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The War on Drugs Could Be Making Our Communities More Dangerous

The war on drugs has sucked up public safety dollars that might otherwise go towards putting rapists and killers behind bars.

by Justin Glawe
08 November 2015, 2:00pm


12205 Imperial Avenue in 2009. Photo courtesy of Melvin Smith.

When 11 corpses were discovered in and around the Cleveland home of Anthony Sowell in the fall of 2009, there were some 4,000 untested rape kits being neglected by local cops. The deranged rapist and murderer was stopped, but his case exposed the stunning mishandling of missing persons and sexual assault cases in the city, a problem advocates argue has festered nationwide as the war on drugs has sucked up public safety dollars that might otherwise have gone toward putting rapists and killers behind bars.

"Sexual assault just isn't at the top of the agenda," says Ilse Knecht of the Joyful Heart Foundation, a sexual assault victim advocacy group.

She's not the only one calling for a redirection of resources.

"We've been advocating that money be made available for robbery units, homicide units, sexual crime units," said Neill Franklin, director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, a national coalition of former police officers and criminal justice reform advocates. "How about using some of that money to analyze the rape kits that are sitting on shelves waiting to be looked at?"

Reporters for the Cleveland Plain Dealer discovered the untested rape kits not long after Sowell was arrested, and their reporting has resulted in the conviction and incarceration of over 100 rapists. But the sex crimes unit in Cleveland continues to be sub-par, at least by the standard of a 2013 audit from the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), a non-profit law enforcement research group.

As of 2013, there were 13 Cleveland Police detectives handling nearly 1,400 sexual assault cases—which included child abuse, rape, and attempted rape—according to the audit. That means each detective was responsible for well over 100 cases annually. Three other detectives were looking at cold cases and a 17th was assigned to the crime lab. The PERF audit suggested the city add four new detectives to the beat, but a police spokesman told the Plain Dealer's Rachel Dissell in May that there were now 16 total detectives, with just two on cold cases.

In other words, Cleveland Police decreased the number of detectives investigating sex crime over the past three years, rather than adding several more as auditors insisted.

In addition to calling for more detectives, the PERF audit also suggested the sex crimes unit to be staffed from 10 PM to 8 AM, because, auditors said, one third of sexual assault reports are filed during that time period. Yet the city quashed the third-shift staffing recommendation, and as of the May editorial, hadn't released specific staffing numbers to the local newspaper of record.

Cleveland doesn't face this problem in isolation. Major police departments across the country are confronting similar deficiencies in their sex crimes units. Charlotte, Jacksonville, Kansas City, Portland, and San Diego had a combined backlog of 9,090 untested rape kits as of mid-May, according to the Joyful Heart Foundation. As the group noted in its May report, "Few states and no federal agencies require that law enforcement track or count the untested rape kits in their storage facilities." Nationally, there are likely hundreds of thousands of rape kits waiting to be tested, and the Joyful Heart Foundation has found more than 21,000 untested kits in nine of the 27 cities it has collected data on so far.

"There really is an issue in terms of figuring out what the real number (of untested rape kits) is," Knecht said. "Police just aren't tracking them. The evidence log in some cases could be a spiral-bound notebook."

Worse, according to Franklin, is that many violent criminals are repeat offenders.

"Most of the people who commit those crimes—the robberies, the murders, and the rapes—they do it over and over again," Franklin told me. "But those units don't have the money and they don't have the man hours to effectively investigate those crimes."

Statistics on internal spending among law enforcement agencies are glaringly hard to come by, making it difficult for lawmakers, police departments, and reformers like Franklin to determine what's working and what isn't. "It begins with keeping the proper amount of data," Franklin said. "Let's stop the business of fear mongering, and let's start using data."

The most recent data for internal spending at the Cleveland Division of Police was not immediately available, and a public records request filed by VICE had not been fulfilled by the time of publication.

When crack developed a foothold on the streets of Cleveland and other American cities in the 1980s, it had a "devastating effect," according to Wilbert L. Cooper, Sr., a retired Cleveland cop who is also the father of one of VICE's Senior Editors. The spike in homicides related to the drug—murder rates for young black males more than doubled between 1984 and 1994—flooded televisions and newspapers, triggering an immense public outcry

"I think a hysteria grew up around it that led to a lot of mistakes," Cooper, who reached the rank of sergeant after 30 years on the force and retired in 2011, told me.

The early years of Franklin's career, meanwhile, were spent running narcotics task forces for the Maryland State Police. He busted major drug dealers, scooped up low-level users, and believed strongly that he was helping the communities he served. But eventually, his perception of the drug war began to change. The final straw for Franklin came when a close friend was killed during an undercover drug deal.

"That is when I really made the turn," Franklin wrote. "That's when I decided to make my views public."


Photo by Wikimedia Commons user Petty Officer 2nd Class Connie Terrell

Since his time as a narcotics unit leader, the look of those units responsible for enforcing America's drug war has changed dramatically, according to Franklin. Gone are the backwards hats and dangling badges of cops busting up drug houses; now, SWAT teams are often used to execute search warrants and conduct raids. One case in particular that sticks out in Franklin's mind is the that of a man whose home was invaded by a SWAT team on a tip that a single marijuana plant was growing in the backyard. The officers were dressed in war garb, toting automatic weapons, and barking orders before the man inside the home even knew what was going on.

"That's one of the most dangerous environments you can create, not only for the people in the home, but for the officers involved in the raid," Franklin told me.

In previous decades, a squad car would be parked out in front of the target-home, letting those inside know that something was coming. Cops identified themselves verbally and with their badges, and only used force to enter the home if the residents refused to comply with commands. Now, police regularly use battering rams, smoke and stun grenades, heavily armed SWAT teams, and "no-knock" search warrants, to conduct raids, Franklin said.

The use of SWAT teams for no-knock warrants is more expensive than the more low-key alternative, but the exact dollar amount has proved tantalizingly hard to decipher.

"We know how much it costs to fly a helicopter," Franklin said, "but we don't know how much it costs to deploy a SWAT team."


Photo by Wikimedia Commons user Dennis Mojado

Sowell, the serial killer who raped and killed without detection for years in Cleveland, was eventually convicted for the murder of the women whose remains were found in and around his home. But it's entirely possible that somewhere in the trove of Cleveland rape kits, police will find more of Sowell's victims. That's because of the more than 4,000 untested kits the Cleveland police finally submitted for testing by mid-2014, 275 rape suspects have been identified.

"Rape kit testing costs anywhere from $500 to more than $1,000," said Knecht, of the Joyful Heart Foundation. But because Cleveland hasn't disclosed what its police spend on enforcing drug laws in recent years—and because VICE's open records request wasn't fulfilled at press time—it's difficult to tell how much more is spent in that city on fighting the drug war and seeking justice for rape victims.

The FBI notes that Cleveland police reported 482 rapes in 2014—far lower than the number cited in the PERF audit. (This is because reporting requirements aren't mandatory, according to Knecht.) And while the FBI's Uniform Crime Report doesn't break down drug arrest for the city, it does note that there were more than 36,000 of them throughout the state of Ohio.

In addition to processing those more than 400 rape kits from 2014 and however many have been reported this year, the Cleveland Division of Police is also charged with investigating the 106 homicides that have occurred in the city in 2015, which is already an increase from last year's total.

"Violence has clearly gone up," said Khalid Samad, a community activist who has worked to mediate gang conflicts on the streets of Cleveland since 1987, most recently under his organization, Peace in the Hood. "These young people are emphasizing robberies and home invasions and car thefts."

And they may be more reckless than their predecessors. Gangs like the Heartless Felons are marauding around Cleveland and settling scores, according to Samad, and they're doing so without the leadership of the hierarchical gang structures from the crack era.

In the 1960s and 1970s, we were solving nine out of 10 murders. Now, in some places like Baltimore, it's more like three out of ten. – Neill Franklin

Other cities are experiencing a rise in violent crime, too. As of October 18, Chicago police had counted 385 homicides, approaching the total of 411 from 2014 that the department cited in response to an open records request I filed in May. The same goes for Charm City, which has surpassed its 2014 total of 211 by tallying well over 250 murders this year, according to the Baltimore Sun.

Franklin and other reformers are disturbed by the recent uptick in homicides, and are pushing for more resources to go toward preventing the killings and achieving justice for the victims and their families.

"In the 1960s and 1970s, we were solving nine out of 10 murders," Franklin said. "Now, in some places like Baltimore, it's more like three out of ten. Federal dollars that are going to law enforcement agencies need to be reevaluated, pulled back from drug enforcement, and redirected toward preventing and solving violent crime."

The families of the 11 women killed by Anthony Sowell would almost certainly agree.