Stephen Downing began his 20-year police career in a squad car and finished as a deputy chief of police. His vast experience in law enforcement has led him to the conclusion that the War on Drugs can never be worth the human and fiscal costs.
Discussion revolves around corruption, influence of patrolmen unions and more. Steve was an original board member of LEAP. Downing is an expert on issues related to police militarization, civil asset forfeiture, and corruption and internal affairs. His
interviews and original writings have appeared in numerous local, state, and national outlets.
Cultural Baggage Radio Show
Wednesday, February 2, 2022
Fri, 02/04/2022 - 15:49
DEAN BECKER: (00:00)
Hi friends. I am Dean Becker, the Reverend most high. Thank you for being with us on this edition of cultural baggage. Today, we have a gentleman I traveled, uh, cross country with on the caravan for peace, justice, and dignity. Uh, he was the, uh, deputy police chief of Los Angeles for many, uh, a great leap speaker, a a good friend. Uh, I wanna welcome Mr. Steven Downing.
STEVEN DOWNING: (00:29)
I Dean, how you doing sir?
DEAN BECKER: (00:31)
Here? Oh, good to have you,
STEVEN DOWNING: (00:34)
You know, uh, at, at the leap website, you see, uh, the meme, uh, that we create there, uh, the tree and the roots of the tree, um, are, is the drug war and all of the harms that are indicated in the branches of that tree grew out of the drug war. And so the drug war has contributed to many, many, many injustices in our country. And as you know, leap made a little bit of a change where we added to our objection to the drug war, uh, criminal justice reform, because we saw that, um, we couldn't get all the roots at one time, as we chip away at those roots, we also need to trim back the branches as best we can. So all of the harms that have grown from the, the drug war, uh, need attention at the same time we need to dig at those roots.
STEVEN DOWNING: (01:52)
Um, my history, uh, is I was a drug warrior. I was there as a command officer when president Nixon declared the war on drugs. And of course we all came to see that it was a declaration of war on people and especially a war on black and brown people. And it took me a while to realize that I was part of something that was harmful rather than positive. Uh, I did my best. I helped organize the, uh, 18 divisional drug units in the Los Angeles police department. I helped organize what we call the major violator squad, which was, uh, a group of investigators that really went worldwide. We helped, uh, create the first task forces that, that, uh, put together local county state, and federal officers in drug task forces across the country. And I helped put together the first drug intelligence network so that we could reach our goal of reducing in a consumption drugs, reducing addiction, reducing the flow of drugs into the country and reducing the violence that was associated with the drugs.
STEVEN DOWNING: (03:31)
Well, year after year, I saw that we weren't reaching those goals. Uh, the seizures got larger, the money got bigger, the weapons got bigger and I soon came to realize that it wasn't my fault. It wasn't my failure as a police executive, but rather it was the fault of our national policy and everything that grew from that. So all of the things that grew from that though, were enhancements. The crimes were increased prison sentences. And so along with the drug war, we built prison after prison, after prison CA uh, where I live, uh, about 3% of our budget when this started was went to prisons, the whole state budget, and that grew to 16%. So in California, we've kind of started some reform. Uh, we have some formers that have got into office like our local, um, district attorney who's, um, who is considered a progressive.
STEVEN DOWNING: (04:55)
And he, uh, they just launched the second recall effort because we're pushing the buttons of the status quo. They don't want to see these changes. They want to continue to build prisons and they use fear as the basis, um, to pull that off. So this guy is not going to undergoing his second recall election, but it's interesting that, uh, he was elected. He was elected on a platform that he is putting to work and all the status quo folks are trying to get him out. Uh, and so every crime, every little sensation that comes along, they use that as leverage to stop these people when they're doing that across the country. So I wanna say that, right thinking people should be aware of these movements to stop reform. And like you, that's why we're doing this program. We're, we're trying to get that message out there and, and make people aware.
DEAN BECKER: (06:11)
Thank you for that, Steve. Now again, Steve, I, um, I, I'm not wanting to point fingers. You, you have done a Miya culpa, you have changed your way, so to speak. Peter turned to Paul, whatever you wanna say. Uh, but the, the point I wanna get to is that, um, the hysteria that developed during the late sixties, early seventies, uh, uh, Nixon and Holderman wanted to go after the blacks in the hippies. They wanted to stop the anti-war protests, all of that stuff. And that was part of the lead up. There was a ratcheting up of law enforcement activities, uh, and, and procedures, uh, during that timeframe hell all the way up through the mid eighties, really. But, but the fact I'm trying to get to here is that it was, and tell me if I'm wrong, but I think it was Los Angeles that came up with the first SWAT team. And now we have SWAT teams in every PO city across America doing horrible work, uh, quite often your response to that, Steve,
STEVEN DOWNING: (07:14)
Uh, that is an interesting thing. Um, the first, the, the first SWAT team really had nothing to do with the war on drugs. Uh, the first SWAT team was, uh, created in the Los Angeles police department during my times. And it was a result of a, a robbery situation where arm robbers basically outgunned the police. And so, uh, one of the police officers with, uh, some military experience went to, uh, his deputy chief and said, uh, we really need, um, a capability that the first responder can't meet, uh, and we need to form that. And so, uh, Darrell gates at the time was a deputy chief and he took it to the chief of police, ed Davis and Davis approved, uh, beginning the training of, of, uh, the first SWAT teams. And they were the best officers for that kind of work were picked from the 18 divisions around the city. And then when, uh, the situation called a situation called for, uh, their need, they were brought, they were brought together, which took the response time was, uh, pretty slow. So eventually they centralized the SWAT in, uh, within what's called metropolitan division in the Los Angeles police department. That outfit is seven platoons within metropolitan division. They train 50% of their on duty time and their historical achievements. I'm talking about Los Angeles. Now I'll get to your point in a minute, their achievement, where they only roll out of the barn.
STEVEN DOWNING: (09:16)
The first responder is faced with the situation that is beyond their capability, in terms of big guns, uh, uh, very, very dangerous situations, situations that need highly skilled tactics. The decision for SWAT to roll in Los Angeles is not made from the field it's made from the commander of SWAT. He will evaluate, he will decide whether they roll or not. He will decide whether the situation meets the criteria for rolling this kind of equipment and people to a scene. Okay. The result is historically the result is of all the hundreds and hundreds of callouts thatwas responded to in Los Angeles. Well, over 95% of those incidents have ended without a single injury, no injury. So that's the proof of the value of a response unit like that in a society that is swimming in weapons yep. Of streets that are cluttered with weapons. Okay. Now, to get to your point, SWAT is sexy.
STEVEN DOWNING: (10:45)
They have all the uniforms and they have the equipment. They have the big guns, but in Los Angeles, they train 50% of the time. That's very expensive. Now comes along, Reagan, he hands out all the money for the drug war, more than Nixon ever thought of doing. And then they created that. I forget the name of the legislation where surplus military equipment can go to local police departments. And when they started that program, there were no conditions. You want one, uh, you, you got one. So now you have not a chief of police of a, of a department of 10,000 that can, that can really take and train people and allow them to train 50% of their on duty time. But you have small departments. We want one, we want team. So now they get their tank and they get their big guns and quiet communities, no real need for that stuff.
STEVEN DOWNING: (11:51)
Really, they should be thinking of a regional application. And so, pretty soon, they're trying to find ways to use this equipment and, and these poorly trained people who train off duty sometimes because the, the department can't afford to take the detective off of the detective desk and, and giving five hours a week of training. It's, it's highly expensive, so they're not trained as well, but they need something to use this equipment on. So pretty soon they're rating, they're using SWAT to serve a marijuana warrant somewhere. And that's where all that's where all of the problems come from. It's untrained officers in smaller departments that are using squats, squat squads for situations that do not require them tactically. And so you put that for we're training with a, with an unjustified objective, and people are dying across this country, uh, because, um, because our application of policy is bad. And so SWAT teams need to be examined across the country. And if you want one, make sure you can afford it, make sure that you have the right criteria for rolling and make sure you're training 50% of the time. And then that'll be a true, true squad squad that is there to protect the community and not to, and not to be a, a killer machine that that just runs wild.
DEAN BECKER: (13:40)
Very good. Steve, thank you for that. That, that was, uh, very, uh, clarifying. I, I do appreciate it. Now. I wanna say something. You, you mentioned the smaller towns that they don't have 10,000, um, officers. They've got 10 and, and, but they want that SWAT team. And so many of them, maybe they don't even call it a SWAT team, but they have this more militaristic mentality these days where they kick in doors, where they, uh, like Brianna Taylor for a prime example, they're looking for her ex-boyfriend and they kick in the door. And then the confusion leads to the police, killing the woman in her bed. All right, folks, I me to break in to remind you, you are listening to cultural baggage on Pacifica and the drug truth network. Our guest is Stephen Downing, former deputy police, chief of Los Angeles, and one of the founding members of leap. It is the quite often the propaganda of, of the drug war that leads people to assume this necessity, that they're druggie and what do we gotta do? Whatever it takes your response, Steve Downing, well,
STEVEN DOWNING: (14:45)
You, you said we used the word drug war. Let's look at the political level. Anytime you have a social problem, it seems that the politicians, their answer is always enforcement. Their answer is always to go to their law enforcement. Their answer is always to begin a war on this problem, and this is a civil society. We shouldn't be starting wars on our own people, regardless of who they are or what they're doing. We need to look at law enforcement as a professional organization that has professionals, public servants, doing the job of law enforcement and making sure that there's a division of function where don't do not ask a law enforcement officer to do a job that they're not trained to do. If you, you, if, if you have a social problem like mental illness, it shouldn't be the officers, police officers handling that. Now they might be along to help protect the social worker and dealing with it and bringing the situation down and deescalating, or, uh, spend some money and training officers, uh, get a little better educated officer on the job that, that knows about those kinds of things, but let's not always, uh, blame the police.
STEVEN DOWNING: (16:28)
Let's blame the politicians for saying, for declaring the war and giving the job of fighting the war to the police when they should be giving the job to other people. In other words, homeless, the homeless problem. Why should the police be dealing with a homeless problem, whether it's involving, uh, drug addiction or mental illness or economic, uh, failure, why should the police be involved in that on any level, unless there's a disturbance that they need to, uh, use to keep the peace. So we need to start with our politicians rather than tearing about part our police organizations all the time. And if we did that, we might not, we might be able to change the culture of many of these police organizations that think of themselves as warriors, rather than thinking of themselves as public servants.
DEAN BECKER: (17:32)
Good points there, Steve, I, I, uh, agree with you a hundred percent. I, I gotta say this, that, um, you know, this thought of the militaristic, I mean, we have ongoing wars. I Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria on down the line, we have many soldiers back been trained in the military, uh, and a large number of them go into the police forces. And, and, and don't, don't take this wrong. See, I'm not picking on the police, but I'm just saying many of them, uh, some of them carry the, uh, PTSD from these other wars into our, our communities. You wanna talk about that a little bit?
STEVEN DOWNING: (18:12)
Well, I think I, I think that that goes to your recruitment policy, your recruitment process, and it goes to your screening process, your site, psychological screening, um, and those kinds of things. But, but it also goes to, uh, the culture of the police organization. And what is not said often enough is, is that the police officer is not a warrior. A soldier has an enemy and he's taught the kill. The enemy. A police officer has no enemies. Even the worst bank. Robber is not an enemy. That bank robber is someone in the United States of America who is entitled to due process and the protections of the United States constitution. And who's entitled to, um, uh, to be treated as our laws intend them to be treated. So we should not mix up the military mission with the civil police mission. And if you have that as a policy in your organization, then you're gonna weed out the guy who wants to be the soldier. And you're going to allow the guy who wants to be a public servant, the guy or gal who wants to be a proper servant, you're gonna allow them to flourish in the organization, but you have to have the culture to allow that kind of growth. If you don't have that culture, then the soldier who is taught to kill, he's gonna be dominant.
DEAN BECKER: (20:18)
Now, Steve, I, I wanna, uh, shift just a little bit to, uh, um, Hmm. The clout of policemen. If you will, what you, the clout, the influence police have on politicians and others, you were talk touching on that a bit. That is the politicians who created the laws that the police have to follow. And I, I was, I was wanting to, uh, there is another influence that comes back towards those politicians and I'm all for unions, but patrolman's unions have a lot of, and I'm gonna say undue influence, and I don't know, uh, capability within many communities. You wanna talk about patrolman's unions.
STEVEN DOWNING: (21:00)
Um, in my opinion, the police officers associations, the strength that they have and the influence they have over politicians is probably the major contributor to our inability, to reform policing in this country. Uh, because in the late seventies, they began to discover the power of their treasury in my town, long beach, California, the police, uh, department is about 900 strong. And the police department in this town, the police officer organization in my town are directly involved in the election of our mayor and 90% of the members of the council. And the result is the misbehavior and the corruption and the incompetence within the long beach police department is never spoken, allowed to the public. The mayor, we have scandal after scandal and the mayor never says a word and no member of our council ever says a word. Why not? Because their money is more important to their campaigns.
STEVEN DOWNING: (22:34)
In the last few years, uh, in the last five years, the POA in long beach has poured, uh, 1.2 million into local campaigns. And this is a town of, uh, may, uh, 500001.1 million have gone into local campaigns. They've raised taxes on us twice. The mayor, uh, passed a major to raise taxes, which made, uh, our town, the highest retail, uh, uh, tax in the state and the POA, uh, put up $300,000 for his slick mailer campaign to get that done. And when it was done, the first cut went to a raise for police officers. They are not hiring, uh, uh, years ago, about six years ago because of the economic situation in our town. They reduced the size of the police department by 200 officers. But after we passed these tax majors and part of the campaign was to put that 200 back since that time, four years ago, uh, they have put 14 back and none on the street, only 14, but they have created new programs that pay overtime.
STEVEN DOWNING: (24:11)
So we have police officers at the police officer level in this town with their overtime and their benefits and their very rich pension benefits, uh, making $300,000 a year, a police officer, a, a police officer with a high school education. And three months of academy training, six months of academy training is making $300,000 a year. All of that. Now you say, okay, they're working overtime. It's irresponsible to pay overtime for every program that you have, because what you do is you move things around and you never get any permanence to anything. Number one, number two, wear people out. If they can make the money, they're gonna stay there and make it regardless of the level of fatigue that they're experiencing. So what do you get from that? You get fatigue, you get inattention to duty, you get car accidents, you get breakdown of the family of, or the police officers.
STEVEN DOWNING: (25:27)
You get suicides and you a lot of sick time that we pay for as well. So the money of the POA is a cancer on good professional law enforcement. I have nothing against unions either. I think in the private sector, let 'em have it because in the private sector, you move, negotiate with a guy who's dealing with a bottom line with the people they get elected and they don't have a bottom line. The politician has this unending treasury of public tax money. And that's why I believe that unions should not be allowed to make donations to anybody that will have a vote as to what their benefits will be in the future.
DEAN BECKER: (26:25)
Well, Steve, we're gonna have to wrap it up here and I just wanna let throw this out here. I don't know how much discussion can form around it, but at, uh, here in, uh, Houston, I don't know, it's been two and a half years ago. I think there was what they call the Harding street bust, where, uh, the cops, uh, showed up with, well, a warrant that they faked or they convinced the judge they needed. I don't know, but whole series of wrong, um, procedures were done. The cops shot each other through the walls of the building. They killed the occupants of the building. Uh, they said there was heroin. There was no heroin. There was a little bit of weed, whatever. It was a whole series of cluster things. If you follow me. And, and, and the point I wanna get to is that that night, the head of the patrolman's union came on all the networks and says, you better believe what we did here was worthy and considered and, and treat us right. And it turns out that they were corrupt. They were murderers. They've been convicted and on down the line. But my point I'm getting to here, Steve is that since that point in time, up to that point in time, I've been interviewing the district attorney, the police chief, the sheriff, everybody was willing to talk. But since that point in time, I think the leverage that the patrolman's union over the police chief, the sheriff and the da is preventing them from talking about this fiasco. Uh, your closing thoughts, Mr. Steve Downing,
STEVEN DOWNING: (27:53)
Uh, all of that will stop. The minute you pass a law that says the police officers associations cannot support the campaigns of politicians who can benefit them directly. They're there they're employees let 'em work, let, let them bargain at the bargaining table for their wages and working conditions. And that's where it stops.
DEAN BECKER: (28:25)
Good advice. There is, uh, one again, friends we've been speaking with Mr. Steven Downing. He was, uh, uh, once the, uh, deputy police chief of Los Angeles man, uh, great experience and, and, uh, chief, thank you for being with us.
STEVEN DOWNING: (28:39)
You're welcome. Nice talking to you.
DEAN BECKER: (28:41)
All right. As we're wrapping up here, I recommend you go to the website of law enforcement action leap out there on the firstname.lastname@example.org, lot of, uh, knowledgeable folks there. And again, I remind you because of prohibition, you don't know what's in that bag, please be careful.