Vice Squad
Wednesday, May 11, 2005
Jack Cole on Undercover Drug Work, and Regret

That outrageous undercover operation at Milford High School in Ohio is still, shall we say, a bee in my bonnet. (Or it would be, if I had a bonnet.) Today I was reading "End Prohibition Now!", by former undercover narcotics officer (and now Executive Director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition) Jack Cole. In the previous Vice Squad post I expressed concern for the high school informant, who might one day recognize that her actions were perhaps not all that praiseworthy. Former officer Jack Cole learned this the hard way:
As we all know, when you fight a war you must have spies and so much more so in the war on drugs. The use and sale of illegal drugs are in effect victimless crimes; both the dealer and the user get something they want from the transaction. In the war on drugs the police undercover-operatives are the spies. A spy must necessarily be insinuated into the middle of a drug transaction if it is to be discovered and arrests are to be made. In the longest war this country has fought, spying was my job. For fourteen years of the more than three decades America has been fighting the drug war, I held that position. When I worked undercover I imagined I was a chameleon. As children, my friends and I had bought these little lizards at the circus. When we put them on our shirts, their skin changed to the color of the material - protectively blending in with their external environment for safety. Each time I met a new person the police targeted me against I became that chameleon. Changing everything but the color of my skin I quickly blended in with their environment and became exactly what they expected or wanted - easily gaining their trust. As an undercover agent my job was to do whatever was necessary to become each individual's best friend - his or her closest confidant - so I could betray them and send them to jail. And my job was to repeat that scenario with each new target: friendship - then betrayal - over and over again with hundreds and hundreds of individual human beings.

The main problem I experienced as an undercover agent was that I was never able to emotionally detach myself from the people whose lives I was affecting so dramatically; the vast majority of whom were non-violent offenders, their relatives and friends. When I posed as their confidant, for even a relatively short time, I was witness to their humanity as well as their faults. Instigating each person's ultimate arrest and imprisonment cost me something also. I am not a religious man but locked somewhere in my mind from my earliest childhood memories is the Golden Rule, as my mother taught it to me, "Do unto others as you would have others do unto you." Facing my quarries in court, testifying that all I had shared with them was lies and manipulation designed to enhance my ability to betray their trust, could in no way be interpreted as living by that rule. Why I chose to abandon my deepest belief is still something of a mystery to me but I know it had something to do with falsely agreeing that "The ends justify the means" - the golden rule as taught by many drug-warriors.

I would guess I took part in over a thousand arrests during the time I worked in narcotics. I don't know how many kids' lives I have ruined but I'm sure the count is huge. I was responsible for putting away young people in their formative years whose only "crime" was testing their newfound freedoms, "dipping and dabbing" in the illegal drugs so easily accessible in our culture.

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