Synthetic Marijuana: The Red Herring for DC’s Spike in Crime

After another violent week in D.C., five more people have been murdered, bringing this year’s total homicides to 84. The District is now on pace to see yearly totals we have not seen since 2008. The increasing murders aren’t the only problem. Both violent crime and property crime are following the same trends. The media has turned to the Chief and the Mayor for answers, and they’ll both tell you the same line: Synthetic marijuana is on the rise and causing unchecked violence. What they won’t show you is any data that supports that position. No arrest stats, no seizures of the nefarious product, no statistics showing how the rise in use correlates to the violence, or even that there’s any rise in use in the first place. They’ll just give you some anecdotal evidence of a handful of overdoses, an increase in ambulance trips to the ER, and some stories of bizarre behavior exhibited by users (which is akin to users of PCP―a notorious D.C. street drug). After describing the irrational actions of users, the administration then leaps to the conclusion that this is the reason that thefts, robberies, burglaries, assaults, and even murders are skyrocketing. So the question is this: How could these issues be so intertwined? Well, the D.C. Police Union doesn’t believe they are.

The Union has a unique relationship with crime in the city. We are in constant communication with the officers on the streets who tirelessly try to keep peace and we are normally the ones who hear their gripes and frustrations first. Because of this level of direct communication combined with our constant oversight of department operations, we get an unfiltered perspective on crime trends and the like. We knew immediately that the amount of attention and references that were being made by the administration about synthetic marijuana were just a distraction from the real problem. But while it’s hard to prove a negative, we believe there are correlating circumstances that point to the real problem.

One of the major personnel changes that the Chief made this year was to eliminate all vice units in May 2015. Approximately 125 officers were removed from their vice assignments and sent back to patrol. But it appears to us that the decision to disband these units was made by the Chief hastily and was a short sighted response to political pressure. We believe the units were scuttled without an investigation, without any studies, without stats, and without a viable plan to fill the void in enforcement. Now that they’re gone, some adverse effects of that decision are already being felt.

These officers were assigned to each of the seven districts’ vice units. The units were tasked with investigating narcotics, gun crimes, gambling, prostitution, and even quality of life violations and the amount of success they had was immeasurable. I say that because their stats in arrests of gun and drug crimes were all what I would call interdiction in its most profound definition. Each one of these arrests, no matter how minor, most likely prevented some further crime. Seized guns were no longer murder weapons, bundles of narcotics couldn’t end up in the hands of violent dealers and unpredictable users, neighborhoods of prostitution that drew in the criminal element fell silent, and bad guys now had pending charges that may have given them pause before again engaging in crime.

All seven police districts had a vice unit of 15-20 officers, sergeants and a lieutenant. All of whom were tasked with tackling these unrelenting issues in their respective districts. When the Chief disbanded these units three months ago, over 125 officers doing citywide vice work were relegated back to patrol functions, leaving the entire city without this type of proactive enforcement. The Chief has told you this city doesn’t have an open air drug market problem. Maybe this is true, but if so, it was because of vice units.

What we’re seeing now is widespread violence. Violence associated with drug trafficking and gang quarrels, not psychosis from intoxicants. Even the one high profile case of the murder of an affluent college graduate on the Metro by a suspect alleged to be using synthetic marijuana seems to be a case of a mental health issue. The judge in the case ordered the defendant to a mental health screening after he was exhibiting unusual behavior in the courtroom, days after being placed in jail. There is no question that the vast majority of the shootings, stabbings, and murders are due to the absence of any enforcement in the street level drug trade. Existing and aspiring dealers have found the vacuum in D.C., pedaling cocaine, heroin, PCP, and even marijuana (yes, it’s still illegal to distribute). So we now see the effects of this policy; it looks like pulling 125 or so officers who are highly skilled and experienced in addressing and eradicating guns and drugs in their respective areas has caused an unrelenting spike in violence.

The Chief has loudly broadcasted her new approach, which is the Criminal Interdiction Unit (CIU). It consists of about 50 officers, at one centralized location, who deal with anything from narcotics to violent crime to disorderly calls, citywide. Although the design of this unit has potential, and the officers selected to fill it are well above par, its mission is too broad to fulfill the role of the designated vice units that previously had been tasked with addressing drugs and guns in their respective districts. It’s just not possible that 50 officers – less than half the number that used to be assigned to vice units – spread throughout the city can understand and react to the day-to-day dynamics of troublesome neighborhoods and roving crime like dedicated vice units.

While this void in vice enforcement may be at the heart of the sudden increase, we cannot discuss crime spikes without also discussing the rampant attrition rate. The MPD is hemorrhaging personnel at an alarming rate. We’ve lost over 550 officers in the past 19 months. That’s more than 5 times the size of an average police department. Only about half of that number is due to retirements. The other half is made up of outstanding, well-trained officers who are not willing to put up with toxic management. The largest group of officers leaving is those with between 2 and 10 years of service. The Union has learned through its own research that these officers are leaving in droves for other departments where the working conditions are better and organizational stress is at a minimum. This leaves the remaining officers even more overworked, understaffed, and less likely to be able to respond quickly to crime, or even conduct preventative measures during patrol.

The story of synthetic marijuana as the catalyst for epidemic violence is a convenient one, but a fallacy none the less. What’s a more likely scenario? That MPD is understaffed and has been abruptly stripped of 125 officers who took a proactive, tactical and learned approach to making thousands of arrests per year, and now crime and violence is filling this new void? Or is it that some chemical sold in shady corner stores has turned the entire city into homicidal maniacs? You be the judge. And the next time someone tells you the problem is synthetic marijuana, ask for the stats and research. Don’t be deceived by this administration’s (Synthetic) Reefer Madness.

Posted July 31 2015 at 2:06 PM by Gregg Pemberton | Permanent Link

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