Blog Post

The War on Drugs Makes Soldiers Out of Civil Servants

Aaron Juchau

The New York Times recently reported that the NYPD has joined the Community Overdose Prevention Program (COP), created by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. The program provides $5 million to equip police officers across the state with kits containing the potent anti-overdose drug, naloxone.

NYPD officers have begun carrying these kits, and have in fact already saved several lives. The COP program follows the lead of other police agencies’ responses to reports of increased overdoses on heroin and prescription opioids across the nation.

This approach is a welcome departure from our nation’s track record on dealing with drugs. In the last several decades, the drug war has helped establish a strong and consistent trend towards militarization of police forces. Spending on assault weapons, armored personnel carriers, and military-style training have become the norm, along with a massive increase in the use of SWAT teams and “No-Knock” warrants. Amid these worrying developments, it is encouraging to see the largest police department in the nation acquire life-saving equipment, instead of life-taking equipment.

Police conduct and tactics are dictated by how officers and departments view their role within the community, and how they are incentivized. When police are told they are in a “war” (on drugs, poverty, crime, etc.), and incentivized to acquire military equipment, arrest as many people as possible, and seize property without due process, it defines their role as warriors doing battle with evil. This alienates the community and justifies a warlike mentality that results in widespread use of force and a general distrust of law enforcement.

In contrast, when police are expressly given the mission of helping people—like saving an overdose victim—it defines their role as heroic community members serving the public. Programs like COP that focus explicitly on the day-to-day health and safety of citizens rather than ambiguous threats like “drugs” and “terrorism” help to establish a more productive role for police in society. We must incentivize police departments to develop such programs and to define the role of officers as community leaders and civil servants.

Let’s leave the war-fighting to soldiers and let cops get back to protecting and serving.

Aaron Juchau is an intern for the Drug Policy Alliance.

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