Drug War Diagnosis

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Those who think the war on drugs is working had better visit the front lines.

The relocation of public housing residents has contributed to making Chicago’s murder rate the highest in the nation, according to a professor who has spent years working on the city’s policing programs.

Art Lurigio, a psychologist who is chairman of DePaul University’s Criminal Justice Department, said that the way the CHA is relocating residents is raising the murder rate in the city.
As residents move into new neighborhoods under the CHA’s Plan for Transformation, Lurigio said “gangs move into already-claimed areas.

“Then what you have is a flashpoint for violence.”

Lurigio argues that violence connected to drugs and gangs is spreading across the city like a virus. By failing to deal with the root causes of the violence, the CHA’s Plan for Transformation is actually allowing the infection to spread to other areas.

“We’ve got to look at neighborhoods that have a whole host of problems,” Lurigio said. “We’ve created a breeding ground for all kinds of human suffering.”

There’s ample evidence for Lurigio’s point of view in the homicide statistics from 2001. Chicago had more homicides than any other city in the country, 666.

Chicago beat out New York City and Los Angeles, both of which have nearly three times Chicago’s population and their share of problems with crime and drugs. In fact, if you just look at the numbers, Chicago’s homicide rate is twice the rate of people being killed on both sides of the Middle East conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

More than one-half of Chicago’s murders were directly related to gangs or drugs. But Lurigo doesn’t blame the current residents of CHA for the problem. Quite the opposite, Lurigio blames much of the violence in the developments to a failure of city officials and police officers to provide an effective security strategy.

“There’s this terrible public perception that everyone who lives in public housing is awful,” Lurigio said. “Residents were some of the most invested, community-oriented neighbors I’ve ever met.”

Lurigio worked with the city, community leaders and other academics to develop the Community Alternative Policing Strategy. He also testified against the CHA for numerous cases in which residents were victimized. The cases would take on a terrible pattern – a woman or girl tenant would be attacked in a pitch-dark hallway or stairwell or other undefended place. Often, the women and girls were raped or worse a short distance from other people in the buildings.

The CHA’s failure to do proper maintenance  not the residents behavior in the building – made the CHA’s hallways into scary places.

For his court testimony, Lurigio spent hours in the buildings documenting conditions which were frighteningly similar to those which allowed Girl X to be assaulted (See article, page 6).

“Here’s what all the cases were like: residents being horribly brutalized,” Lurigio explained. “I would get up on the stand and say that more likely than not, the tenant would not have been brutalized if CHA had done what was necessary to protect tenants.

“If CHA cared about the safety of the people living there and wanted to spend the money, they could make it significantly safer.”

Lurigio certainly thinks a change in the city’s priorities could make the developments better. But the real problem with security in CHA is the way our whole society handles our drug problem, he argues.

Instead of treating people with drug problems, we lock them in prisons, where their addiction problems often become worse. When the addicts return to their neighborhoods, they find the same economic deprivation that makes the drug economy look like an economic opportunity. The violence that results from the drug economy, meanwhile, aggravates the health crisis among the people who lose loved ones to prisons, hospitals and cemeteries.

Rather than fighting a war, Lurigio argues that we should be acting like doctors who are treating a disease. “We need to reframe the problem. It’s not about crime. It’s about violence,” he said.

“If it’s really a public health problem, treat it that way.”

Lurigio’s point is more important than just the vocabulary of whether we call it a “war on drugs” or a “health care crisis.”

As Sept. 11 demonstrated, calling something a “war” creates a specific set of expectations among the population. War is a time when all the normal rules are suspended. People understand that in times of war, government might need to take drastic or draconian actions to defend society.

Weve entrusted the primary task of implementing the war on drugs to police officers. Charged with winning battles against a tough enemy, the police officers attack with little regard for the people who live on or near the battlefields. Ask residents who live in the developments and you’ll find plenty of complaints that their civil rights have been violated. Public housing tenants and others who live on the front line of the war on drugs know a lot about collateral damage.

The officers themselves understand the results of calling something a war. The officers who try to shut down drug operations know that they are commandos moving in hostile territory. The police are trying to remove the sons, brothers, nephews, fathers and husbands of the neighborhoods in which they are operating. The police know they are taking food out of the mouths of the families who depend on the income of the men they are arresting.

“If you consider what our prevailing strategy is, the police are a paramilitary organization,” Lurigio said. “We’ve thought that more force and more personnel can solve any problem. And that hasn’t worked.

“Don’t think that the police are going to stop this because they’re just not.”

Whether it’s the flu or cancer, doctors treat diseases by scientific research, correct diagnosis, targeted therapies and – most importantly – changing the unhealthy lifestyle that let the disease thrive in the first place. A patient’s conditions improve if he takes some medicine and rests. If the patient exercises more and eats better, he or she greatly lowers their chance of a recurrence.

Taking a public health approach to the drug problem would mean finding ways to treat addicts and people with long-term mental illness instead of sending them to prison. It would mean finding some way to take the money out of the drug economy, say by decriminalizing some drugs and making others available as part of a treatment program. It would also mean creating real alternatives for youths and adults in the form of jobs, recreation and education.

There are many people in our society who oppose treating our drug abuse problems as a disease. Some have been victims of crime and are full of anger and the desire for revenge. Others look at the residents of the neighborhoods that are on the front line of the drug war and blame them for the war zone conditions.

Many political leaders and their strategists are now talking about using the techniques of the War on Drugs for the War on Terrorism.

But wars are supposed to be fought between two opposing armies. Wars end when one side defeats the other. Diseases that are misdiagnosed, mistreated or left untreated become stronger and more contagious.

This disease has already started to spread to communities far from the point of original infection. When the drug war began decades ago, who could have imagined that most American urban high schools would have metal detectors? The gangs that control the drug trade have now extended their reach even into rural areas.

Teenagers shooting each other used to be a phenomenon contained to urban African American and Latino neighborhoods. Now, the senseless school shootings at Columbine, Colorado, and a growing list of places prove that no area is immune.

Handling our drug abuse problem as a war is an ineffective strategy. Disease must be treated, not fought.

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