The NYPD uses operations including undercover officers to arrest the most minor players in New York City’s drug trade, the New York Times reports today. In several of these stings, the targets of these stings were not drug dealers, but their impoverished, addicted customers.
The story details the arrests of Brian L., a 21-year-old heroin addict, and Reginald J., a 55-year-old crack addict. Brian L. is homeless, and, from anecdotal information in the article, Reginald J. seems very poor. In separate incidents, both men were approached by undercover NYPD officers posing as fellow users who asked them for assistance in buying drugs. Each man then took the officer’s money, used it to buy $20 or $40 worth of drugs from a dealer, and gave the drugs to the officer, whereupon he was arrested on felony drug-dealing charges. Both men went to trial and were acquitted. (They spoke to the Times on the condition that their last names not be used.)
The Times does not have information on how often the NYPD uses undercover officers to goad addicts into acting as small-time drug-deal middlemen, but says that the cases of Reginald, Brian, and two others raise “troubling questions about the fairness and effectiveness of the way the Police Department uses undercover officers.” In both cases, officers made no attempt to pursue the dealer who sold the drugs, electing only to arrest the user who acted as a go-between.
If the teams making these busts were truly interested in getting drugs off of the street, they might follow their ensnared addicts up the purchase chain and find someone who is actually moving weight. Instead, they opted for the easy arrest. In one case, a target used the undercover officer’s phone to contact a dealer, and the officer later testified that he could not remember whether he ever followed up on the drug dealer’s phone number that was added to his call log.
It is impossible to justify the largest police department in the U.S. using nine officers—the number involved in Brian L.’s arrest—to lock up someone who has less than a dollar to his name. After a case in which a target allegedly talked to the undercover officer about his desire to get clean before the officer set him up, a juror expressed a similar sentiment in a letter to prosecutors. It is “approaching absurd,” the juror wrote, “that you would use the awesome power of your office to represent the people of New York County, along with it and the court’s limited resources, on such a marginal case.”