Policy Safeguards and the Legitimacy of Highway Interdiction

Kevin Hood

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

The primary responsibility of law enforcement organizations in the United States is the preservation of life in the communities they serve. This responsibility requires law enforcement organizations to deploy resources to identify criminal activity and minimize the negative consequences of crime, including, for example, the trade in and use of illegal drugs. In 2014, there were 120 deaths each day from drug overdoses in the United States.[1] The strategy of highway interdiction was created to counter the drug trafficking organizations using the highway system to distribute contraband throughout the county.

The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) developed a program, known as Operation Pipeline, which provided specialized training for law enforcement personnel focusing on identifying individuals trafficking contraband on highways.[2] By the 1990s, law enforcement personnel were conducting traffic stops and producing tangible results through an “all crimes, all threats” approach operating under the guidance of “doing the right things.”[3] The DEA reported law enforcement made 3,232 seizures on the highways in 1994, resulting in “85 tons of marijuana, 23 tons of cocaine, 226 pounds of crack, 26 pounds of heroin, and $42 million in cash.”[4] However, some law enforcement personnel have engaged in police misconduct associated with racial profiling and illegal searches, and this has negatively affected the lives of citizens.[5] In the meantime, law enforcement leaders have not developed the policy safeguards necessary to guide the actions of law enforcement personnel conducting highway interdiction operations and to minimize potential problems.

Although law enforcement personnel throughout the nation may be conducting traffic stops in a consistent manner, enforcement operations may not necessarily be supervised in a consistent manner. This thesis answers the question of whether policy safeguards could help minimize improper practices by personnel conducting highway interdiction operations. To answer this question, this project examines the policy safeguards use by law enforcement organizations and their potential to provide guidance to law enforcement personnel conducting highway interdiction operations. To this end, a focus group consisting of 11 state police organizations provided information on policy safeguards implemented by their organization and their purpose for guiding the actions of law enforcement personnel. The focus group examined seven major categories of policy safeguards to determine the level of implementation by each of the state police organizations.

Since the initial deployment of policy safeguards was associated with prosecuting criminal offenses, all of the state police organizations participating in the focus group reported implementing policy safeguards in this area of need. For example, state police organizations implemented measures such as reports and audiovisual recording of traffic stops associated with gathering evidence and documenting the actions of personnel. Beyond this common point, however, the state police organizations participating in the focus group varied with the implementation process.

Law enforcement organizations had not created policy safeguards for highway interdiction from a strategic plan anticipating the deployment of resources to conduct operations. In fact, law enforcement organizations have created and implemented many of the policy safeguards reactively as a mechanism to mitigate identified problems with the strategy of highway interdiction, such as complaints of police misconduct or the public’s perception of unfair law enforcement practices.

The President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing highlighted the need for transparency as an essential element for law enforcement organizations to establish the perception of legitimacy in the community for law enforcement actions.[6] Specifically, transparency in the decision-making process is important to the public’s perception of legitimacy for law enforcement organizations participating in highway interdiction operations.[7] Some of the state police organizations participating in the focus group proactively have implemented policy safeguards to demonstrate more transparency in the manner law enforcement personnel conduct highway interdiction operations, specifically documenting the decision-making process during encounters with the public.

Although progress can be demonstrated, there is still more work to be done to obtain the transparency described by the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing.[8] Currently, the majority of state police organizations participating in the focus group are collecting statistical data associated with law enforcement personnel conducting traffic stops as part of their overall highway interdiction strategy. However, three of the 11 participating state police organizations do not collect any statistical information that would assist with a broader understanding of the actions of personnel. The lack of information weakens the transparency as well as the legitimacy of tactics deployed by law enforcement organizations conducting highway interdiction operations.[9] In addition, two of the eight state police organizations that collect statistical information do not review the data by supervision. This action weakens the law enforcement organization’s ability to understand the entirety of its highway interdiction operations and to detect potentially problematic patterns associated with racial profiling.

The policy safeguards implemented by the focus group organizations demonstrated that law enforcement organizations are taking additional steps beyond the requirements of the courts to address the use of discretion by law enforcement personnel conducting highway interdiction operations. Six out of the 11 state police organizations in the focus group have implemented policy safeguards controlling the use of discretion in the decision-making process. When law enforcement organizations implement policy safeguards beyond the minimal legal requirements, they are attentive to the concerns of the community about the use of police authority.

One broad problem area is “hit rates.” Hit rates are calculated by dividing the number of law enforcement searches resulting in contraband seized by the total number of vehicles searched.[10] Limited progress has been achieved, with only two state police organization examining hit rates. This function is more closely aligned with the supervision of highway interdiction operations versus the preparation of criminal investigations for prosecution. Furthermore, it is an area that critics of highway interdiction operations have highlighted as empirical proof that law enforcement personnel are ineffective at identifying suspicious behavior for criminal activity; critics argue higher hit rates would correlate with higher rates of seizure and arrest.[11] This topic has not been thoroughly explored by leadership of highway interdiction programs to establish a better understanding of what defines a successful highway interdiction stop versus simply relying on whether or not contraband was seized.

The lack of consistency in applying policy safeguards, such as hit rate calculations, hampers the ability of law enforcement organizations to thoroughly comprehend the effectiveness of highway interdiction as a strategy. Instead, law enforcement organizations rely on personnel complaints to identify problematic patterns associated with the behavior of personnel conducting enforcement operations.[12] Can law enforcement organizations reduce the number of personnel complaints for personnel conducting highway interdiction operations through the implementation of policy safeguards?

This thesis includes a comparative analysis between policy safeguards implemented and the number of personnel complaints filed to determine if a correlation could be identified. Six of the state police organizations participating in the focus group discussions provided statistical data associated with personnel complaints for racial profiling, illegal searches, and rudeness. Only two of the state police organizations had a lower number of complaints per individual assigned to the organization’s highway interdiction program as compared to the rest of the organization.

A stronger argument for the benefits of implementing policy safeguards begins with an analysis of the number of times a state police organization exceeded the average percentage for implementation. The two state police organizations with lower number of personnel complaints filed against per individual assigned to the organization’s highway interdiction program were the only organizations to exceed the average implementation at least six times. None of the state police organizations with a higher number of personnel complaints filed against per individual assigned to their highway interdiction program achieved this standard. Although the findings for the implementation of policy safeguards are supportive to the effectiveness of highway interdiction by minimizing the number of personnel complaints filed against personnel, they were not conclusive.

Due to the disparity of implementation in policy safeguards for law enforcement organizations accompanied with the lack of a standard to evaluate their effectiveness, a champion for the strategy of highway interdiction must be identified. The Domestic Highway Enforcement (DHE) initiative under the umbrella of the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) is in the best position to advocate for the implementation of policy safeguards associated with the national strategy of highway interdiction. The DHE initiative, in a collaborative partnership with community leaders and leadership of highway interdiction programs, can provide the neutral perspective needed for open and honest conversation while still understanding the technical aspects associated with specialized units conducting highway interdiction. The standardization of policy safeguards for highway interdiction programs throughout the country will help establish more transparency and understanding of tactics used by personnel to identify and minimize the negative effects of criminal activity.

[1] Drug Enforcement Administration, 2015 National Drug Threat Assessment Summary (Washington, DC: Drug Enforcement Administration, 2015), http://www.dea.gov/docs/2015%20NDTA%20Report.pdf, v.

[2] Robin S. Engel and Richard Johnson, “Toward a Better Understanding of Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Search and Seizure Rates,” Journal of Criminal Justice 34, no. 6 (2006): 609, doi:10.1016/j.jcrimjus.2006.09.014.

[3] White House, “High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas (HIDTA) Program,” accessed August 13, 2016, https://www.whitehouse.gov/ondcp/high-intensity-drug-trafficking-areas-program.

[4] Michael Janofsky, “In War on Drugs, Police Taking to the Highways,” The New York Times, March 5, 1995, http://www.nytimes.com/1995/03/05/us/in-war-on-drugs-police-taking-to-the-highways.html, sec. U.S.

[5] Michael E. Buerger, “Racial Profiling,” in 21st Century Criminology: A Reference Handbook 21st Century Criminology: A Reference Handbook (Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc., 2009), 744–745.

[6] President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, Final Report of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing (Washington, DC: Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, 2015), 1.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Stephen K. Rice and Michael D. White, eds., Race, Ethnicity, and Policing: New and Essential Readings (New York: New York University Press, 2010), 193.

[11] Buerger, “Racial Profiling,” 741.

[12] International Association of Chiefs of Police, Building Trust Between the Police and the Citizens They Serve (Washington, DC: Office of Community Oriented Policing Services), 32.

No Comments

Post a Comment