This article was published in collaboration with Vice.
There was a time in Raeford Davis’s life when the idea of putting on a police uniform and a badge brought him joy.
Law enforcement seemed a natural fit for the South Carolina native, growing up, as he did, around people who dedicated themselves to helping others. His mother was a school teacher, and his father worked in nursing.
So Davis took the plunge in 2002, joining the police department in the small, violence-plagued city of North Charleston. The city’s police force came under national scrutiny last year when Officer Michael T. Slager was caught on camera shooting unarmed black man Walter Scott eight times in the back after a traffic stop. (Slager is scheduled to go to trial for first-degree murder in October after being released on $500,000 bail in January.)
Davis was troubled almost from the start of his career by the department’s approach to combatting drug-fueled violence in minority communities. Policies aimed at disrupting the drug trade seemed ineffective — at best. At worst, kicking down doors in SWAT gear and locking up juveniles who had few options outside of the local drug world seemed legitimately harmful.
The moral conflict ate away at him. Davis retired as a patrolman in 2006, after being hit by a car while on duty and suffering a broken leg. The 43-year-old now works with Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, a nonprofit against the war on drugs.
I remember very early on in my career, I was on patrol in an area where we were basically pulling people over for not using their turn signals, and then turning [the stop] into a drug search.
I was with some officers who pulled over a black kid on a moped for not using a signal. There were four or five of us, big guys in uniforms with guns on our hips, all standing around him. We asked, “You don’t mind if we search your vehicle do you, to see if you have any drugs?” What’s this kid going to do? He’s not going to say no. We stripped the moped. He didn’t have anything. We sent him on his way. But I felt like we earned that kid’s enmity that day.
Another time, we were doing traffic stops and I had a K-9 officer with me. We stopped a guy basically just because he was in a drug neighborhood. He was a middle-aged black guy driving a nice car. We brought the dog over. It jumped up on the side of the car and scratched the door. Then, of course, the dog jumps in the car all over his leather seats and scratches them. I can see the dog doing this, and I’m thinking, Holy shit! We didn’t find anything in the car, which was now all scratched up. It was like, “Here’s your ticket for failure to use a turn signal, and have a nice day.”
Brutal. All because he aroused our merest suspicion.
I wasn’t on a SWAT team, but I did perimeter security when the SWAT teams did drug warrant raids. They’d hit the crappiest houses in the crappiest part of town. You know, kick the door open, fly in with rifles, pull all these people out, and find a couple of grams of drugs and $700 in cash. That amount of effort and violence in a neighborhood that’s had a drug problem since before I was born seemed horribly dangerous and counterproductive.
Later on, I realized how it became self-perpetuating. You arrest people for selling drugs, they become criminalized, and it destroys any opportunity for them to be productive members of society.
We all wrestled with it. You had some guys who really enjoyed working [narcotics] and bought into it. Others tried to avoid it and got into other parts of law enforcement. But you can’t really tell your supervisor, “I’m good with law enforcement except for drugs.” Your options are limited. Nobody’s going to agree with you if you say it’s morally wrong.
Then, one day, I got hit by a truck while I was out directing traffic. My leg broke and didn’t heal right, so I got out for a physical disability.
Getting away from the job really freed up my mind. There’s a great quote from Upton Sinclair: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”
I can understand how police officers who are still working can’t bring themselves to admit that some of the policies they enforce are counterproductive. But I feel like the tide is turning. I look at the original guys from Law Enforcement Against Prohibition — they started coming out in the early 2000s, saying the drug war is not working. They could kind of mention legalizing marijuana, but they couldn’t even get into the moral aspect. Now we can do that. Marijuana will be the gateway to larger legalization efforts.
I was a little scared to speak up about this at first, but then I thought, Why should I chicken out? I don’t want cops getting killed over this stuff. They’re in dangerous situations, fighting a war that’s going nowhere.
For most cop-supporters I see, 90 percent of the time their response to dissenters is something along the lines of, “You haven’t served,” or “You don’t know what it’s like to walk a mile in a cop’s shoes.” Well, not only was I a cop, but I was crippled in the line of duty — with the boot they cut off me at the hospital to prove it. So I’m, like, double sacrosanct. It confuses them.
As far as people who have been harmed by police and still hate or hold a grudge, I have this apology: It was wrong for me to use violence against you for merely possessing or trading in drugs. My actions, though harmful, were without malice. I believed at the time that they were in the best interest of our community.
I can only ask for more forgiveness than you’ve been shown.