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America’s Top Cops Just Called the War on Drugs 'A Tremendous Failure'

Police chiefs from America's biggest cities have announced their support for changing drug and sentencing laws in order to reduce incarceration.
Photo via Flickr

The top cops in America's four biggest cities said on Wednesday that the war on drugs has failed to keep America safe and that it's time to reform the country's criminal justice system, a view now officially shared by more than 125 other prosecutors, sheriffs, attorneys general, and law enforcement leaders from across the US.

The police chiefs of Los Angeles, Chicago, and Houston appeared together in Washington, DC to explain a new initiative called Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime and Incarceration ahead of a meeting with President Barack Obama on Thursday afternoon. The chiefs and other law enforcement officials said their goals include reducing incarceration and protecting public safety.


"We share a common problem," said co-founder Ronald Serpas, a former New Orleans police superintendent. "The way our country is currently approaching criminal justice is not ensuring public safety but is making our jobs more difficult. Arresting low level offenders prevents us from arresting high level offenders."

Though he is a member of the group, New York City Police Commissioner Bill Bratton was unable to attend the event due to the fatal shooting of an NYPD officer on Tuesday night. The new push to reform the criminal justice system is a historic shift in the world of law enforcement, where police unions and lobbyists have typically fought proposals to overhaul the system.

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Brian Elderbroom, an expert on criminal justice reform at the Urban Institute's Justice Policy Center, said the move signals that police and prosecutors are finally willing to make a concerted effort to end mass incarceration.

"What's really important here is the people on this list can actually do something about these problems," Elderbroom said. "Many of the signatories are sitting chiefs and prosecutors in a position to enact change. Police and prosecutors have really wide discretion on who to arrest, charge, and convict, so these changes can have a really big impact without any change to state or federal law."

'What we have to do in this country, and maybe this is a little bit radical, is rethink what constitutes crime'


Wednesday's announcement could complement legislation that is currently pending in Congress that proposes reducing sentences for people who are already behind bars. Elderbroom noted that around 95 percent of criminal cases end in plea agreements, which makes the involvement of prosecutors in the new group especially important since they have an outsized impact on who goes to prison and for how long.

"We've handed prosecutors an inordinate amount of power," Elderbroom said. "So to see a list that includes not just prosecutors but sitting US Attorneys and District Attorneys is really exciting and has the potential to have a big impact."

The chiefs announced four areas of focus for their campaign: Increasing alternatives to arrest and prosecution for drug and mental health-related issues, reclassifying some felonies to misdemeanors to reduce the number of arrests, reducing mandatory minimums, and strengthening police relations with communities.

Related: The US Is Going to Let Nearly 6,000 Drug Offenders Out of Federal Prison Early

"The war on drugs has been a tremendous failure," Houston Police Chief Charles McClelland said on Wednesday, advocating for treatment instead of prison for drug offenders. "We've got to rethink the equation when we're making young people, especially young people of color in their mid-20s unemployable because they have a high-level misdemeanor or felony on their record for drugs or nonviolent crime and have no vocation, education, or job skills."


Gerry McCarthy, Chicago's top cop, said the use of data by police departments to evaluate success has made cities safer, but there are still problems that need to be addressed. He noted that the Windy City has experienced more gun violence this year despite arrests for gun crimes going up 25 percent. He argued that Chicago needs to focus more on strict sentences for gun crimes and less on drug arrests.

"It's really clear we can reduce violence and crime, and at the same time reduce incarceration rates," McCarthy said. "I really think that what we have to do in this country, and maybe this is a little bit radical, is rethink what constitutes crime."

Relations between police and communities have soured in some cities following officer-involved killings in Ferguson, Baltimore, and Cleveland, leading to the birth of the Black Lives Matter movement. McLelland insisted, however, that discussions about criminal justice reform have been ongoing for years, including at policing conferences and private events.

"Many of us recognized this particular failure long before Ferguson and Baltimore," McLelland said. "We've all talked about the disproportionate impact of sentences for black and brown communities, even when discussing sentences for crack versus cocaine. So those conversations have been going on long before Black Lives Matter."

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Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck said that he has learned during his career that "police departments can't be at war with the communities they serve," and touted California's success at reducing drug crimes to misdemeanors. "We're not saying we're not going to arrest anybody but that we should arrest the right people for the right crimes," he said.

The police chiefs pointed out that their call for reform should not be mistaken as any of the law enforcement leaders being "soft" on crime. They pointed out that although crime in the US is lower than it has been in half a century, the country still has the world's highest incarceration rate.

Follow Colleen Curry on Twitter: @currycolleen

Photo via Flickr