09/02/16 Ron Hickman

Ron Hickman, running for reelection as Sheriff of Harris County/Houston Texas + Neil Woods, author of Good Cop, Bad War who also serves as Director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition in the UK

Cultural Baggage Radio Show
Friday, September 2, 2016
Ron Hickman
Law Enforcement





DEAN BECKER: Hello, folks, this is Dean Becker. Thank you for joining us on this edition of Cultural Baggage. You know without an intro we've got a lot to squeeze in. A bit later, we'll hear from Neil Woods, author of Good Cop, Bad War, the director of LEAP in the UK. But first.

Ron Hickman is the sheriff of Harris County, Houston, Texas, and beyond. Sheriff Hickman, I want to thank you for joining us today on Cultural Baggage.

RON HICKMAN: My pleasure.

DEAN BECKER: Yes, sir. Now, last week I had your opponent, Ed Gonzalez, on with us. But, you're the Republican incumbent running for sheriff of our fair city. Would you please fill us in on your experience, what you're bringing to the table?

RON HICKMAN: Sure, sure, Dean. I've been a peace officer for, been a little over 45 years. Started my career here in Houston, working for the Houston Police Department. I graduated from class 50 of the Houston Police Department and worked there for about a dozen years, and then moved over to the county in 1983. I worked for the Precinct Four Constable's Office, attaining the rank of assistant chief before I ran for and won the constable position in 2000. I was elected subsequently for several terms after that, until being appointed as sheriff in May of 2015.

DEAN BECKER: Well, thank you, sheriff. Now, in anticipation of this interview, I wrote to a few of my friends, my brothers and sisters in Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, and I got the following question from former deputy police chief of Los Angeles Steve Downing. His question to you, sir: what costs more, incarceration of nonviolent drug users, or treatment?

RON HICKMAN: Well, obviously, incarceration is a long-term expense.

DEAN BECKER: Yes, sir. Okeh.

RON HICKMAN: Treatment, if it resolves the issue, would be the quickest solution.

DEAN BECKER: Okeh. And I would certainly agree with that, sir. Now, one question I get from a lot of people deals with this situation, I think it was 2009, the legislature passed a bill that says you no longer have to arrest anybody for under four ounces of marijuana. And the DAs have been quarreling over what to do about that, but I was wanting to get your thoughts on, you know, low levels of marijuana possession.

RON HICKMAN: Well, we obviously have been participating with the DA and her First Chance program, which diverts those low level offenders, first time offenders particularly, from going to jail. So, if we can begin to see, you know, long term success in that program, that helps, you know, erode some of the incarceration rate, it helps erode, you know, the criminalization of long term users.

DEAN BECKER: Well, and I would think it would certainly lower the population in your jail. I understand that's quite often a problem with --

RON HICKMAN: It is often a problem for us, but unfortunately, those low level offenders, the misdemeanors, first timers, are less than six percent of our overall population. The vast majority of the folks who cycle through the jail are repeat offenders. Recidivism obviously is our biggest problem, and I think in large part that's because many of our treatment programs are just not successful. You know, a state jail felon, or a felon who comes through our facility, cycles on off to state prison, will undergo maybe a treatment program on his way out of prison, so maybe it's the placement of those programs in the process that's proving to be unsuccessful.

DEAN BECKER: Well, I would agree, there's good and bad treatment programs, for sure.

RON HICKMAN: Well, maybe it's just the timing. You know, if you start a person on a treatment program as he goes into prison, and then maintain that throughout the incarceration, then, it's not just getting him right to get out, you know, that last couple of months before he gets out you put him in a program, and he can maintain that for a short period of time, but maintaining compliance over a longer period might be a treatment approach.

DEAN BECKER: Sure. And, right, it has to set in, become a lifestyle more or less, yes sir. Let's see. Oh, I asked this question of a couple of our district attorneys in past election seasons, it's from my good friend, Superior Court Judge James P. Gray. He was the VP candidate back in 2012, but his question for you, sir, do you think we've made any difference in quashing the drug trade in the last five years?

RON HICKMAN: Well, that's certainly a suggestive question. You know, you make an impact, but since you don't know the totality of the volume, you don't know how much of an impact. Certainly, we do have an impact, we have some successful programs, but, you know, since you don't know the total volume you don't know how much of an impact you make, other than what you've done over the previous year.

DEAN BECKER: Yes, sir. And the judge's second part is kind of a follow-on. Do you think we'll make any difference in quashing the drug trade in the next five years?

RON HICKMAN: I think we've been pretty much status quo, you know, we have -- obviously a limited effort, you know, we have public safety responsibilities above and beyond what we do to deal with narcotics. You know, there are a variety of initiatives that attacks solely that narrow focus, and then the vast majority of the rest of what we have to do deals with other areas, so unless we, you know, were to, you know, grossly expand our, you know, approach on narcotics, I think we kind of plateau.

DEAN BECKER: Once again, we're speaking with Ron Hickman, the sheriff of Harris County. Sheriff, if we could wave a magic wand and all the dealers would be gone, and we -- I think we both know that in a short period of time, somebody else would show up to replace them, and I guess my question, sir, does it ever feel like it's just a drop in the bucket, that we will never achieve this goal of ridding the world of drugs?

RON HICKMAN: Well, certainly, you know, you have that sense of hopelessness, obviously, but, you know, narcotics is not the only issue that you have that problem with, you know. I'd certainly like to see the homicide rate come down, robbery rate come down. You can't catch them all, so, you know, that doesn't mean we just stop what we're doing. I'll just say there are issues associated with narcotics that are bad for society. You know, the more of those that we can eradicate, the better off we are. Obviously some things are more harmful to society than others, but, you know, will we ever reach that utopia? I don't know.

DEAN BECKER: Oh, I don't think -- it's dubious, I'll agree with that. Here's a question I got from the former police chief of Seattle, Norm Stamper. And he's talking about, the majority of polls are now showing 55 to 60 percent of American people want the drug laws, the marijuana laws, to change. And, what does that mean to a sheriff? To hear that your constituency, your population, is against some of the process that you're waging?

RON HICKMAN: Well, I think we have an opportunity to look at what's going on across the country. Obviously there are a lot of eyes on Colorado right now. I sat through some classes recently on the impact of legalization on, you know, society there in Colorado. You know, things that maybe not have presumed to have happened, and obviously there'll be a push for some level of legalization here in Texas, so, I think as we watch how that transition is happening in other states, we can, you know, follow those trends and either learn from them or take lessons from what not to do.

DEAN BECKER: Well said, I think, sir. Folks, you're listening to Cultural Baggage on Pacifica and the Drug Truth Network. We're speaking with Ron Hickman, the current sheriff of Harris County, who's running for re-election this fall. Sheriff, when I interviewed then-police chief Charles McLelland, this was back in 2014, he made international news when he declared the drug war to be a quote "miserable failure." And I don't want you to, you know, speak directly to that, but it's an indication that more and more politicians, more and more officials, are willing to reassess and readdress this drug war.

RON HICKMAN: Well, I think that, given the president's commutation of the life sentence without parole yesterday for a person who is a first-time offender for drug trafficking, that certainly sends a message that the drug war, as it were, can have unintended consequences across the spectrum. But we have to watch carefully about, you know, how things like that affect society as a whole. The interesting trends that we saw in Colorado is, you know, as marijuana was legalized there, things that sprung up that you wouldn't naturally see, like overdoses of pets, you know, access to minors, showing up in the ER, apparently. It's interesting to watch dogs stumble around, you know, stone brownies. You know, that's, so, things that pop up that you wouldn't normally have seen or maybe normally track as a result of it. So there are, you know, like I said, there's a lot of eyes on Colorado right now to see exactly what the holistic view of that legalization is on the society there.

DEAN BECKER: Yes, sir. With every step we take we just make the situation worse. Now we've got this deadly Kush. Your thought, sir.

RON HICKMAN: Well, I guess the question is the correlation between the illegalization of substances like marijuana and whether or not that would drive someone to take Kush as opposed to marijuana. That's not to say that if marijuana were legal, they wouldn't still look for a better high on something else.

DEAN BECKER: Now, the, couple other things I talked with Ed about, and that's the bail system. There was a recent court ruling said that if you can't afford bail, then it's unconstitutional. And what's your thought in that regard, sheriff?

RON HICKMAN: Well, given that I'm involved in a federal lawsuit on that, it's pretty sensitive for me, and clearly our bail system has issues. There are a number of people with eyes on that problem at the moment, and trying to find a balanced approach is important for all of us. Clearly, as the guy who watches the warehouse where all these people are, it seems untenable that we continue to do this. So, as we bring, you know, 300 to 350 people a day to jail, we run about 9,000 a month, but we only bail bond out about 5,000. So it doesn't take long to fill up when you're not bonding out just more than half of what you bring in.

DEAN BECKER: Yes, sir. We had a situation where one of your deputies messed up. He inappropriately sent a bunch of evidence to be burned or destroyed, which has impacted several, well, dozens of cases.

RON HICKMAN: Actually, that wasn't one of my deputies.

DEAN BECKER: No? Explain that event for me, sir.

RON HICKMAN: Actually, that was a deputy employed by the Precinct Four Constable's office. Well, we have a responsibility to make sure that we safeguard our duty throughout the process, from the time the report is made through the collection and classification of the evidence, all the way down through the conviction of a defendant. We have a responsibility, and a certain degree of the public's trust, to get that job done right. You can hearken back and recall the debacle in the DNA labs in Houston, years back. It took a long time to redevelop the trust in the DNA lab, and there are issues going on even today. So, you know, we're very cautious to make sure that, you know, when someone makes that mistake, that it's addressed properly, and when cases are negatively impacted and affected, that the DA does the right thing and dismisses where there's no evidence to prosecute.

DEAN BECKER: Once again, we've been speaking with Sheriff Hickman, the sheriff of Harris County, Houston, Texas, and many other cities around. Sheriff, whether it's you or your opponent gets elected, I want to ask you or Ed to please lobby the Texas legislature this coming spring to begin bringing our criminal justice system into the 21st century, and I want to ask you sir, will you assure us that you will at least seek some nuance to these laws?

RON HICKMAN: Well, we're -- as I mentioned earlier, we're already in the process of offering First Chance programs. You know, as the legislature addresses the legalization issue and as they cast their eyes towards Colorado and other states, and I certainly assume that there'll be an interest in some degree of reform in these areas. Our job obviously is to enforce those laws, you know, whatever they wind up giving us out of Austin, we'll work with here, but, you know, as our DA currently is pursuing diversion programs to those low level offenses, then we have been cooperating with her in finding those opportunities to divert people from jail.

DEAN BECKER: Yes, sir, and to me, it just seems almost scandalous that we've had this law on the book for, what, seven years? That no longer have to arrest anybody for four ounces of weed. And it just seems like a squandering of our resources, your officers, of our jail, of our money, our time, and quote commitment to justice. It just seems, Governor Goodhair signed that, we should use it. Your thought, sir.

RON HICKMAN: Well, it is one of them issues that you can approach from two different directions. Obviously, cite and release, obviously is one option. Diversion, you know, like First Chance, is another option. So, as we, you know, decide which one works best for us, but you know, we've got to remember that, like drinking too much alcohol, it's still illegal. So we've got to live within the framework of the laws they provide, and work for change where we see it's necessary.

DEAN BECKER: Sheriff, is there a website, closing thoughts you'd like to share?

RON HICKMAN: I'm hard to find. RonHickman.com.

DEAN BECKER: It's time to play Name That Drug By Its Side Effects! Physical stimulation, appetite suppression, the prevention of altitude sickness through increased oxygen supply. Time's up! The answer, as is so obvious in the lives of millions of Bolivians: Coca. Mother Coca.

It's a privilege to be speaking with the director of the United Kingdom branch of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, the author of the great new book Good Cop, Bad War. Mister Neil Woods.

Neil, this book has astounded me, and I guess what I'd just like to say is that I'm proud that you spoke the truth so boldly, and I thank you sir.

NEIL WOODS: Oh, well thank you very much, I mean, you know, I came to the conclusion that I did, having spent so much time on the front line of this dreadful war on drugs, then, and doing so -- causing so much harm, I'm duty bound, really, I think, now to speak out and try and explain to people my journey, and bring people alongside my conclusions with me.

Well, I worked undercover over the space of about 14 years. Each year, the job got more difficult. Now, I knew very early on in my police career that the war on drugs was a failure, and that it was an unwinnable notion. But I still kept doing the work, and the reason that I kept doing the work is because there was always really nasty gangsters to catch, and so I was always -- I gave up undercover work a few times, but I was enticed back into it because I was quite successful, and so I was sought after in order to do the work.

One job, for example, in Northampton, they said, one thing we really need you to do, this job, because the gangsters here are raping people as punishment for drug debts, and as part of their sort of fear and intimidation. I did some terrible things, really, in order to catch these gangsters, you know, I manipulated people in some really cynical ways, and I put some problematic heroin users in some significantly increased danger by manipulating them and lying to them. But of course, when you're trying to catch these nasty people, you think well, the end justifies the means.

But once the realization comes upon you that actually, the reason that, every year, these organized crime groups, these gangsters, are getting nastier and nastier, well I realized it was down to me. Well, not just me, but people like me, who were, you know, we constantly develop police tactics and there's an automatic pushback from the gangsters to become more and more intimidating to balance it, you know. This war is -- it's an arms race, with no chance of de-escalation, no chance of peace treaties. So the gangsters just keep getting nastier.

So eventually, I realized that the only thing I can do is to stop fighting this war and try and persuade people and make people realize the harm that it's doing, because the nastier the gangsters get, the more communities are damaged.

DEAN BECKER: There are very few politicians now calling for at least an escalation of the drug war. Many people are saying we need to back down. But a chapter in my book was, Incrementalism Is A Killer. We have to take bold steps, do we not, Mister Woods?

NEIL WOODS: Yes, I mean, we certainly do. It's obvious that, to me, the first logical step is prescribing heroin. I mean, here in the UK, 50 percent of acquisitive crime is caused by less than naught point two percent of the population, and that's the problematic heroin users. It literally removes an enormous amount of crime overnight by prescribing heroin. They do it in Switzerland to a limited degree, not liberally enough, in fact, in my view, but that is a policy change that I believe will be one of the first things that we manage to successfully persuade people to bring in here.

We have very good political advocacy going on here from LEAP in the UK. We have some good political contacts. I have had a meeting myself in Number Ten Downing Street. We're making some real progress.

Yeah, so, we are having meetings with all sorts of, what we call, special advisers here, who are the sort of close advisers of Members of Parliament, so, you know, we are doing really well with our advocacy. And of course we're looking very closely at what happens in Canada, and, so many politicians here are waiting to see what happens there, because it's a national government, and because Trudeau is bringing it federally right across the country, I think this is going to be a real game changer. So, it's going to have an impact here in Europe, I believe.

DEAN BECKER: Well, and I would hope so, and I think it will resonate down through, heck, through the Americas, really, because Mexico is considering it, the US, many states are voting on it, et cetera. Friends, once again, we're speaking with Mister Neil Woods, he's author of Good Cop, Bad War. I certainly got to agree with it. Mister Woods, I'm reading from your book here, I'm on page 221: This casual acceptance that the drug war made corruption not only likely, but inevitable, was perhaps the final nail in the coffin of whatever naive belief I once held in the value of the campaign we were waging.

And I think that's going to ring true for, oh hell, everybody, eventually, is it not?

NEIL WOODS: Well, that's right. And this is actually the message that I want, certainly in the UK, I want to get out the loudest, and that's that the policing, this, policing prohibition causes corruption, and certainly here, the organized crime groups perpetually grow in their monopolies, so that police increasingly only catch low hanging fruit. So that concentrates the wealth in a smaller -- in smaller and larger amounts. And so, I mean, I've come across that corruption, because I was infiltrating an organized crime group, and they had a spy in my camp. Four and a half months in, and we had to have a replacement to personnel, and one of them was actually, turned out to be a spy of the organized crime group I was infiltrating. You know, literally, like the film The Departed.

And, he'd been paid by this gangster, called Colin Gunn, from Nottingham, he'd been paid to join the police, with the instruction to get into CID. And he'd been in the police seven years, and he was paid two thousand pounds a month on top of his police wage, plus bonuses for good information.


NEIL WOODS: Now, in the debrief after this, with various senior covert police, I had a small amount of surprise at the extent of this, but they didn't. They said, now, Woodsie, of course this happens, because with this much money, how can it not? Which is quite telling, really, that the police are accepting that this corruption is there, but the public don't know, and so the public need to know. Because certainly, if I get my history right, prohibition in America in the early 30s, part of the reason why it ended is because people were fed up with the corruption.

You know, in the UK, we're very proud of our policing history. You know, we police by consent. We really do. We have such a wonderful cooperation with the public. But since 1971, since our Misuse of Drugs Act, our policing by consent ended, really, because it separated communities and put communities against the police rather than with us, and, you know, we used to be the shining light for police in the world, and I'm afraid prohibition's really ruining that.

Here in the UK, we've had -- I know I read very much about the problem with heroin in the United States, but we also have a problem here, and our heroin deaths have increased by two thirds in two years here. Now, that should -- that amount of people dying, that's almost a thousand people. That should be headline news, and there should be policy shifts to deal with that, and the policy shifts are pragmatic and straightforward, really, there's some very practical solutions to this problem, but -- yeah, unfortunately, we don't have the full support of police in this yet, but I don't know what it's like there, but we do actually have some senior police and, what we have called Police and Crime Commissioners, here actually causing some policy shifts. They're actually getting more involved in this than some of our politicians are.

DEAN BECKER: You know, Neil, I think there's a different type of corruption that continues, kind of just the way our daddies did it kind of corruption. An example, here in Houston, we just last week had a situation develop where the prosecutor in a drug case was trying to get a 25 year sentence on this gentleman for his drug possession, when it turns out the prosecutor knew that the evidence had been lost, but was just trying to leverage, you know, a plea deal, don't go to trial, take what we're offering, six years instead of 25, and yet they had no evidence, and that's been proven on at least 90 cases, perhaps hundreds of cases. It's a different type of corruption, am I right, sir?

NEIL WOODS: Oh definitely. I'm aware of the way that your legal system works over there, comparatively to ours, and actually our legal system here in the UK, that wouldn't happen, because I know -- something like, it's over 90 percent of cases are pleaded, aren't they, because they use this bargaining sort of pressure --


NEIL WOODS: You know, these -- strike these deals to save court time, and money, but it actually means that people are basically blackmailed into accepting a guilty plea. But that, I mean, obviously there's a certain amount of this functionality occasionally in our courts, but nothing like that. Nothing on the scale that I understand it happens there, so, quite fortunate here in the UK by that.

I'm optimistic that we, in less than 10 years, we will have a regulated cannabis market in the UK. And the reason for that, I mean, obviously there's been some success, and some states in the US have regulated the market, but for us here, and our politicians, the biggie is Canada, and so where Justin Trudeau leads, I do hope, and I'm optimistic, that we will follow in the UK. I also think that we will successfully get heroin assisted treatment. What I hope for should happen is the same kind of regulated market to save lives for things like MDMA, and all the psychedelics. You know, people, consenting adults, should be able to buy a regulated product.

And we're good at regulating in the UK, we're almost geeky about it. So, it shouldn't be too much of a stretch to do this, really. You know, I speak to enough politicians to know that they're not going to make policy unless they perceive that the public want it, and so, you know, the front line of this, of this war against this dreadful policy, is those who are going to do public speaking, and actually persuade the public. And as you know, the people the public listen to is law enforcement people. And so that's why LEAP is so important, and I'm very, very proud to be a member of LEAP, and part of this global movement.

I don't know if your listeners realize just how much LEAP is spreading across the globe. You know, we're represented in 20 countries. In February, we launched officially in the United Kingdom, and Neill Franklin and Diane Goldstein both came over, very kindly, to speak at our launch, which we had in the House of Commons, in a special room there. We got wonderful press attention, and, you know, I just want to pay tribute, really, to Neill Franklin and Diane Goldstein, and all of the LEAP speakers and members in the United States, because, you know, you've created a global movement, and thank you all for your, for being inspiring, really.

DEAN BECKER: Oh, my. Well, thank you. I'm proud that I was one of the first speakers to join, back in 2003, and it's been an honor, if you will, to serve in LEAP. All right, folks, once again, we've been speaking with Mister Neil Woods, author of Good Cop, Bad War. I urge you to get a copy, to glean the courage that's in here, to glean the information and the attitude, so you can talk to your local officials, to your state and federal officials, and convince them we need to do something to stop funding terrorist cartels and gangs. Your closing thoughts, Mister Neil Woods.

NEIL WOODS: Well, yes, that's it. The only way to win this war is to declare peace. And the only way to stop our inner cities being the breeding ground for gangsters is to declare peace. You know, I've seen youngsters turn into gangsters only because they're becoming -- they're behaving the way they have to do to survive in this world that we've created with prohibition. So, thank you to everybody who supports LEAP.

DEAN BECKER: I will close out with the thought, thank you to everybody who supports ending the madness of this god damn eternal drug war. Stand, speak, do your part. Please. And as always I remind you because of prohibition you don't know what's in that bag, please be careful.