Learning Street Smarts For Drug War
by Christine McConville, Globe Staff, (09 Jul 2006) Boston Globe Massachusetts
Officers from around the state get hands-on training in 10-day course
"Switch it up."
"Switch -- it -- up."
It's day nine in a 10-day course on fighting drugs, and Lexington Detective C. Robert Mercer doesn't like what he's seeing.
His students -- police officers and detectives from throughout the state -- are taking way too long to break down the door of a fictitious drug dealer in Lexington. It's so well barricaded that the big guy with the battering ram is exhausted, and Mercer wants him to give the job to a more rested member of the team.
"Switch it up," he growls, for what seems like the 10th time.
Finally, it works.
The big man steps away, and his backup starts attacking the door with an axe.
On this blisteringly hot morning, Mercer's students have learned a valuable lesson: Expect the unexpected.
When it comes to the dangerous business of enforcing narcotics laws, said Colin Murphy, a Waltham detective who is also teaching the class, "you always have to have a backup plan. . . . You can't plan for everything. Sometimes, there's a door you just can't get through."
The Municipal Police Training Committee, a division of the state Executive Office of Public Safety, sponsors the 80-hour course, which is offered to law-enforcement officers from around the state. The course teaches the officers how to handle a drug case from start to finish, and ends with a simulated drug conviction.
The instructors, who are paid by the state, say drugs are everywhere, even in the most sleepy, family-friendly communities.
Gerard McDonough, a Burlington police officer who works in a specialized drug unit, can attest to that. He was hired this spring after a high school athlete died from a drug overdose in the bathroom of a doughnut shop. "It really opened a lot of people's eyes," he said of the death.
Burlington Police Chief Francis Hart expanded the department's drug unit from one to four members.
McDonough just completed the course and called it "great."
Many officers are not adequately trained to do drug work, even as drug use in the suburbs reportedly is increasing.
"When I came to Lexington and was assigned to the drug unit, I didn't know how to write a search warrant," Mercer said. "There was no training for it."
Now, his students have to write a search warrant as part of their final exam. "We want these officers to understand exactly how to execute a search warrant, so some defense lawyer can't rip it apart," he said.
Wellesley Deputy Police Chief William Brooks and retired State Police lieutenant Paul Stone created the course in the late 1980s.
Before then, Brooks said, police "would go to a seminar on flipping informants, or search-and-seizure techniques, but it would last two days and would just focus on one part of the work."
"We wanted to have a two-week program that would combine classroom presentation with practical exercises."
For about 10 years, that's what they did. Then state funding for the course dried up, and the course was shelved.
Two years ago, Mercer, Murphy, and Joseph Connors, a Waltham detective, approached Brooks, Stone, and the state about starting it up again. All three men had taken the course. After working in the field for years, they wanted to teach it.
So far, they have trained 94 officers from around the state. The courses are held in different locations to accommodate the students.
The recent Lexington session included about 15 officers from such places as Burlington, Douglas, and Webster.
Brooks serves as a guest instructor, as do special agents from the federal Drug Enforcement Administration and the US Food and Drug Administration.
Students arrive with varying amounts of experience. Some are patrol officers, others have just been named detective. All are taught a new approach to policing.
"Most police work is reactive," Brooks said in a telephone interview. "You come upon a crime scene, and then you work back from there, to find out who committed the crime.
"Drug work is proactive. . . . People don't call in to report a past drug deal."
Surveillance skills also are in the lesson plan.
"[It's] not like doing patrol work," Brooks said. "You've got to keep the person in sight, but you can't get so close that you are visible to them. But if you stay too far back, you lose the person. It's a lot harder than it seems."
One of the things students learn is how to work with informants.
"Informants play a huge role, and they aren't the most trustworthy people, but they can be managed," Brooks said.
There are also classes on testifying in court and identifying drug trends.
"We had a tough time with Ecstasy about four years ago," Murphy said of the mood-altering drug. "But now we've seen that drop off."
These days, he tells officers how to determine whether they have stumbled into a crystal methamphetamine lab.
Students also get to know other officers who share similar goals.
"These days, drugs are so mobile," said Mercer, a member of the Suburban Middlesex County Drug Task Force, a regional narcotics squad that includes Arlington, Belmont, Lexington, Lincoln, Newton, Waltham, Watertown, and Weston.
"You might have a kid selling pot in Lexington, but his dealer is in Waltham."
Not everyone thinks this is a worthwhile course.
Jack Cole, a former New Jersey trooper who lives in Medford, called the course "a total waste of money."
Cole, an undercover narcotics officer for 12 years, is the founder of Law Enforcement Officers Against Prohibition. Its purpose is to legalize drugs.
Since 1970, when the nation declared a war on drugs, the federal government has spent $1 trillion on the effort, Cole said. But, he said, "drugs are cheaper, easier to get, and far more potent than they were when we first started this war."
By focusing on punishing drug dealers and users, our policies have ruined millions of lives, he said. "You can get over an addiction, but not a conviction," he said. "It will always be with you."
By legalizing drugs, he said, "we could take all the violence out of this. There won't be people on the streets shooting each other to protect their corners."
It would also make drug dealing less profitable.
Cole said the nation has been much more successful in its fight against tobacco.
In 1965, 42 percent of adult Americans smoked, and, he said, "we know that tobacco is the most addictive drug out there. It's a killer. In the late 1980s, the government decided to do something about it, but we didn't start a war with the suppliers; we started a very strong anti tobacco program."
Today, Cole said, just 21 percent of American adults smoke.
Brooks called Cole's argument "absurd."
Without the drug enforcement, Brooks said, the country's problems with drugs, and the related crime they cause, would be much worse.
Drugs are "not bad because we have made them illegal," he said. "They are illegal because they are bad.
"Incidents of child abuse, sexual assault -- they're all higher when drugs are involved."
He said punishment has played a role in declining smoking rates.
"The drop in smoking rates is due to laws that prohibit people from smoking in public places," he said. "People can't smoke at work, or in restaurants. They've found it's just not worth it."
In Lexington, officers prepared for another mock raid at a house that had been loaned to police by Seaver Construction, which plans to demolish the building.
As the students set up their equipment at a nearby office park, Murphy barricaded the front door.
First, a dark sedan with tinted windows cruised by the home, then unmarked vehicles flooded the street. Officers emerged from them in black clothing with "police" clearly marked.
One officer had a copy of the mock search warrant. Police usually leave the original at the station, Murphy said.
The officers seamlessly fell into formation, left hand on the left shoulder of the person in front of them.
"It allows the officers to keep moving forward, with their eyes on the home, not on the ground," Murphy said. "It reassures them that their partner is behind them."
When they got to the front door, the lead officer began pounding with the battering ram.
This time, the front door came down easily. The officer rushed inside, shouting, "Police. Search warrant. Police. Police."
Mercer was delighted with the ruckus.
"Drug dealers don't really worry about the police," he said. "They know if we arrest them, they can just hire a lawyer to get them out.
"But they do worry about other drug dealers who might want to steal their drugs or their money, so we make sure our guys identify themselves. We want to get the bad guys without a fight."