Bad Cop Blotter

Police Chief Doesn’t Know You Can’t OD on Pot

Michael Pristoop, the top cop in Annapolis, Maryland, believed a fake news story that said that 37 people fatally overdosed on weed in Colorado when pot became legal there. That's, uh, probably not great.

Lucy Steigerwald

Lucy Steigerwald

Photo via Flickr user Quinn Dombrowski

Last Tuesday, during a hearing on legislation that would permit the use of recreational marijuana in Maryland, Annapolis police chief Michael Pristoop testified against the bill, in the process claiming that 37 people had overdosed on marijuana the day that pot became legal in Colorado. Pristoop was apparently getting his information from the Daily Currant, a notoriously shitty, unfunny “satire” website that put up a joke piece that “reported” that those people had died back in January.

State senator Jamie Raskin, the Democrat who sponsored the bill, immediately corrected Pristoop and told him that the Daily Currant is a comedy site. Pristoop said he would check on the error, but he was “holding on to information I was provided.” The next day Pristoop acknowledged he was wrong but said the general objection to legalization still stands. In other words, his opinion was based on lies, but he wasn't changing it.

Now, Pristoop’s job requires that he enforce the drug laws, which in theory means that he should be more educated than the general public about what individual drugs can and can’t do. What’s disturbing is that he believed such a baseless story on faith—believed it enough to bring it up in a fancy hearing!—even though YOU CAN’T OVERDOSE ON MARIJUANA.

Depending on the circumstances, enforcers of drug laws may or may not acknowledge that there is a significant difference between drugs, even drugs placed in the same legal categories. The DEA may put marijuana in the same schedule as heroin, LSD, ecstasy, and other scary substances, but if you have some “limited youthful and experimental use of marijuana” you can still become a DEA employee—suggesting that the agency knows smoking weed is not that big of a deal. Yet you still have Michele Leonhart, the head of the DEA, criticizing President Obama’s honesty when he said alcohol was more dangerous than marijuana. (She has also previously refused to answer questions about how dangerous pot is compared to meth, heroin, or other drugs.)

The general population and even some politicians are changing their attitudes toward marijuana—Colorado and Washington were the trendsetters when it came to recreational weed, and other states seem keen to follow. But we’ve still got a lot of holdouts like Leonhart and Pristoop, old-school drug warriors whose livelihoods are so closely tied to prohibition policies that they’ll say anything to keep marijuana illegal, even if they look incredibly stupid saying it.

Here are the rest of this week’s bad cops:

–On February 27, author and entrepreneur Peter Shankman was ticketed by the New York Police Department for going jogging in Central Park at 4:30 in the morning. Shankman tweeted a picture of the summons he received and ranted on Facebook about the incident—according to him, a police officer told him the park didn’t open until 6 AM, and since the cop's boss was with him, he had to write the ticket. Arguably, there is a logic to closing a city park at night in order to discourage crime and loitering. But this ticket is a perfect demonstration of a society and city where cops are involved in daily life to such an extent that even when someone is harmlessly breaking the letter of the law—Shankman is training for an Ironman event and doesn’t have time to run in the park when it’s open—they get penalized by the system. Luckily for Shankman, he’s wealthy enough to fight the summons in court, or presumably pay the fine if he loses his case.

–At the Photography Is Not a Crime blog, Carlos Miller recently noted several new Youtube videos that seem to show cops pulling guns on people who refuse to stop filming police. Miller’s entire blog is devoted to the cataloguing cops who arrest or intimidate citizens (including Miller himself) who film them. It’s legal to take photos in public and cops should have nothing to hide—there’s no reason for officers to draw their guns on people who are armed only with a camera. Considering the long history of police shooting folks holding wallets or reaching for waistbands, it’s perhaps a pleasant surprise that we haven’t heard of more people getting injured, or worse, because they decided to film the cops.

–Speaking of the police’s inability to identify whether something is a weapon, on February 28 a sheriff’s deputy in South Carolina shot a disabled 70-year-old man after he reached for his cane during a traffic stop. York County deputy Terrence Knox stopped Bobby Canipe on Tuesday evening over an expired tag, and when Canipe reached into the back of his pickup for his cane, Knox reportedly thought Canipe was reaching for a rifle, so he fired multiple shots and hit Canipe once (he’s not even a good shot, apparently). The senior citizen is expected to recover while Knox is on paid leave as the shooting is investigated. York County Police spokesperson Trent Faris expressed regret over the incident but said that, for now, it appeared that Knox’s shots were an “appropriate response to what he reasonably believed to be an imminent threat to his life.” Reasonable by law-enforcement standards, maybe, but that’s not all that high—if an ordinary citizen shot an unarmed old man, he’d be in jail right now.

–On Wednesday, VICE columnist Molly Crabapple reported on Phoenix’s paternalistic anti–sex worker program Project ROSE. Crabapple noted that sex workers in the city are often picked up in police stings, put in cuffs, and taken to Bethany Bible Church in order to be encouraged to take part in this program instead of going to prison. Prosecutors and cops are present, as are representatives from the project. Hundreds of individuals aren’t given the chance to talk to legal representation, yet the Phoenix Police Department’s spin is that the whole program is “voluntary.” According to Crabapple, 30 percent of all enrollees in Project ROSE complete the program. It may be better than prison, but, as Crabapple writes, ROSE’s “raids funnel hundreds of people into the criminal justice system. Denied access to lawyers, many of these people are coerced into ROSE's program without being convicted of any crime.” That’s not good.

–Two police officers in Midland, Texas, have been suspended for three days after an internal investigation showed that they had made a game out of stealing signs belonging to homeless people. Officers Derek Hester and Daniel Zoelzer took at least 18 signs and threw away ten of them. They initially tried to claim that the signs had been taken from people who had been ticketed for trespassing, but that didn’t mesh with police records. Hester’s refusal to turn in some brass knuckles procured as evidence first prompted the investigation into the officers’ super fun, not-at-all-awful game. Texts between Hester and Zoelzer expressed worry about being caught, though one message said, “Oh I don’t care lol I’m not worried.”

–In response to an increase in prescription drug overdoses (as well as a potentially related uptick in heroin use), last week the DEA continued plans to make it harder for people to get hydrocodone painkillers, the most popular of which is Vicodin. Florida congressman Vern Buchanan, who co-sponsored legislation to make this move last year, said this meant “we are one step closer to curbing the abuse of the deadly narcotics wreaking havoc on countless families and communities across our nation.” It’s tempting to think so, and drug overdoses are a serious problem, but giving the DEA more powers to police what individuals put into their bodies, or what doctors may prescribe to their patients, is not the solution. Particularly not in a world where many chronic pain sufferers don’t get the medication they need.

–Our Good Cop of the Week is Duval County, Florida, school-resource officer Joe Richardson for his small act of kindness toward a stranger. Recently, a woman named Karen Susman was at a Jacksonville Walgreens when she learned that, thanks to changes in her insurance, the copay for an antibiotic she needed was $72, which she couldn’t afford. She seemed to be out of luck until Richardson stepped in and bought her the medicine. Random generosity like this is made for forwarded emails from soppy old people, but it is also touching as hell and is an effective inoculation against misanthropy—and a reminder that police officers can be kind, decent people.

Lucy Steigerwald is a freelance writer and photographer. Read her blog here and follow her on Twitter.

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