Category: Law and Order

On ‘Savages’ and ‘End of Watch’

EOW-06786_rgb.jpg

Photo Credit: The New York Times

THE NARCO-WARS of today have begun to see the big screen. Oliver Stone’s recent release Savages sets itself inside the designer dope game, where special strains of West Coast Buddha produced by a biochemist and his war-vet buddy, provides Cali’s connoisseurs with highs that elicit particular moods and experiences so good that it threatens the dominance of a powerful Mexican cartel. David Ayer’s End of Watch has two Los Angeles street cops exposing how a connection between gangs, their street politics, a narco cartel and a human traffic chain are interrelated, and places them in a predicament. End of Watch also makes a brief mention of the tensions between the immediacy of local police concerns and the longer-term goals of federal-level law enforcement operations. (E.G. Patiently moving to dismantle an entire network, versus busting up the low-hangning fruit involved in lower level illegal activity.)

Savages and End of Watch are somewhat a rarity in the prevalence of the movies of now, since most recent drug-crime flicks are about the past, like Blow and American Gangster, which were history-based retrospectives and period-pieces, though not in the Merchant Ivory film way. Savages is a somewhat fantastical soap-opera look at the drug operations of West Coast weed distributors and their barbarism (hence “savages”), with both sides, one Californian; the other Mexican, performing superlative acts of violence. It’s narrated by a young Orange County girl, the Shakespearean, “Ophelia,” who is the third node in an open love triangle between her, a Cal Berkeley world-saver, biochemist grower, and a former soldier in the War on Terror. They all just so happen to accept and love each other and are legitimately friends who run a multi-million dollar bud business, but become ensconced in a literal hostile takeover that leaves the bodies of those crucial to a rival Mexican cartel in their wake.

End of Watch, the better of the two films — because there is none of Oliver Stone’s funny, but slightly ridiculous sense of humor, or an unfocused plot — is a half-cinematic experience, and half first-person, cinema verité ride; because of a plot that features a young war vet, beat cop, who films his outings for a graduate-level course. End of Watch is equally gruesome in its portrayal of the life out there affected by cross-border cartels, especially focusing on the viciousness of their tactics and their reach into local communities via gangs, deployed to exact revenge; which falls upon the two officers. What makes End of Watch is its portrayal of the partners, as they are made heroes for numerous acts of valor and are great friends, committed to each other in the way cops are, sharing their lives while trapped in an L.A.P.D. black-and-white. The film follows them on routine community-relations duties, saving babies from burning homes and whatnot, as well as responding to backup calls and involved in crazy urban shootouts.

End of Watch owes its existence and success to David Ayer, a director whose produced several works on Los Angeles’s gang and street life, most notably, Training Day. Ayer, who partially grew up on Los Angeles’s mean streets, is able to effectively capture the banter and camaraderie between two cops in the midst of an ongoing battle for civility in the city. It’s a camaraderie that is not unlike that of soldiers in the battlefields of now, when speaking of a frequently-engaged L.A.P.D. unit like Rampart, where Ayer’s two cops: one white, a graduate student and single; the other, Latino, responsible and married, both highly skilled at their job, working in what is a battle space between gangs, drug dealers, hustlers and the police. It’s also the place where they kick up plenty of dust and rile hornets’ nests for fun.

Both Savages and End of Watch are rides submerged in violence and testosterone, that are strong portrayals with different aims. End of Watch’s goal appears to be to produce a glowing, apolitical tome to service and the partnership and brotherhood of cops within the cold worlds they inhabit, amid the toughest assignment and division of the L.A.P.D. Savages is an epic discussion of the mind state of those in the cannabis game and cartel bosses’ lives in the upper-reaches, that is only halfway-to-great. However, both do not disappoint in providing a fairly true portrayal of a world which happens right beneath our noses, outside our doors, or at the production end of the “broccoli” our nation and particularly the West Coast consumes to a degree that — unless nationwide legalization occurs — we’ll see the continuing violence and ugly influence of.

Read a review of Savages [Here]

Read an interview with End of Watch‘s David Ayer at the New York Times [Here]

Read a review of End of Watch at the New York Times [Here]

Kalashnikov Everything; Everywhere

Gold AK-47 Blog Image

IN its first anniversary issue GOOD — a Los Angeles-based media group focusing on the animating passions of the socially conscious – made an odd editorial decision: They opted to run a cover story different than the granola-style and domestic design-oriented subjects that they normally ran. This time, going with an AK-47 set against a luminescent pumpkin background, they asked, “Is there ever design this good that doesn’t kill people?” It touched on something that I have thought about for the longest time, about the unfortunate legacy and trace of the AK-47 and its progeny: from mom-and-pop, garage-made bastards of regional gun markets, to state-produced modifications of the classic killing tool, in what is the firearms’ equivalent of the machete.

The AK found its ignoble genesis through the innovative design skill of Mikhail Kalashnikov, who has often implied regret about the arm’s ultimate success. Initially a Russian tank-seargent, Kalashnikov began designing small-arms in 1942, from a hospital bed, following a wounding at the Battle of Bryansk. He took a job in the Red Army’s firearms’ design wing following his recovery, and his rifles rose to eventual prominence through open government design contests and several iterations, aimed to fill the need of a hearty assault rifle; following decimating battles against Nazi troops and the Strumgewehr 44 in the Second World War.

By 1947, Kalashnikov’s journey to design the infantry rifle that the Soviet Union had hoped for — meeting its needs for power and combat durability — found a fit in the model “47.” On the heels of a process which produced the AK-1 and AK-2; the AK-47 — or Automatic Kalashnikov, patent 1947 (or Avtomat Kalashnikova, 1947) — combined multiple existing technologies of the time, including that of the Strumgewehr 44; the American Remington Model 8, the M1 Carbine and M1 Garand. The latter two, standard issue weapons of the United States infantry.

Through implementation with Russian forces and allies like China and a robust international market, the Kalashnikov series improbably became the most popular rifle in the world, and a totem of the underground cultural discourse; most often emanating from the lines of hip-hop artists who reference it, but also frequently appearing in mainstream movies. It was most memorably a refrain in Ice Cube’s “Today Was a Good Day,” which borrowed — even if unrealized — from the dangerous allure carried by so-called revolutionaries of the Third World and the separatists of Russian client states; to well-documented government terror cells like Afghanistan’s Taliban, Palestine’s Hamas, Iran’s Hezbollah, and now even, the many unaffiliated who simply employ it as the prime destabilizers in societies; from criminal trade organizations to modern-day nautical pirates.

Ice Cube’s, and more recently Meek Mills, Freddie Gibbs’s and even M.I.A.’s [in 2006's $20 Dollar] lyrical proclamations of possessing the globally-favored arm, supports an obvious artistic affinity to shock and create pangs of fear, while reflecting some well-known realities. Not to mention that such actions and motivations produce an unalloyed terror in conservative, establishment, Law and Order America; whom these artists purposely attempt to rile, by getting them to quietly notice: “A menacing, (supposedly) revolting minority with a Commie gun.” And miraculously this is simply achieved by invoking this weapon of the disestablishment and militant folk-heroes. The fashionably edgy hype surrounding AK-47s is so souped now that images of it float virally around the Web where it can be seen bespoke in Gucci prints, painted diamonds; used as a medium for and the subject of sculptures, and even plastered in funny hyper-paint color schemes by street artists like Damien Hirst.

Despite its cultural presence, it is for all intents and purposes now an outlaw’s choice, in the real-world calculation: The very carbine hell-staff which ominously appears in Osama bin Laden’s hands, America’s erstwhile Boogey Man of 13-plus years, as he’s seen dropping shells and dispensing slugs towards an off-screen target — in completely played-out file footage — kneeling in a robe, posing like a drugstore, army-man toy. Among “Capos” — the heads of narco-trafficking cartels — and their minions of hired muscle in Central America and South America, Kalashnikovs are a preferred tool for inducing mayhem, often purchased through straw-man sales from the American side of the border, where they are sometimes modified, before being smuggled South and back into their hands. (It should also be noted that American military weapons are used by cartels as well, as the ties between the American-assisted South American governments’ armies and paramilitary anti-narcotics teams are infiltrated by the criminals, and become a revolving door between the two worlds, where lines between the army and the criminals blur.)

Kalashnikovs have even inspired a nickname in those AK-soaked regions, as the drug trade has become so ubiquitous its almost a wall-paper over the life there, earning the nickname cuerno de chivo or “goat’s horn,” for the mold of its signature banana clip. Gold AKs are usually collected by Capos for the purposes of acting as trophies; both a spoil and a talisman of sorts for the ballers and high-rollers, indicating placement within cartels’ upper-level operations. The 2003 invasion of Iraq left American forces astounded by the multiples of Sadaam’s 24-karat gold-plated Kalashnikovs, as well as those which came out of Gaddafi’s personal caches in Libya in 2011, retrieved from his multitudinous quarters; leading to pics of Libyan rebels posing with said rifles, appearing like removed, de-pixelated images from Nintendo 64′s GoldenEye.


In C.J. Chivers’s history of the AK-47, The Gun, the war reporter writes that initial U.S. Army field studies surmised the AK to not be a threat to Western forces, while also miscategorizing it as a “sub-machine gun.” In typical shortsighted fashion of early evaluators of things which are new, it was ridiculed by weapons’ analysts for its lack of potency, perhaps because it was not seen as an assault rifle, and judged on different criteria; nor did they understand the nature of the coming guerrilla wars and their swarm tactics. In those early AK-47 years of the late 1950′s, it was viewed beneath the quality of weaponry assigned to American infantrymen. (But certainly seen as fine for rag-tag armies of a socialistic stripe.)

But the dogma on the AK was summarily disputed and overturned by those in-the-field. First it happened in Guns September 1956, when regarded weapons’ journalist William Edwards made claims of having fired it, first labeling it as a “PPK-54″ and an “Avtomat-54.” He mainly observed it was easier to operate than the N.A.T.O. options. Positive in-the-field assessments of the Kalashnikov further began to congeal when Dutch forces recovered AKs from Indonesian paratroopers in Western New Guinea and praised it. But it wasn’t until American soldiers who’d become frustrated by their newly distributed M-16s and their jams in firefights, began to peel Kalashnikovs off dead Viet Cong; that the tide had begun to change the AK reputation. In his global introduction to the AK-47 in Guns, Edwards made another observation concerning what separated its design from service-rifles of the time; saying that the AK which used an intermediate-sized cartridge — the bullet, or more precisely, the bullet’s delivery system, which was not as powerful as that of other battlefield rifles but more powerful than a pistol’s — was a “bold step towards a uniform ordnance supply.” That less powerful cartridge also produced better control because it reduced its recoil.

The proliferation of Kalashnikovs on battlefields, and later the greater criminal culture, can be linked to some key features: First, as intended, it is reliable and highly-durable because of its chromed insides and simple design, which allow it to be abused, wholly neglected, but still remain operable. It also handles the extremes of environments quite well. There are stories of AKs being buried beneath the sand for long periods of time and upon retrieval, being able to still fire. It is also uncomplicated and affordable, which has helped to make it abundant; frequently reproduced and duplicated with just mere scrap metal recovered from battlefields and skilled craftsmens’ touch. There is further a value in the versatility of it, in its presentation and options; since it is a fairly short arm.

Its AKS version — originally designed for Russian paratroopers, comes ready with a collapsible metal stock, making it a terror to spot and stave its trafficking; and all AKs are able to switch from semi-automatic to automatic fire. This gives skilled and unskilled operators the option to be precise and conservative, or to dump rounds, depending on their needs. Most importantly, the AK is easy to use and maintain, because of its intuitive assembly and big, limited parts (of which only eight of nine are moving), making it easier to clean than other weapons. It also happens to have a nearly non-existent learning curve, which has facilitated its placing in the hands of child-soldiers in most of the insurgent conflicts of the 20th Century. In nations like Afghanistan, where the rifle’s history is deeply connected to the war-immersed history, it is said that even to kids, its basics can be taught in under a full hour.

Though Kalashnikovs the world over aren’t known for a William Tell-ish accuracy, because of their poor aiming system  – and the unskilled who’ve tended to use them — it does provide a high rate of fire and is powerful, armed with a round that is heavier than its Western counterpart, the M-16. It’s shorter barrel and slightly off-center charging assembly are also to blame for inaccuracy, both of which produce upward recoiling, causing errant fire. However, it incites incredible fear, due to the reputations of those who’ve used it, its known power and the scads of personal stories of encounters with the fearsome weapon. Furthermore, because it is so highly identifiable, with a protruding serpentine banana clip, its fear-factor only augments with time; always signifying some level of doom to come, no matter the locale.

The “Kalash,” as it is known in Russia, and its ravages, are well-known to those who pay attention for any number of reasons, from human rights groups, law enforcement, aid workers to military personnel. The AK-47 and its improved AKM series and now the prevalent Chinese produced Type 56 knockoffs, far exceeded early American assessments. It’s now the gun du jor of the modern age: Sold for $180.00-$400.00 USD in gun markets in Darra Adam Khel, Pakistan or Bakaara, Somalia. It’s the weaponized face of revolutionaries — to the point that its even honored on Mozambique’s flag — armed resistance movements and criminals. It’s sadly became the major purveyor of the pandemic disease of small-arms proliferation with an estimated 75-100 million having been produced in total, hitting all sectors. It is ironically, a socially irresponsible capitalists’ gem, when you think about it, created by a communist.

A worldwide fascination with outlaw culture, the AKs availability, and a user-friendly design has fostered a rise — against all similar arms —  with an inertia pushing it that began with newsreel footage of Vietnam being beamed into homes, to video from Third World hot zones, a growing gang culture problem, Narco-traffickers and concurrently, YouTube clips from jihadists, posted on message boards and blogs. All of which supports a sense of the rifle being the presumptive choice. In short time the AK became the primary rifle for the Soviet Union, her satellites, and Warsaw-Pact nations, South American drug cartels, terrorists of all stripes and the highly recognizable, crack-infused gangland battles of the 1980s; spreading its sales as liberally as Vodka. And it is now an example of a design whose success has been truly and ultimately unfortunate.

On ‘The Wire,’ Season 1

TheWireSeason1Screen

DOING THIS six years late, particularly after these recent remarks*, reminds me (somewhat) of, how as a condition of certain behavioral treatments and recovery from addiction, people attempt to rectify the things they said and did, when they weren’t on the straight and narrow, with a mere apology — sometimes adding full acts of contrition — only to find those harmed or offended holding misgivings about full-hearted forgiveness. While it’s not that dramatic, with considerations to my political and cultural interests and erstwhile sociopolitical musings, not having uttered a word-processed sentence on The Wire is a sin of omission unfathomable.

Reviewing David Simon’s and Ed Burn’s drug war opera seems imperative to me, because it covers just so much of our contemporary sociological issues. As a series it’s so sweeping in its legal, institutional, criminal, surveillance and law enforcement scope that it has no equal. Though similarly formatted “wide-angled,” examining procedurals in Britain (Traffik) and Canada (Intelligence), provided similar investment-payoff ratios and edification on social matters. It even might be belonging to that unquantifiably volleyed title “best television show ever.” It may not be the most exciting show and certainly it was not the most watched in history, at first — with its revere largely cordoned-off by gender, education level and those with premium cable, along with a “media intelligentsia” and “intellectual snob” variety who we snicker at — but it is probably the best combination of an ambitious, entertaining, dramatic but accessible work on one of the greatest public policy debates of these times.


The series opens with Jimmy McNulty an on-the-outs, swashbuckling Baltimore homocide detective sauntering into a city courthouse to observe a ruling on defendant D’Angelo Barksdale, a nephew of yet-known East Baltimore drug kingpin, Avon Barksdale, in a homocide case. D’Angelo is found innocent — skating on a murder wrap under odd circumstances — when the state’s key witness amends prior statements while on the stand, leaving Barksdale sliding off into the sun. (And back to slinging again as a street-level manager in East Baltimore’s deadliest housing project.)

McNulty, in turn, being a crusading Don Quixote, striving for absolute right to be done in his professional world, is frustrated by the outcome. Because, beyond justice, McNulty’s personal life is a just-stepped-on pressure-plate attached to an I.E.D. of his own making. His wife’s divorced him and hectors him, he drinks the night away, and due to his long hours, he barely sees his sons. He’s basically looking and feeling like a fuck-up. In Baltimore’s world of overworked murder case-crackers, however, McNulty, is “good poh-leece,” something uttered in the series with a colloquial cadence, as a complimentary title ascribed to the get-it-done-right cops.

McNulty, on a hunch and with the bad taste of the ruling concerning D’Angelo Barksdale, decides he should enlist an old friend: a judge, who to the judge’s political detriment agrees to green-light a sprawling investigation, culling a rag-tag bunch from across the divisions of the department to look into D’Angelo’s uncle, Avon Barksdale, and his associates, all on the possibility of intimidation of a state’s witness in a murder trial: Ordered by a man who oversees a narcotics ring in a housing project, and whose enterprise carries several murders to its name.

From there, the onion layers peel by the episode. Over thirteen chapters, the Barksdale’s criminal and economic influence — totaling in the double-digit millions in East Baltimore’s dope trade and washed in and by multiple fronts — sketches a complex, multi-generational drug operation where viewers become witness to their keen abilities to elude law enforcement, sell in public, produce counter-surveillance and prosecute Baltimore’s street code.

Told through season one’s arc are the “inside baseball” games of Baltimore’s police: As they work within a counterproductive results-based tracking of cases that simply focus on the rate of “clearances” (closed cases), and creates internal and city-wide political pressures which thwart honest police work by lazy and case-trading officers, worried about their own clearance rate numbers and careers. It’s just as if the constant standardized testing in schools, that takes away from lasting teaching**, had been moved on to law enforcement.

Viewers of The Wire are also privy to a less-flattering depiction of the everyday work-life disposition of detectives who disdain truly grueling investigative work, and avoid prima facie unsolvable cases, not-so-affectionately referred to as “Whodunits,” which are frowned upon by division heads. Since those cases consume inordinate amounts of time and are no stop-gap against the cascade of murders in a murder-rich environment. The Wire also demonstrates how interwoven personal ambitions can hurt what small progress and peace can be achieved on the streets through policing, as much as incompetence and a constellation of long set-in institutional dysfunctions.

Of the many strengths of its inaugural season is a feat that its forerunner in H.B.O.’s acclaimed flagships of original programming, The Sopranos, had achieved; which is to humanize the believed to be utterly despicable high-level criminal. Just as we saw the smarts and skills necessary to juggle family dynamics and crime with Tony Soprano, the audience of The Wire similarly bears witness to D’Angelo Barksdale and the operation’s kingpin, Avon Barksdale, along with the sharply cerebral lieutenant, Stringer Bell.

Watching The Wire is a Rorschach test on personal perspective. For those 17-year-olds who watch Cocaine Cowboys with a romantic awe and aspirationally bounce to Rick Ross and The Clipse, it is another engrossing Grand Theft Auto-ish way to escape the mundane aspects of life. For politicos or ideas and information consumers, it is a confirmation of data parrotted over the last two decades about just how much is wrong with drug enforcement policy. For the lay, who are less plugged into the realities of an American criminal underclass, at both the popular culture level, and as the targets of actual policy; this show could simply be a Bible on the matter.

And for those in the intersections who hold a reformist’s bent towards what is quickly being the nation’s least talked about, most important domestic issue, aside from security, though they are entwined, the first season of The Wire is a realization of just how much must happen — just how many pieces of a puzzle must fall into place — in order to achieve significant results against the tide of illicit drug markets. But, real shit, no matter who watches The Wire, they will know that the War on Drugs has failed, and they will know it intuitively, without a political harangue being bellowed between the lines of its characters.

According to the Pew Research Center in a study conducted eleven years ago, 74% of Americans agreed with the statement “We are losing the drug war” and 74% also agreed with the statement “Demand is so high we will never stop use.” In 2012, it’s hard to imagine people would agree less. The amount of incarcerations in the war has amounted to nothing but a war on minorities. The Bureau of Justice Statistics at the Department of Justice data in 2011** supports this. In December 2011, the estimated percentage of blacks incarcerated on drug sentences at the state level was 21.1% of the total population of state prisons, and 19.5% of the estimated total number of those incarcerated on drug offenses at state prisons were Latino.

Prisoners under federal jurisdiction who were sentenced on drug offenses in 2009 amounted to 96, 735 and 94,472 in 2010. Those federal drug incarcerations dwarf the next highest category of incarcerations for those same years, public order offenses, a category which comprises immigration crimes, weapons charges and a miscellaneous “other,” that amounted to 63,714 in 2009 and 65,873 in 2010. A New York Times op-ed titled “Numbers Tell Failure of Drug War,” from July, further hammers the unnecessarily high incarcerations rate home:

And the domestic costs are enormous, too. Almost one in five inmates in state prisons and half of those in federal prisons are serving time for drug offenses. In 2010, 1.64 million people were arrested for drug violations. Four out of five arrests were for possession. Nearly half were for possession of often-tiny amounts of marijuana.

Harry Levine, a sociologist at Queens College of the City University of New York, told me that processing each of the roughly 85,000 arrests for drug misdemeanors in New York City last year cost the city $1,500 to $2,000. And that is just the cost to the budget. Hundreds of thousands of Americans, mostly black and poor, are unable to get a job, a credit card or even an apartment to rent because of the lasting stigma of a criminal record for carrying an ounce of marijuana.

There’s just no other way around it, in analyzing that data, or watching The Wire, that one cannot see that this war is a futile endeavor. As the end of The Wire‘s inaugural season notes, following a 13-hour — in viewer’s time — painstaking dragnet that lands a kingpin and his third in command, into custody. Yet little changes on the street: Another generation of youth who grew up as junior associates in Barksdale’s company happily move up the organizational ladder in reward for their willingness to commit rather gruesome acts; all of them perfectly trained in what is not much different than an internship, only the lessons are in the drug economy. The young bucks who take the hard lessons from their imprisoned boss, and the new leadership, keep the wheels of narcotics sales moving just like a corporation in post-crisis; holding true to their foot soldier status and newly-appointed mid-level manager positions, in a literal cut-throat industry.

In its present day of 2002; a decade ago, now, The Wire‘s first season served as a journalistically-mirrored artist’s depiction. But not much has changed in the very world it attempts to accurately portray with passion and a journalist’s scope. It’s a meditation on many of the Drug War’s fronts still suspended in time, preserved in amber; a fossil of urban decay and the permanency of the institutional failures of then, which are so wholly indistinguishable from the now. It might as well be a time capsule from last week in many cities.

The neighborhoods in our poorest communities are stocked with kids from families who’ve done nothing but sell and hustle drugs in someway — as D’Angelo Barksdale points out in one scene, laying out the matrix of his notorious and multigenerational family business – all of whom with no real hope to be on the legitimate path, mostly due to a generation of draconian incarceration policy, financially abandoned communities and failed educational systems. And so they are left to embrace the only opportunity they believe they have to make it in the world. For them the drug game is the company in their company town.

The takeaway from season one isn’t a shining coat of arms for cops, Baltimore or the American central city. It’s an indictment of the War on Drugs policy’s once-good intentions becoming that platitude of a “path to hell.” From the many failures of policing to the unfortunate and disconnected, deeply segregated communities that sprang up in housing projects becoming a lesson on what not to do in law enforcement and urban planning, season one of The Wire is an examination of what can be done to effect small change, while not ever truly dismantling illegal drug markets.

And to be frank, it is hard to grasp what the objective of the War on Drugs was other than to curtail abuse and sale, since outright eradication seems ridiculously unrealistic. You soon realize in watching The Wire that what the War on Drugs is now, can’t remotely be the objective; producing an unending loop of incarcerations and escalating violence.

The War’s blowback is counterproductively providing life-support to all kinds of ills from global terrorism (which networks use the sale of drugs to fund), to the reason for the grotesquely violent narco-terror. It’s also the lifeblood for all sorts of gangs and the interrelated nodes in the points of criminality in-between these categories: from the elastic murder figures of some cities, to, partially, why there are so many guns on the streets. Because one of the most common ways to make money on the streets is the drug sales. And the trade’s most important personal defense tool against the risk posed by other drug pushers, and addicts on a hunt to catch an easy fix, is the handgun.

Further, the war is exactly why there’s so much money involved and why the stakes are so high. Because — to bring in the fundamentals of supply and demand economics — the drugs are not so hard to secure and their demand isn’t remotely in danger of drought; it’s then safe to presume that the inherent risks involved are what make for the cartoon amounts of muscle and firepower. It’s the cost of conducting business, and the stakes rise with every successively higher level of product and dealing that dealers commit to. These paragraphs from “Numbers Tell Failure of the Drug War” are precise:

Yet the presidential elections on both sides of the border offer a unique opportunity to re-examine the central flaws of the two countries’ strategy against illegal narcotics. Its threadbare victories — a drug seizure here, a captured kingpin there — pale against its cost in blood and treasure. And its collateral damage, measured in terms of social harm, has become too intense to ignore.

Most important, conceived to eradicate the illegal drug market, the war on drugs cannot be won. Once they understand this, the Mexican and American governments may consider refocusing their strategies to take aim at what really matters: the health and security of their citizens, communities and nations.

Prices match supply with demand. If the supply of an illicit drug were to fall, say because the Drug Enforcement Administration stopped it from reaching the nation’s shores, we should expect its price to go up.

That is not what happened with cocaine. Despite billions spent on measures from spraying coca fields high in the Andes to jailing local dealers in Miami or Washington, a gram of cocaine cost about 16 percent less last year than it did in 2001. The drop is similar for heroin and methamphetamine. The only drug that has not experienced a significant fall in price is marijuana.

And it’s not as if we’ve lost our taste for the stuff, either. About 40 percent of high school seniors admit to having taken some illegal drug in the last year — up from 30 percent two decades ago, according to the Monitoring the Future survey, financed by the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

The use of hard drugs, meanwhile, has remained roughly stable over the last two decades, rising by a few percentage points in the 1990s and declining by a few percentage points over the last decade, with consumption patterns moving from one drug to another according to fashion and ease of purchase.

A pithy observation to glean from The Wire‘s opening act is the cunning and intelligence needed to run a high-level drug ring. The logistics, the precautions against an in-place legal framework, the robust investigation methods and resources, the unpredictable human element, which is wildly inconsistent, due to the involvement in one of the highest stakes businesses around; it seems if all things were equal, and if participants were once steered toward another path in a different environment, many of these fictional characters would’ve succeeded somewhere else in life, on much more linear paths. And it’s easy to assume that this would be true for those involved in the actual drug trade, outside of the capsule of an Ed Burns and David Simon teleplay, since The Wire isn’t some fantastical display of police cunning and truly daft criminals. It is a portrayal of humble triumph achieved at the hands of many smart police and well-honed investigation methods, over institutional dysfunctions, and a local drug franchise weighed down by human variables. And even then, that operation wasn’t dismantled.

It’s obvious that the economically downtrodden communities with nothing to lose tend to have more visible drug abuse — in the form of open sale — and are more actively policed. But what’s especially awful is that the victims of the War on Drugs are victims of the system already, before they even take on the trade, and so the war is in effect a double-whammy. As these are the working-class and poor, suffering from the generational divestment in the inner-cities, outsourcing, the loss of jobs due to increasing computerization efficiency, widening education gaps, a digital divide, and the outright death of American manufacturing, all ripping a hole into the lower-ends of the American economy.

That inequality only creates incentive to use as a way to cope, or for them to participate in an otherwise booming, recession-proof, tax-free business, with low-entry risk, but which also happens to act as a trap. Any “War on Drugs,” would generally be in some way a war on the poor. Sure there’s some rhetoric in there; but the entire War on Drugs enterprise has only provided a shaky amount of justification and far too many inconsistencies. (Such as the once-active sentencing disparities — amended by President Obama through the Fair Sentencing Act  –  in powder cocaine sentences and the more urban-consumed crack, which lead crack offenders facing a penalty that was equivalent to 100x times the carry-weight of cocaine.)

And much like in The Wire, in real life, there is pressure for law enforcement to “put drugs on the table,” meaning show the fruits of drug busts garnered from stash house raids and the like, in order to win the very obvious political game of police captains and mayors. The war has just been far too narrow, focusing on small-time busts rather than the elevated and out-of-reach kingpins. If wars, as one of the younger detectives in the first season notes, have a beginning and end, then this hopeless undertaking is no war at all.

Such as the “War on Poverty” or “War on Terror,” it is a twilight struggle, but unlike the one geared towards poverty, as a social policy it has mostly wreaked havoc, and you could argue the same about the War on Terror. But this war has not provided any tangible evidence of enough of actual lives saved, or of order being upheld, or even established. To merit its continuance in the way it is currently constructed, seems illogical.

Add to it all the yet mentioned: mandatory sentencing, a lack of drug education, porous borders that facilitate trafficking, our open society (whose unintended consequences) has greased the rails for smuggling operations; the shame our culture places on those affected by drugs, our aversion to focusing on prevention — along with a lack of focus on treatment — and finally the prison-industrial complex, which have all placed the nation in this awful place. No family, community or city has been left untouched, it seems. The Wire hits on so many of these elements in just its first stanza, as it connects the dots, while providing a tertiary experience in the form of a dramatic arc, for all those informed, and those with a mere passing knowledge of what has gone on in the American city and law enforcement policy for the last three decades.

In my defense to David Simon’s protestations and “weariness” about the whole cottage industry of blogging concerning The Wire; as a “blogger”/writer on the topic, I was too young and in college during The Wire‘s early run. And I further argue, blogging about The Wire without the totality of my education in sociology and political science, any writing wouldn’t have been skillfully executed. As he argues, the series really does not pay out in the minutia or end-of-season calculus, but does so in the sum-of-its-parts, it’s Gestalt.

** Right table, “Standardized Testing : Con,” bullet points 4-7.

*** The report was edited and updated in February of 2012.

Police: ‘Keeping the Peace’ Through Military Ways?

SWAT Blog Image

Photo Credit: National City Police Department

To assist them in deploying this new weaponry, police departments have also sought and received extensive military training and tactical instruction. Originally, only the largest of America’s big-city police departments maintained S.W.A.T. teams, and they were called upon only when no other peaceful option was available and a truly military-level response was necessary. Today, virtually every police department in the nation has one or more S.W.A.T. teams, the members of whom are often trained by and with United States special operations commandos. Furthermore, with the safety of their officers in mind, these departments now habitually deploy their S.W.A.T. teams for minor operations such as serving warrants. In short, “special” has quietly become “routine.”

How the War on Terror Has Militarized the Police,”

The Atlantic

ANYONE who has watched any National Geographic Television or Discovery Channel all-access program following law enforcement, or have witnessed them in action, or unfortunately have dealt with them first hand, will have noticed something: There is increasingly little difference between cops and the appearance of our modern infantrymen, deployed in war-zones.

The trend towards beefing up our police, military-style, started with Special Weapons and Tactics (S.W.A.T.) teams and high-priority, specialized gang units in big metropolitan areas, and was probably given momentum by watershed events like the violent and televised North Hollywood shootout in 1997; between bank robbers in full body armor, toting fully-automatic rifles, and woefully under-armed Los Angeles Police Department officers, that seemed to bring about imagery from the film Heat.



But it is mostly the great effect of 9/11 and the constant specter of myriad forms of terrorism that could potentially require military-type firepower, lurking just around the corner, that is mostly responsible for this new approach. Nationally, law enforcement had been reminded time and again, that in many ways they were not as well-equipped as they should be, to meet the challenges of modern-day policing. (And because Americans love their guns, it has increasingly fostered an arms race between cops and criminals, who can purchase an easily-converted-to-automatic AK-47 or an AR-15 at a gun show, and with some savvy and evil enterprise, load it with explosive rounds or those meant to pierce through body armor.)

As any global security analyst will tell you, law enforcement was and is considered one of the first lines of defense against terrorism. That is until the days after 9/11, when George W. Bush declared a “War on Terror” and the focus shifted towards our military. Under the old paradigm, the basic nuts and bolts of thwarting terror was laid at the police’s doorstep: doing good detective work, showing a presence, working with the community to be vigilant, and so on. But our dramatic intelligence failure on 9/11 and the two successive wars to address Islamist terror — if one counts Iraq as having this justification — and the creation of several agencies under the new Department of Homeland Security,  all have conferred this fight largely to the domain of the United States military and the national-security-industrial-complex.

This, in turn, has changed the posture of America’s  law enforcement. The police, now feeling even more under-prepared to handle all of its duties along with the addition and prioritization of the staving of potential terror plots, began to invest in military-style weapons, adopt its tactics, consult with the military’s special operations units for training (as though they are some opposing guerrilla force to a dictator in a banana republic), and now work to absorb the military mindset.  In The Atlantic‘s “How the War on Terror Has Militarized the Police,” Arhtur Rizer, a former officer and the article’s author, explains that the justification behind this “weapon inflation” is primarily safety.

What was once considered tactics or weaponry only to be used in special circumstances, say like a S.W.A.T. team or the application of once-limited, but now readily available, assault rifles, are being regularly employed in the more routine parts of policing. But as pointed to in “How the War on Terror Has Militarized the Police,” there are some legitimate civil liberty concerns because of this, as a recent mishap in a botched raid involving an innocent ex-Marine named, José Guerena, who served two tours in Iraq implies:

Within moments, and without Guerena firing a shot–or even switching his rifle off of “safety”–he lay dying, his body riddled with 60 bullets. A subsequent investigation revealed that the initial shot that prompted the S.W.A.T. team barrage came from a S.W.A.T. team gun, not Guerena’s. Guerena, reports later revealed, had no criminal record, and no narcotics were found at his home.

Sadly, the Guerenas are not alone; in recent years we have witnessed a proliferation in incidents of excessive, military-style force by police S.W.A.T. teams, which often make national headlines due to their sheer brutality. Why has it become routine for police departments to deploy black-garbed, body-armored S.W.A.T. teams for routine domestic police work? The answer to this question requires a closer examination of post-9/11 U.S. foreign policy and the War on Terror.

The chief concern in regards to this escalation of firepower and this new mentality among the police is that the organizational culture in the military and its operational philosophy of: identifying if someone is a threat and neutralizing them, and if so, do it with limited civilian casualties; is unlike that of the police, whose role is to “keep the peace,” uphold the law and the rights’ of citizens, even those it suspects. If the police changes its posture from “keeping the peace” and treats everyone as criminals, the way the military treats everyone as a potential combatant, it creates more situations such as that of José Guerena, where excessive and lethal force is sometimes just the cost of doing business, and where suspects no longer have the rights that they are supposed to, as the officers become judge, jury and executioner.

When law enforcement begins to adopt the soldiers’ mentality, it tends to forget its original goals of maintaining a good solid relationship with its public, while upholding the laws when they are broken, along with the most important rights of the individual. This is not to understate the difficulty of their jobs or minimize their optimal chances for safety by not having them bring as many resources to bear as possible, as Arhtur Rizer put it:

The point here is not to suggest that police officers in the field should not take advantage of every tactic or piece of equipment that makes them safer as they carry out their often challenging and strenuous duties. Nor do I mean to suggest that a police officer, once trained in military tactics, will now seek to kill civilians. It is far too easy for Monday-morning quarterbacks to unfairly second-guess the way police officers perform their jobs while they are out on the streets waging what must, at times, feel like a war.

Notwithstanding this concern, however, Americans should remain mindful bringing military-style training to domestic law enforcement has real consequences. When police officers are dressed like soldiers, armed like soldiers, and trained like soldiers, it’s not surprising that they are beginning to act like soldiers. And remember: a soldier’s main objective is to kill the enemy.

Read “How the War on Terror Has Militarized the Police” at The Atlantic [Here]

D.A.R.P.A.’s Crowd-Sourced Intelligence Experiment

DARPA Balloon Blog Image

THE IRAN uprising and the parallel media conversation concerning Twitter’s role in it as a means to “get the word out” to the world, were an indication of both the power of the Internet and social media, at least in perception — even if as Malcolm Gladwell argues otherwise in “Small Change: Why The Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted” — and their ultimate, long-term usefulness outside of personal expression and commercial applications; as intelligence agencies, hackers, foreign governments and the upper echelons of the American defense apparatus already know. The question is, however, just how powerful and useful are these social media tools? Since, as noted, there is plenty of skepticism as to how well they can mobilize a disparate group. And is this “power” even something able to be “metric-ed”?

As pointed out in Foreign Policy‘s “Misreading Tehran,” it’s hard to spearhead a political revolt through social media and the Net, particularly when those tweeting and updating their Facebook are often not actually in the location of the place they want to start a revolution in, and aren’t necessarily as privy to the spontaneity of the word-of-mouth interactions in crowds, which is what happened with many of the prominent figures behind the social media involved in the Iran protests; many of whom were merely following the demonstrations from the United States.

But, nonetheless, if conditions were made so that most of those using a media platform to air grievances and express dissent against the authority of a state or dictator, were indeed in the area, like a Radio Free Europe; social media helping to grease the wheels and multiply manpower quickly for demonstrations, would be undeniable.

(Example, though a relatively nefarious application, depending on the situation:) Can governments/hackers/terror networks use social media to help foment uprisings in nations already teetering in the balance; particularly when those nations are rocked by economic, political and social unrest; and with a youth population chomping a the bit for democracy? Since Iran seems to indicate so, and even though, that kind of meddlesome approach to other nations’ affairs of the state by Western governments has only been troubled and universally presumed, it is nonetheless an interesting answer to have.

Can social media provide a clearer picture of real-time, on-the-ground intelligence or more likely, accentuate it? Can it help in the spotting of a wayward, priority object, or a high-valued asset or person of interest quicker? Like a suspect on the lamb? Or a downed pilot? After all, status updates and tweets are many times location and first-person reportage of events, which are the very basis of raw intelligence. And can social media tools be effectively used as an open intelligence network in and of itself?  Say, if enough were recruited and incentivized, to work as a low risk, multi-eyed intelligence network via social media, in foreign lands, that could augment existing human intelligence and signals intelligence?

In late 2009, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (D.A.R.P.A.) looked to answer some of these questions and identify some blind spots, concerning just how powerful social media are, and at least begin working towards finding some answers on similar questions of what social media tools can be applied to what problems, with some specifically goal-oriented data to back it up. D.A.R.P.A. conducted an experiment allowing everyone who wanted to participate to do so, in an experiment on Web-based “crowd-sourcing” — a term that refers to the application of many anonymous or unidentified parties, or an entire community, to meet a goal through open means — and how it could help in the augmenting of the traditional means of information gathering.

An example of crowd-sourcing is as simple as when you ask the Tumblr community for their “reax” on a movie, or when one asks the Twitterverse about the particularly great restaurants in a city they’re in on vacation: the answers flood in, and your decisions are based on a synthesis and analysis of the information. The experiment wasn’t just a crowd-sourcing endeavor, though, it was a competition known as the “D.A.R.P.A. Network Challenge” that awarded $40,000 USD to the first correct identifier of the locations of 10 “moored,” red weather balloons scattered across the contiguous United States, in areas readily visible. The geniuses at M.I.T.’s Media Lab won the 40K, not surprisingly, and did it in nine hours.

Just how the M.I.T team did it, was through a parallel social network — a pyramid scheme, essentially — which rewarded the participation of everyone who joined the network, geared to finding the balloons, even if they knew that they could not find the red spheres. What this yielded was a singular-minded intelligence unit working over the Web, which could find the balloons’ coordinates and provided a structure where even those who could not find the balloons, would still assist in identifying people who could find them.

How this could be useful, is beyond defense. Everything from Amber Alerts, to use in apprehending the F.B.I.’s  Most Wanted; to use in a world-wide hunt for a terrorist, just hours after an incident; or it being implemented as another form of an Emergency Broadcast System, or any other form of dragnet or national early warning system, could come of this, or employ this schema.

What is remarkable is how quickly the M.I.T. team achieved the goal, without any kind of prior infrastructure. What if the government and law enforcement employed a similar system, but with a well-developed infrastructure, as a multi-use tool? Though there are the inevitable drawbacks of information overload/bottle-necking, thus creating inefficiency, and then there is also misinformation; something the M.I.T. team had to ferret out and isolate, as there was another team providing them with false locations.

Moreover, there are concerns on the civil liberties front, as this could become a virtual Big-Brother network, where perhaps, citizens themselves have tacitly agreed to their own participation and questionable surveillance, in the name of security. As we saw with the legal ramifications of 9/11, the potential usefulness of this application of social media to defense, law enforcement and the security apparatus, must be hand-wringingly weighed against the potential benefits.

Read the official press release from D.A.R.P.A. [Here]

Read M.I.T. Media Lab’s press release [Here]

Read an interview at CNET [Here]

Chicago’s ‘Operation Ceasefire,’ A Bellwether?

Photo Credit: SpY

THE Economist’s “The World in 2009″ — a collection of articles and thought pieces, projecting on the ideas and events to watch for in 2009 — ran an article titled “Crime, Interrupted,” profiling an innovative policing method that looks to curb the gun violence on the mean streets of America’s cities. The article’s sub-heading, beneath the lede, read: “Treating Violent Crime as a Disease.” And like another practice of medicine, that of triage E.R.-care in a desperate-for-peace central city or a battlefield — sometimes these are the same — this new method looks to focus on only the most severe cases first, while letting less serious matters hit the back-burner. (This makes tremendous sense in an economically strapped environment where local cities are operating on less than a shoestring budget, sometimes.) But this approach runs counter to the established policing practice that has dominated law enforcement philosophy for nearly 20 years.

The more recent orthodox doctrine of law enforcement, argues that petty crimes in high-crime areas, left unchecked, make for an environment conducive to more crimes of increasing magnitude. (Read: violent crime/gun crime.) It is a “Broken Windows” model; a theory that posits a broken window left unfixed in a neighborhood is a sign of blight, and sends a message that “crime is okay here.” Figuratively speaking, small crimes are “broken windows.” And so the traditional model deals with all crime, regularly enforcing even the most minor offenses and dealing with low-level offenders — like squeegee men — and it places many more officers on the streets, heightens their visibility and their rate of enforcement and deterrence. Under this method known as “zero-tolerance,” there are also local commanders designated to such high-crime areas, who are then held accountable for the crimes committed in their area, and responsible for the tracking of the crime rate in their respective zone via a spreadsheet program. (Compustat is one kind of such software, used by the New York Police Department.)

This multi-pronged approach of creating a highly visible presence and regular, routine enforcement of law violations of varying severity; creating tremendous order by focusing on petty crime, along with a consistent tracking of the crime rate of a specific area, and coupled with accountability, was developed under then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani, during his ’90s clean-up and re-branding effort of New York. And the method was implemented and executed alongside his then-Police Chief William Bratton, the now recently retired L.A.P.D. police chief. Giuliani’s and Bratton’s zero-tolerance method worked well. It turned New York into one of the safest cities in America. And because the strategy was so effective, to the point of reducing murders in N.Y.C. from 2,200 in 1990 to less than 500 in 2007, it became the template on which many cities based their policing programs on.

That method, however, was devised under the circumstances of a New York from 15 years ago, and it is a single-minded approach tailored for that city; adapting it to a one-size-fits-all program for all metropolitan areas, lacks nuance and understanding. It presumes that all things being equal, or in this case smaller (or much smaller), than the Big Apple; that such zero-tolerance policing methods would work almost anywhere. And all things were not equal, obviously, since other cities haven’t found the zero-tolerance policy nearly as effective as it was in New York, and this is due to the fact that very few cities are as densely populated or as centralized.

Most cities are much more spread out, and so many more police officers on the streets cracking-down on petty crimes is harder to notice –  key to the philosophy of zero-tolerance is the impression of no crime being tolerated — and so it isn’t as effective, as well as it is harder to commit to logistically. And those who looked to repeat the zero-tolerance model in their own cities, missed an important variable in the N.Y.C. formula: the knowledgeable leadership embodied in Giuliani and Bratton. Unlike in other cities, both this mayor and this police chief, understood police culture and knew precisely how to motivate their officers using praise and fear. As a result, any cities absent similar conditions to that of New York in the early ’90s, which is most, are saddled with an ineffective policing strategy, almost two decades in the making. What is needed, then, is a new approach.

The Economist projected that in 2009, a community-assisted philosophy to policing that is the diametric opposite of zero-tolerance, would rise to prominence. The brainchild of epidemiologist, Wesley Skogan, this new method looks to curb violence directly, honing in on those most likely to kill or be killed. (The article specifically mentions candidates of such focus to be the recently released from prison, and those who are associates of persons recently wounded by gunfire. ) The strategy is a far-cry from zero-tolerance, because it does not worry or waste as many resources on trivial law enforcement matters and more importantly, this is key, it places an onus on communities most hard-hit with bloated violent-crime rates to do some of their own policing, and change their neighborhoods’ cultures from within.

In this method, communities become involved in their own struggle for safe streets through their local leaders, specifically clergy, in tandem with outreach workers who mobilize the community to directly oppose violence. At night, there is also the use of “violence interrupters” who look to find emerging trouble and stop it in its tracks. And these “violence interrupters” know the lay of the land and the nature of those streets themselves, many of them were gangbangers and former prison inmates, and present a rough-hewn approach to violent-crime from say what is expected of local city law enforcement. “Violence interrupters” may attempt to convince rival drug cartels that a street war is bad business because it is a magnet for cops, or that perhaps a man who feels he was wronged or disrespected in some way that requires death in the code of the streets, just beat a man, as oppose to kill him. Obviously, this tact takes an entirely different approach which leaves latitude for the disaster law enforcement is trying to avoid: murder. But the tact is either going to work or not, and if it fails, the result is no different from what it was going to be anyway, a violent crime. (The main hope is to remove the gun from the equation.)

This is the method that has been the basic standard operating procedure in some areas of Chicago for the last 10 years, as part of Operation Ceasefire, and despite that city’s continuing disheartening murder statistics, especially among youth, this method seems to work in the areas where it is implemented. In 2008, Chicago’s Operation Ceasefire method was audited by the Justice Department. The study yielded that in five of seven communities where the methods of Operation Ceasefire were used, shootings had decreased precipitously, and in four of the tracked areas the decline was far greater than comparable locations where the Operation Ceasefire practices were not in effect.

However, Chicago is a very unique situation, maybe as unique as New York’s was in the ’90s, since the city’s variable of a longstanding tradition of the sort of community organizing and mobilizing needed for this program, is rarely seen nationwide. Nonetheless, Chicago is an incubator for a project that has begun to spread. Cities such as Newark, Kansas City, Baltimore and even New York, with its trial program, along with 10 more according to The Economist’s Joel Budd, are adopting methods inspired-by Operation Ceasefire or implementing its exact techniques. And we will not know for some time, if they are working broadly.

Ceasefire Chicago [Here]

The Economist‘s “Crime, Interrupted” [Here]