Terry Blevins, former officer and current advocate for police reform. Photo provided by Blevins.
Many Americans believe that members of law enforcement oppose drug reform. That’s not true for Terry Blevins, a former officer in Maricopa County, Arizona and international security specialist with the U.S. government.
Blevins is one of the more than 15,000 members of the Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP) who are fighting for police-reform in areas including drug prohibition, mass incarceration, police militarization, and immigration law. The organization includes both current and former police officers like Blevins, police chiefs, judges, prosecutors and academics. For over a decade Blevins has been in the private security sector and is currently CEO of Armaplex Security, which provides services for cannabis companies throughout California.
Emerald spoke with Blevins, an executive board member of LEAP, about the organization, and how his views on drug policy shifted.
Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Emerald Magazine (EM): What is LEAP? And how did you become involved?
Terry Blevins (TB): LEAP is a national organization. We have a couple of branches abroad and we’re really trying to make it into more of an international organization. Originally there were a few cops back East that were asking, “what are we doing? Why are we so focused on drugs and especially marijuana when we’re spending all these resources and all this time and effort when we’ve got so many other crime problems that need attention?” We’ve got tens of thousands of rape kits sitting in evidence rooms around the U.S., untested. But yet, we’re spending tens of millions of dollars on the War on Drugs.They just started asking questions and there started being more and more cops that were asking the same question.
The reason I became a cop was because I wanted to help. I really wanted to do the right thing. I just started saying that law enforcement in the U.S. has really lost its way. We focused on the wrong things. We had done things that created gaps between us and our communities, especially communities of color.
EM: LEAP’s website states that, “law enforcement-based response to illegal drugs forces us to aggressively pursue, search, arrest, and interrogate individuals.” There is also a similar statement on immigration. In what ways does this response ‘force’ individual officers to engage in these activities?
TB: Well, it’s mainly because of the money. There are so many grants that are associated with drug enforcement. My department [got] tens of millions of dollars a year from the federal government and we were focused on it. The reason that our leadership focused on that is because they knew that we had to perform in order to comply with those federal grants.
When money isn’t involved, there has always been pressure from leadership to get more arrests. If you want to get your felony arrest, you just go out and find somebody that’s smoking weed [when cannabis possession was a felony in Arizona] and arrest them and ruin their lives — just because you needed a felony arrest on your stats. Ah man, it happened so much. That pressure comes from a paramilitary type organization that’s based on that hierarchical structure. The subordinates pretty much have to do everything that the commanders tell him to do.
You can’t just say no. You have to meet those quotas.
EM: On the other hand, do individual officers employ discretion when dealing with the public? For example, certain counties have decriminalized cannabis. But the law enables individual officers to use their discretion when dealing with those in possession of cannabis. Consequently, officers still arrest people although officials technically decriminalized cannabis.
TB: There was very little leniency from leadership to not charge those people with a crime. [For example,] if you found someone in possession of even just an amount for personal use [of] heroin or methamphetamine and you didn’t charge them with a crime, leadership wanted to know why. These are felonies; they look good on our records. We have to report back to the [Department of Justice] and tell them how many felony drug arrests we have. And this must be within the time frame of the grant so that we can continue to get this money. So officer discretion really wasn’t at play.
Now there was some discretion regarding marijuana. If there was a small quantity, say it was just a joint or something like that, we can either take it into evidence or have it destroyed.
EM: Does LEAP advocate for less police involvement in certain civil incidents? For instance, officials in some cities have implemented programs that dispatch social-workers in place of police for certain calls, or even use private contractors to deal with traffic accidents such as New Orleans has done?
TB: Yeah, actually we just published a white paper on this. We put an offer out to actually consult a city. [A city] in New Jersey asked for assistance in creating a program like this called the community responder model. Cops will still go. But a social worker would go with them, based on the particular discipline that [responders] might need.
You might have trouble getting community responders that will go out to an area that [they’ve] considered a rough neighborhood and respond to certain types of calls. So, you would still probably need police officers to go to that. Ultimately — 10 years ago I would have said you’ll never hear these words come out of my mouth: […] there are some calls where the cops shouldn’t even go. I mean, there are some calls that it’s just, the more contact that police have with members of the community, especially certain communities, the greater likelihood is that you’re going to have violence.
EM: Do you find appeals to personal liberty or freedom in relation to drug-use convincing? In other words, do you believe people have a right to use drugs?
TB: From the personal liberty standpoint, this is a really fascinating question. Police officers are very complicated. You would think that police officers, being mostly conservative, that personal liberties and personal freedoms would be big to them. That’s one area where they really deviate from the conservative standard beliefs. They are very pro law-and-order. So they don’t necessarily believe that much in personal freedom. They have to constantly test those limits of personal freedoms in order to get evidence against people that they know are criminals. They know these people are committing crimes and doing bad things so they have to test those limits all the time.
We constantly search for warrants on people’s phones; we ask for warrants on their homes on their vehicles and so. In police stations, when they’re talking about search warrants, they’re not talking about these sorts of things. Very seldom does the issue ever come up of, ‘Are we violating their personal freedom?’
It’s really all about: ‘is this going to get kicked out of court? So, is this [considered] fruit of the poisonous tree?’ Which is a legal term. That basically means that if you seize evidence in a way that is considered illegal, that evidence cannot be used against that person. I worked in a few different agencies. I even worked for a federal law enforcement agency and I can tell you that, weirdly, we hardly ever sit around saying, ‘I feel like this is a violation of their personal freedoms.’