That Other War

Reagan-era drug war rhetoric is still with us, and so is the accompanying collateral damage.


In a 1982 speech, President Ronald Reagan declared illicit drugs a threat to America's national security, putting a too-literal gloss on the phrase "war on drugs." Reagan went on to liken America's drug war determination to the obstinacy of the French army at the World War I Battle of Verdun, quoting a French soldier who implored, "There are no impossible situations. There are only people who think they're impossible." It was a telling analogy, though in a way Reagan probably didn't intend. Verdun was a bloody, brutal battle of attrition. A quarter million soldiers lost their lives; another 700,000 were wounded in the months-long battle for a tract of land that offered little practical advantage to either army. In the years since the war, Verdun has come to symbolize the futility of war—the way politicians and generals are willing to write off the mass loss of human life as mere collateral damage in pursuit of some symbolic but ultimately empty goal.

Three drug war deaths in recent headlines show that the Verdun mentality continues to thrive in America's century-old effort to protect its citizens from themselves. Today, actual war weaponry, armor, and tactics are as much a part of the war on drugs as Reagan's rhetoric implied back when the drug war was young. And law enforcement officials shrug off the deaths of innocents as if they were the same sort of collateral damage you'd find on a battlefield.

Last month, the family of the late Tarika Wilson won a $2.5 million settlement from the city of Lima, Ohio. In 2008, as a tactical narcotics unit raided the home of her boyfriend Anthony Terry, the 26-year-old Wilson dropped to her knees in an upstairs bedroom, one arm over her head, the other clutching her infant son Sincere. As the officers stormed the home, one opened fire on Terry's dogs. Another officer, Sgt. Joseph Chavalia, mistook those shots for hostile gunfire, and himself opened up his weapon into the room where Wilson was kneeling. Wilson was killed. Her son lost a hand. Chavalia was acquitted of manslaughter last year at a trial in which one former police officer, who now testifies as a specialist in the use of force, declared that Chavalia should have opened fire on the unarmed mother and child sooner. Though these highly volatile raids are often justified on the premise that drug dealers are heavily armed, a subsequent survey of no-knock raids by the Lima News last year found that most raids in that city failed to yield any weapons at all. In fact, a third of the raids conducted by the Lima police department between 2001 and 2008 turned up no contraband—drugs or guns. The settlement included no admission of wrongdoing on the part of the city.

The family of Jonathan Ayers has also filed a lawsuit against the police agency that killed him. Ayers, a pastor survived by a pregnant wife, was killed by a drug task force in Taccoa, Georgia last September. The police were targeting Johanna Kayla Jones Barrett, a suspected prostitute and low-level drug dealer. On the day of his death, Ayers—who had been counseling Barrett, and had given her some financial help to avoid eviction—dropped her off at the motel where she was staying with her boyfriend, then drove to a gas station to get cash from an ATM. According to surveillance video and a subsequent investigation by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, the task force officers followed Ayers to the gas station and, though they had no warrant for him and weren't targeting him, nevertheless confronted him as if he were a heavily armed kingpin. The narcotics agents jumped out of a black, unmarked SUV, guns drawn, and approached Ayers' car. Ayers, who just before he died would tell emergency room attendants he thought he was being robbed, threw his car into reverse in an attempt to escape, grazing one of the agents in the process. That agent then fired at Ayers' car, hitting Ayers twice. Ayers continued down the road, wrecked his car, and later died at the hospital. Last last month, a grand jury found that the shooting of Ayers was justified.

Finally, there's Gonzalo Guizan, killed last May during a drug raid in Easton, Connecticut. Guizan was visiting the home of Ronald Terebesi Jr., the target of the raid. A stripper had earlier told police that Terebesi and Guizan were using, not distributing, cocaine in Terebesi's home. The police responded with a full-on SWAT raid, complete with flash grenades, that ended in Guizan's death. Police found no weapons in Terebesi's home, and only enough drugs to charge him with a misdemeanor. Nearly 10 months later, the office of the Connecticut attorney general finally released its report on the raid. The report concluded that Guizan, who was unarmed and had no prior criminal record, attempted to wrest a gun from one of the officers, at which point he was shot. The report, however, relied only on the shooting officer's statements, and neither Guizan's DNA nor his fingerprints were found on the weapon. The attorney general's report states that it makes no judgment on the appropriateness of the raid tactics, only on whether the officer's actions were legal. A subsequent video of the raid released to an attorney for Guizan's family casts some doubt on the narrative; it shows that just seconds transpired between the officers' entry and the sound of gunshots.

It's possible that all three officers in these cases were justified in discharging their weapons. This method of drug war policing—bringing paramilitary-style units to bear on suspects in a highly volatile, confrontational manner—creates dangerous, high-stakes scenarios where both cop and suspect have to make split-second decisions under unimaginable circumstances (though it's unfortunate that people on the receiving end of these tactics aren't given the same consideration and leniency the cops are). There's no margin for error.

It's the tactics that are the problem. Neither Ayers, Wilson, nor Guizan were violent people. Nor were any of them the target of a criminal investigation. Had the police used less violent methods in each incident, all three would still be alive today. If the individual police officers who fired the fatal shots in these cases were all following the proper procedures, then we need to question the procedures. But even in response to tragedies like these, procedures and tactics almost never change. Or if they do, they tend to change in the direction of more force, more weaponry, and more confrontation. The family of Tarika Wilson will be paid, and it's possible the families of Jonathan Ayers and Gonzalo Guizan will, too. Taxpayers will foot the bill. The individual officers who pulled the trigger are rarely punished, and are often rewarded. But the hyper-aggressive raids and military mindset will continue. And so will the deaths.

Nearly a quarter century after Reagan's Verdun speech, deployments of SWAT-teams and similar paramilitary police units into the homes of American citizens have increased from about 3,000 per year during Reagan's first term to around 50,000 annually today. The vast majority of these are to serve drug warrants, though we're now seeing them used for white collar crimes and to raid poker games, as well. America's police departments now sport military-grade weapons, vehicles, and armor. Each year, we get about a dozen cases like the three described above, plus a few dead cops and hundreds, perhaps thousands, of drug-war deaths involving less sympathetic victims.

And it's as easy to obtain illicit drugs today as it was in 1982.

Radley Balko is a senior editor at Reason magazine.