Take it from me, a retired Chicago cop: CPD spends too much time arresting petty drug offenders

One way to give police officers more time to focus on more serious problems is to reclassify low-level drug possession offenses as misdemeanors.

SHARE Take it from me, a retired Chicago cop: CPD spends too much time arresting petty drug offenders

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I served as a Chicago Police Officer for 30 years. From 2004 to 2008, I was detailed to the Organized Crime Unit, adding a civil prosecution component to narcotic sales-related street corner conspiracy cases.

In those street corner conspiracies, oftentimes arrests were made of individuals with small amounts of narcotics who suffered from substance use disorder. Arresting them and locking them up was — and still is — a huge waste of resources and human potential. 

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It was while working on those cases that I saw firsthand the devastation to lives and the cost to society caused by the War on Drugs. Law enforcement consistently over-prioritizes arresting people for drug possession at the expense of other police work, to the point where many serious crimes go unsolved.

The clearance rate for rape cases in Chicago hovers around only 20%, and less than 45% of the city’s homicides were solved in 2020. The clearance rate for nonfatal shootings in our city tends to be even lower.

The justice system cannot address these serious crimes without reexamining how our resources are spent, particularly how they are spent on health and social issues such as drug use. 

One of the best ways to ensure that law enforcement agencies stay focused on the most serious priorities is to change low-level drug possession laws. Right now, many of these offenses are graded as Class 4 felonies. People convicted of felonies are presumed to be dangerous. But drug use is not a problem that police, courts, prisons or criminal records can solve. Drug use is a health issue best addressed by health experts.

That is why I support Illinois House Bill 3447, which would reduce many drug possession offenses from a Class 4 felony to a misdemeanor. This bill would allow police to focus resources where their expertise can be most useful: investigating and interrupting serious crimes. As the primary agents of public safety, police time and energy should be spent responding to those urgent and life-threatening situations. 

The bill also provides for arrest diversion in the form of behavioral health assessments and access to treatment, rather than incarceration. This component could be a significant step in healing the fractured relationship between the police and the community caused by the War on Drugs. Public safety improves when police are addressing the problems communities actually want us to solve. As an officer, I relied on community contacts for investigative leads, but few people feel safe even talking to us and drug arrests are a significant factor for this reluctance. 

The distrust of communities in the police is aggravated by the fact that highest-intensity drug policing happens in low-income communities and communities of color, which are the same neighborhoods that suffer from the most violence. These communities want to be safe, but harsh drug policies work against that community safety. 

HB 3447 should also reduce recidivism. Those convicted of misdemeanor drug possession won’t face counterproductive barriers to voting, finding a job, attending college and more. Removing these barriers vastly improves a person’s chances of success and reduces the likelihood of reoffending. 

Research on the impacts of similar reforms in other states bears this out. Just last year, a study published in the journal of Criminology and Public Policy found that California’s voter-approved proposition to change drug possession felonies to misdemeanors led to “lower overall rearrest and reconviction rates than people with comparable convictions and criminal histories.”

Over three decades in law enforcement, I worked on community policing, organized crime, and drug and gang investigations. I’m disappointed that our efforts fell short, but House Bill 3447 is a chance to correct course. Let’s direct our attention to the safety issues on which police can truly make a difference.

Officer David Franco, now retired, was a 30-year veteran of the Chicago Police Department and a representative of the Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP), a nonprofit group of police, judges, and other criminal justice professionals who support policies that make communities safer.

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