Undercover narcotics officers from the New York Police Department have been using buy-and-bust sting operations to arrest addicts instead of the drug dealers that supply them, the New York Times reported on Monday.
It is not yet known how widespread the operations are.
In at least four recent cases, undercover officers gave cash to addicts to buy crack or heroin from local dealers, then arrested the addicts on felony drug-dealing charges once they returned and handed over the drugs. In each of the cases, officers did not pursue the dealers that supplied the addicts with the drugs.
In one case, a 21-year-old heroin addict identified by the Times as Brian L. was approached in the Lower East Side by an “unkempt” woman who acted as though she was on the verge of withdrawal. The woman gave him $20 in cash, and he returned to her with two bags of heroin. Officers arrested him minutes afterward, and later testified that none of them followed Brian to see who he was purchasing the drugs from.
Another man — a 55-year-old identified by the Times as Reginald J. — had a similar encounter with an officer in Harlem.
“For him to put the money in my hands, as an addict, let me tell you what happens,” Reginald told the Times. “I like to think I could resist it, but I’m way beyond that. My experience has shown me that 1,000 times out of 1,000 times, I will be defeated.”
The four cases appear to be a departure from the city’s efforts in recent years to keep non-violent offenders with mental illnesses or substance abuse issues out of the criminal justice system. Late in 2014, Mayor Bill de Blasio and Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance together committed $130 million to reduce unnecessary arrests and incarcerations to “make the system fairer.”
Defence lawyers and juries have criticised the buy-and-bust tactics as unjustly targeting troubled addicts instead of dealers. Of the four cases reviewed by the Times, three of the addicts were acquitted by juries and the fourth resulted in a deadlock at trial.
One juror, Scott Link, told the Times that the jury for Brian L.’s case was baffled that a full narcotics squad — which included undercover officers, investigators and supporting officers — would use their resources to prosecute just one addict.
“The big underlying question is why a nine-person buy-and-bust team did not follow him to the dealer where he got it from,” Link told the Times. “Everyone was scratching their heads, wondering what the heck is wrong with our system.”
In 2015, 5,000 people were charged in New York City with dealing small amounts of heroin and cocaine — down from 6,000 the year before, the Times reported. It’s not known how many of those arrests were due to buy-and-bust operations. Since many drug-dealing charges end in plea deals rather than trials, details of the arrests never emerge.
A spokeswoman for the Manhattan DA’s office said that in some cases, the addicts who are arrested are directed toward treatment and not prison. Meanwhile, Brian McCarthy, the head of the NYPD’s narcotics division, told the Times that his team targets dealers, but commonly arrests people who also use the drugs they sell.
“I believe that we attempt to do our jobs in a planned manner with the utmost integrity where we do get people who are selling narcotics,” he said.