When Good Cops Go Bad

The war on drugs is corrupting America's cops.

Anyone familiar with the Stanford Prison Experiment — which demonstrated that even liberal-minded undergrads can be turned into sadistic prison guards — knows the influencing power of a situation. Add a shot of stress, some emotional arousal, our willingness to go to extreme lengths to appease authority, social proof, and uncertainty and you have a psychological cocktail designed to corrupt most minds.

Critics of prohibition often argue that drug cops are especially susceptible to corruption because their jobs regularly bring them into contact with black-market cash and large quantities of illicit substances worth more than the average police officer makes in a year. There is something to that, but I think the problem runs deeper. Drug crimes are consensual crimes, which means there are no aggrieved victims to file a complaint. The only way to fight consensual crimes is with surveillance, informants, or undercover cops. Surveillance requires a warrant, which requires some evidence of criminal activity. The latter two options are far more common, but they require the police to break the very laws they are enforcing — or encourage someone else to do so. That creates a moral disconnect right off the bat.

…None of this is meant to excuse the behavior of cops gone bad. Even within the context of an unjust prohibition system, there are cops who do their jobs by the letter of the law. But we should not be surprised when some of the police officers we ask to enforce morally suspect laws day after day, year after year, eventually cross the line from actions that are unethical but legal to acts that are both unethical and illegal.

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