War on Drugs

What Happens to Discredited Drug Cops? They Get Rebranded as Gun Cops.

Ripped for use of excessive force, the Springfield, Massachusetts, Narcotics Bureau is becoming a Firearms Investigation Unit.


There may be nothing more addictive than the desire to ban stuff. Even as one prohibition winds down those who would control our actions almost always retarget their efforts toward some newly discovered threat to public safety. In the 1930s, Prohibition agents shifted to chasing drug dealers without breaking stride. More recently, the collapse of anti-marijuana efforts prompted a flurry of new scares, culminating in enforcement efforts against vaping. And now, Springfield, Massachusetts, is replacing its scandal-ridden narcotics unit with a team to enforce laws against firearms as if that new mission will magically dispel a history of violence against the public.

"Springfield Police Commissioner Cheryl Clapprood, in a continued effort to modernize the department and move the Springfield Police Department forward, is today announcing the creation of a Firearms Investigation Unit to address the uptick in gun violence in the city and the reallocation of narcotics investigation resources to regional and state partnerships," Springfield, Massachusetts, announced on July 9. "The new Springfield Police Department Firearms Investigation Unit will replace the department's Narcotics Unit, which Commissioner Clapprood is with this move decommissioning."

The "decommissioning" of the Narcotics Bureau, even as anti-drug efforts by the department continue elsewhere, comes a year after a U.S. Department of Justice report about the unit concluded "there is reasonable cause to believe that Narcotics Bureau officers engage in a pattern or practice of excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution."

"Specifically, our investigation identified evidence that Narcotics Bureau officers repeatedly punch individuals in the face unnecessarily, in part because they escalate encounters with civilians too quickly, and resort to unreasonable takedown maneuvers that, like head strikes, could reasonably be expected to cause head injuries."

As brutal as that is, it's actually par for the course for drug cops. Enforcement efforts against illicit markets largely made up of willing buyers and sellers inherently invites violent and intrusive policing.

"The laws and tactics employed to fight the Drug War have transformed police officers from those who protect and serve to a force that, too often, actively searches the innocent and seizes for profit," Jonathan Blanks cautioned in a 2016 article for Democracy: A Journal of Ideas. "Aggressive and antagonistic policing also increases the likelihood of disagreement, thereby increasing the possibility of escalation and the use of force that could lead to the injury or death of an innocent person."

"In the context of our current civil unrest, the drug war's normalization of aggressive policing within a system already mired in institutional racism has increased the frequency of interactions between citizens and police that have the potential to turn hostile or violent," added Katharine Neill Harris of Rice University's Baker Institute for Public Policy in June 2020.

But if efforts against illicit drugs lead to abusive enforcement efforts, it's difficult to see how similar efforts against illegal weapons will have a happier outcome—especially if officialdom does little more than redirect the personnel slapped for misconduct in their old roles to another prohibition.

"I'm going to take the narcotics unit and I'm going to make them the firearms investigation unit and look at seizing a lot of the illegal guns," Springfield Police Commissioner Cheryl Clapprood boasted.

"Taking the Narcotics Bureau in a new direction into a new way of doing things focusing on firearms we'll find ways to reduce fear of crime and violence in Springfield," agreed Captain Brian Keenan, who led the Narcotics Bureau and will continue to lead the repurposed body in its new role against guns.

In his willing shift from enforcing laws against drugs to enforcing laws against guns, Keenan resembles Harry Anslinger, the assistant commissioner of prohibition who became commissioner of the newly created Federal Bureau of Narcotics in 1930 as the federal war on alcohol sputtered its bloody way to failure and repeal. Anslinger wasn't the only former anti-alcohol crusader to shift his efforts to drugs; some observers suggest that the Federal Bureau of Narcotics was created to provide job security for soon-to-be-unemployed Prohibition agents. But Anslinger counted among the ranks of those who are true believers in state intervention into people's lives, especially when they dislike users of whatever is prohibited.

"The war on alcohol and the war on drugs were symbiotic campaigns," Harvard historian Lisa McGirr told Reason in a 2016 interview. "Those two campaigns emerged together, [and] they had the same shared … logic. Many of the same individuals were involved in both campaigns."

"While it is doubtless true that a spirit of bureaucratic self‐preservation among Prohibition and narcotics agents and a spirit of monopolistic protectionism among liquor manufacturers were among the factors which led to national prohibition of marijuana, it seems clear from the record that the major factor was a widespread racist fear of Spanish‐speaking immigrants," Jeff Riggenbach wrote in a 1980 essay for Libertarian Review that pointed to the overt animus that motivated early marijuana prohibitionists.

Whether motivated by bigotry, self-preservation, or sheer control-freakery, that we-need-to-ban-something energy continues today. As the public turns against marijuana restrictions, prohibitionists have toyed with multiple new candidates for enforcement efforts. Kratom enjoyed about five minutes of notoriety but hasn't really caught on as a subject of concern. Renewed efforts against cocaine have also been test-marketed by the powers-that-be and doubtless remain a reliable fallback for Anslinger's successors. Vaping seems to be a current favorite for restriction efforts, perhaps because its popularity guarantees a large underground market and guaranteed work for enforcers.

And then there are weapons, which have always made government officials nervous when in the hands of the public. Springfield's move is more obvious than most, but it was probably inevitable that abusive and discredited narcotics cops would be rebranded as agents of a war on guns that's picking up energy and purpose in the hands of politicians who feel compelled to ban something. Don't hold your breath waiting for this prohibition to be any more successful, or less abusive, than those of the past.