then crashed into at least three cars before coming to a stop. He’d just been taken to the hospital.

“The victim keeps changing his story,” said one of officers. “And here are a hundred people on that block—a hundred!—and not one of them saw anything.”

He nodded at the wrecked car. “My hunch, based on what he said, is that he’s from a place with a big drug business and there’s another one right behind it. They’ve been going at it as long as I’ve been here and they’ll be going at it after I’m gone.”

I asked him why he thought that. He said the notion of changing the community through a corner-by-corner war on drug dealers was “ridiculous.”

“This is one of the biggest drug markets in the United States,” he said. “It’s money.”

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