Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
Opioids claim more lives than bullets, so why is the Trump administration so hyper-focused on city gangs?
President Donald Trump declared the week of September 18 through 22 “National Gang Violence Prevention Week.” He also declared that week “Prescription Opioid and Heroin Epidemic Awareness Week,” (President Obama made this same declaration last year). While the issues of gang violence and opioid abuse get to share a week together, the difference in how the Trump administration approaches each issue are quite stark. Here’s how Attorney General Jeff Sessions explained the declarations when addressing law enforcement officials in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania last week:
The President’s first declaration makes clear to all those who are suffering addiction, seeking treatment, or who are in recovery: we stand with them, we are praying for them, and we are working every single day to help them. And the second puts all gang members and other organized thugs on notice: we are coming for you. We will find you, we will hunt you down, and we will bring you to justice.
That first group, deemed deserving of prayer, can mostly be found in majority-white communities in states like West Virginia, the state where the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found the highest rate of drug overdose deaths in 2015. Of the top 20 counties for opioid deaths, half of them were in West Virginia, as were the top four counties for opiate overdoses, according to the CDC. Nearly 33,000 people died in the U.S. of opioid overdoses, which was four times higher than the number of people who died of the same cause 20 years ago.
“These trends are shocking and the numbers tell us a lot,” said Sessions speaking in Charleston, West Virginia last week, “but they aren’t just numbers. They represent moms and dads, brothers and sisters, neighbors and friends. They represent unique, irreplaceable people, and fellow Americans.”
The idea that the only way to deal with violent crime offenders is to “hunt them down,” while white opiate drug offenders deserve prayers of relief can’t be separated from the optics of race. Medical experts say that gun violence should be treated as a public health issue. Cities are increasingly recognizing that this might be necessary. More cities could treat it this way if federal health funding could be applied to gun violence—which currently, it can’t. So why is Sessions still treating gang members as if they can be incarcerated and deported away rather than rehabilitated?
Some cities have already been working on ways to deal with violent crime that aren’t purely about policing. Take, for example, Portland, where Sessions also spoke last week, to chastise the city for refusing to cooperate with his immigrant detention demands, and also to lecture about violent crime. He pointed out that the city’s homicides increased 140 percent from 2013 to 2015, when it tabbed 34 killings. Said Sessions during his Portland talk:
We are in the midst of a multi-front battle: an increase in violent crime, a rise in vicious gang activity, an opioid epidemic that it is taking an American life every ten minutes, and threats from terrorism—combined with a culture in which family and discipline seem to be eroding further and a disturbing disrespect for the rule of law.
Sessions didn’t mention that Portland has since made progress — Portland’s homicide numbers dropped to 14 in 2016, according to new FBI crime figures. Portland is also dropping the tough gang talk—it announced last week that it will no longer use “gang” designations, and will purge its gang database, which was disproportionately composed of the names and data of people of color. This was the result of a years-long push from initiatives such as the city’s Community Peace Collaborative, which involves the Portland police department, and organizations such as Black Male Achievement Portland.
“If you’re going to be documenting people’s names but not connecting them with any services or referring them to any kind of care, you’re not doing anything else but tracking them for law enforcement purposes,” says Justice Rajee, program manager for the Portland Opportunity Industrialization Center and member of the Black Male Achievement initiative. “That’s not an effective use of that data, if the data is even accurate.”
The website for Portland’s Office of Youth Violence Prevention states that it “reflects the emphasis on attacking the root causes of problems in neighborhoods, rather than simply focusing on policing efforts,” which runs counter to the hunt-them-down and lock-them-up approach that Sessions seems eager to impose on cities such as Portland. But Portland’s criminal justice community is doing just fine without Sessions’ help.
“Where the present police bureau is right now with its new chief and where the mayor is at, I don’t think they’re going to move towards the Sessions way of doing things,” says Rajee. “There’s strong community support right now and Sessions didn’t convince people that that’s the way things should go and to drop our plans moving in the other direction.”
Meanwhile, the opioid crisis has claimed far more lives than guns have in these cities. Sessions was concerned about the 34 people killed in Portland in 2015, but 50 people died from overdosing on fentanyl alone that year—an opioid 50 times as powerful as heroin. This can’t pinned solely on gang violence. They are not the originating plug for the opiate pills.
Sessions acknowledged as much himself last week, when he faulted doctors over-prescribing opiates as “one of the major reasons this drug epidemic began in the first place” while delivering talks in Harrisburg and West Virginia. He noted that in his home state of Alabama that there have been “more painkiller prescriptions than Alabamians for over a decade,” and the highest per capita rate of prescriptions of any state for the last five years.
To that end, Sessions announced that the Justice Department was committing $20 million to its war on opiate drugs and unveiled two new tools in that fight. The first one is a data analytics program to help law enforcement officials locate physicians who are over-prescribing opiate pills, and to identify where patients are dying within 60 days of a prescription. The other tool is a team of prosecutors trained to focus on a dozen “hot spots” around the nation where opioid prescription abuse is most prevalent. They will go after pharmaceutical companies and “pill mill” physicians alike.
These doctors and pharmacists are far more responsible for far more deaths in the U.S. than people with guns, and yet Sessions is just now getting around to focusing on them, nine months into Trump’s presidency. Meanwhile, virtually every week has been gang violence week for Trump since his first few weeks in office. One of his first orders was for Sessions to assemble task forces on violent crime and immigration, both of which are often lumped together in Trump’s speeches and policies. The crime task force has been meeting in secrecy and has been passing along recommendations to Sessions that have not been divulged to the public.
“The Justice Department should publicly release these recommendations given the significant expected changes in drug, sentencing, and immigration policy,” said Inimai Chettiar, director of the Brennan Center’s Justice Program. “Many of the Department’s recent policy changes have been solutions in search of a problem, and are only going to make our crime and mass incarceration problems worse.”
That much is evident given that Trump has allowed Sessions to unfurl policing practices that have been lambasted and deemed unlawful by liberals and conservatives alike in the name of fighting crime. If the Trump administration talked about the opioid crisis the way it talks about violent crime then it would have been tracking and hunting down, from day one, those responsible for flooding cities with opiate drugs with the same ferocity he’s gone after gang members. Instead, the Justice Department is now hobbled by a Drug Enforcement Administration whose leader just announced he is resigning.
The fact that opioids claim more lives than bullets is true for most cities, yet you wouldn’t know this from how the Trump administration targets its city policies.