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Former Narcotics Detective Admits Drug Planting Common

(Photo: denovich)

Stephen Anderson, a former New York Police Department (NYPD) narcotics detective, recently testified that he regularly saw police plant drugs on innocent people as a way for officers to meet arrest quotas. While the news may shock many civilians, the custom is so well known among officers that it has a name: “flaking.”

This practice has reportedly cost the city $1.2 million to settle cases of false arrests.

“The corruption I observed … was something I was seeing a lot of, whether it was from supervisors or undercovers and even investigators,” said Anderson.

And if anyone is an expert on planting drugs, it's Anderson. This is a man who was busted back in 2008 for planting cocaine on four men in a Queens bar.

“It's almost like you have no emotion with it, that they attach the bodies to it,” Anderson coolly admitted to a reportedly stunned Brooklyn courtroom. “They're going to be out of jail tomorrow anyway – nothing is going to happen to them.”

Forgotten in that detached assessment, obviously, is the horrific experience of being in jail; the financial burden of having to pay up to a $500,000 fine; and, oh, having a criminal record possibly wreck one's chances of future employment – not to mention dealing with the social stigma of being in jail; the travel restraints; the loss of voting rights; difficulty in finding affordable housing; and dealing with barriers to education (the Higher Education act was amended in 1998 to delay or deny federal financial aid to students on the basis of any drug offense,) among other hurdles too numerous to list.

Perhaps the most disconcerting details concerning the practice of police drug planting is that we have no idea how prevalent the problem is. There is no national database tracking the number of cases dismissed because of this kind of illegal behavior.

Jason Williamson, staff attorney with the ACLU Criminal Law Reform Project, admits that his knowledge of the issue is “fairly restricted.” He has been working on a case for close to a year and a half based in Camden, New Jersey, that concerns drug planting by police. These kinds of individual cases are all litigators really have to work with since there has not thus far been an effort to track national trends.

“Some of these issues never make it out of the Internal Affairs department,” says Williamson. “Even cases that make it to court might not get very far.” Let alone make it to some kind of neat Microsoft Excel sheet for journalists to comb through.

However, in speaking with the ACLU and former police officers, it becomes clear that drug planting is not only common knowledge among those in the know, but it is a highly prevalent problem that affects poor minorities fairly regularly.

“I think that it happens more than people would like to think,” says Williamson. He adds that in Camden and in New York, there is a certain degree of pressure to make arrests, and even if a department doesn't have a specific written quota policy, there is always an expectation that a productive police officer makes arrests and hauls in contraband off the streets. “There's a natural temptation for police officers to [plant drugs].”

It's difficult for the ACLU to take on the issue of arrest quotes precisely because they are oftentimes unofficial understandings between supervisors and officers. There's not a giant plaque posted at headquarters that reads, “Each police officer is responsible for X arrests per month,” or, “When in doubt, plant evidence!” but rather, officers understand they're meant to bust drug deals and bring in enough “bad guys” to win them praise.

In the past, New York City (NYC) police have confirmed the existence of ticket quotas, and NYC officer Adil Polanco told WABC that precinct commanders relentlessly pressure cops to make more arrests and give out more summonses.

However, officially, these quotas don't exist, and since official quotas “don't exist,” then the instances of drug planting are always presented as isolated cases of bad apple officers gone rogue instead of natural byproducts of a high-pressure system of quotas.

“We would be naïve to believe it's not happening on a pretty widespread basis around the country,” Williamson says about drug planting.

Tracking how far rot extends up the ladder of a department is also extremely difficult to determine. Unless someone like Anderson steps forward to spill the beans about corrupt brass, supervisors and investigators almost always deny they knew this kind of behavior was ever going on.

And that might be true, Williamson offers, but even if supervisors are indeed naïve about this behavior, then “the question is what kind of mechanisms should a department have in place in order to catch this kind of thing before it gets out of control?”

The victims of drug planting are, unsurprisingly, poor minorities. “Police officers aren't stupid,” says Williamson. “They're not planting drugs on the nun walking up and down the street. They're finding people who they think they can make a credible case against. So you have people who have prior convictions, or people who a court or a jury is likely to believe was involved in this sort of thing.”

These “undesirables” are the ones society believes belong in prison, in the sense that the privileged members of communities don't raise concerns even when it becomes clear poor minorities are being incarcerated at extremely high rates for questionable reasons. Well, they were probably guilty of SOME crime. Throw away the key! seems to be their reasoning.

On August 2, 2008, rank-and-file police officers in Camden who were “familiar with the community,” according to Williamson, planted drugs on a young, poor black man named Joel Barnes, who ultimately spent 419 days in prison.

The ACLU sued five police officers, and all five were indicted in federal court. During a separate criminal investigation, three of the five (Jason Stetser, Kevin Parry and Dan Morris) pled guilty and admitted to the drug planting, and the other two officers are going to trial in November. The three officers who pled guilty will be testifying against them.

These five officers are responsible for locking up 185 individuals by planting evidence on them. Once the officers were indicted, the district attorney's office oversaw the release of all 185 people.

“Lest anyone think this is a figment of our imagination, or that it's unclear if this is happening, in this case, at least, it happened,” says Williamson.

The ACLU is seeking both damages and injunctive relief to force the Camden police to change the way they track arrests and monitor the behavior of individual police officers.

“Over the years, there have been studies on this kind of corruption, but I don't know of any national database,” says former Deputy Chief Stephen Downing, a 20-year veteran of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD), who was in charge of implementing Nixon's War on Drugs in Los Angeles.

Downing makes reference to the Rampart scandal, a case of widespread corruption in the Community Resources Street Hoodlums (CRASH) anti-gang unit of the LAPD. In the late '90s, more than 70 officers from CRASH were implicated in misconduct, including charges of planting evidence and framing suspects.

“Nobody was really watching over them,” says Downing. “So they just went wild. They turned into a bunch of cowboys … When they become free of supervision and then you impose this quota thing, they're driven to cheat.”

In May 2000, Capt. Robert B. Hansohn told the Daily News that CRASH did not have arrest quotas before bragging that Rampart led the city's LAPD division in that category. In that short interaction, Hansohn unwittingly highlighted the central problem of policing in the United States: perhaps official numbered quotas don't exist, but arrests – regardless of their merit – are rewarded.

Since Nixon declared the War on Drugs, part of the $1 trillion the government has spent in the last 40 years has been to finance “drug task forces.” The federal government handed out money to police departments all over the nation to form High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas (HIDTA) task forces authorized by the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1998. In 2000, HIDTA's annual budget was projected to be $186 million.

“Corruption is always rearing its ugly head in these task forces because it's taking local police officers and putting them in small units, supervised by people not in their own department, and many times supervised by people who are in the quota system,” says Downing.

Downing talks about when he first learned of these task forces back in the '70s and discovered the Drug Enforcement Agency gave their agents bonuses for arrests and seizures.

“I said, no way. We're not going to be involved in that at all because that is a corrupting influence.”

But that kind of protection is not widespread. Googling “drug task force corruption” reaps 7.5 million results, and the lawsuits and cases of corruption are too plentiful to list.

“This has been going on for forty years,” Downing states simply. “These corruptions are emerging all over the country. It's not systemic to a police department, per se, but it is systemic to the War on Drugs in the context that the federal government is basically corrupting local government with their funds and the helter-skelter way of putting these task forces together and diverting local police from their basic public safety duties to the priorities of the federal government in terms of the War on Drugs.”

Then, cities get “hooked,” as Downing puts it, on federal drug money and asset seizures (the federal government splits seizures with local communities) to fulfill their budgets.

There is another layer to the quota system. For example, a city manager might say to the chief of police that the department's budget is $5 million, but officers will have to go out and earn a million of it in asset drug seizures. The natural result is that instead of allocating officers to fight crime, they're instead sent on a fundraising drive via seizures.

Downing says it's “difficult to prove” arrest quotas even exist. “Police administrations have become savvy to the criticism that can come from a stated quota policy.”

So for example, in California, there is a law against quotas for traffic tickets. Yet, ten LAPD officers sued the department in August because they allege their supervisors retaliated against them for resisting traffic-ticket quotas. According to Downing, this is a rare case because most officers won't speak out against enormous pressure to act as whistleblowers.

“There is no official policy,” says Downing, but what happens is a supervisor will say to an officer charged with finding traffic violations, “how can you possibly be out there eight hours a day and not see at least ten violations?”

Downing says that same model can be applied to drug law enforcement. “You're only coming up with twenty drug arrests a month? You're not working very hard, are you bud? We're not going to keep you around,” says Downing in the voice of a hypothetical supervisor.

You won't read these quotas in any police manual, but you will see them at the supervisory level. Anderson was the inevitable conclusion of a corrupt system. It was only a matter of time before an officer got caught planting drugs and rolled on the department.

Anderson testified under a cooperation deal with prosecutors and admitted what poor minorities and police have known for years: officers sometimes (more frequently than people like to believe) plant drugs on individuals to frame them. And these aren't the acts of a few bad apples. This behavior is institutionalized.

In the United States, more white citizens use drugs, yet more black people are imprisoned for drug offenses, according to a Human Rights Watch report released in 2000. With this in mind, it makes sense that privileged (usually white) sects of society would find Anderson's testimony shocking. White people are generally unfamiliar with the shady underbelly of police tactics like stop-and-frisk policies and drug planting.

Even though police departments across the country continue to deny the existence of these quotas, what's become clear through the deluge of corruption cases is that these are not exceptional situations, but rather the expected consequence of a system of skewed priorities beginning 40 years ago that has only served to enrich underground drug pushers and destroy local communities.