Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Crack House, by Harry Keeble and Kris Hollington

Wrote this off the cuff thinking it had just been published, alas only nine months late . . .

Harry Keeble is the pseudonym of a British police officer who led the Haringey Drug Squad for twelve months in 2000. Det Sgt Keeble's modus operandi was, uncommonly for the time, a direct one: He led his small team, often but not always accompanied by the police heavy mob, the SPG, the TSG, through the reinforced doors and blacked-out windows of 100 crackhouses in Haringey, arresting those that he could, confiscating drugs and closing them down, before as often as not returning weeks later to close them down again. This policy wasn't particularly an attempt to imprison the dealers, those arrested frequently got off, or received short sentences. Instead, the militancy was merely aimed at disrupting the crack cocaine industry, breaking the grip that the villains and addicts had gained over the area's residents. This went against the received wisdom - that rather than bother with street dealers, you need to cut off the big dealers - and it did take an inordinate amount of effort. At times Keeble estimates that he was shutting down three crack houses a week, plus smaller operations, involving planning and briefings, early morning and late evening raids, followed by hours of interviewing, searching and booking those captured. But the drop to zero of black-on-black shootings in Haringey in the wake of his campaign, and the dramatic decline of muggings and shootings in the area, provides him with ample justification for his tactics.

Keeble's descriptions of the raids themselves, the people that he comes across, the response of the top brass and the more general descriptions of the effect of the crack epidemic since the early 1990s make this a gripping read. Keeble is no boneheaded cop; university educated, he provides a reassuringly enlightened view of the world he barges into, and the history of police relations with the community around him. He has a good word to say about Bernie Grant, surely a police first. While he of course sees contentious issues, for instance the death of Roger Sylvester in a police cell, from the police's point of view, he manages to come across as about as reasonable a copper as you could hope to find arresting you at three in the morning in a dingy Tottenham squat. Alongside his story he tells those of some of the addicts: the teenage girls driven to prostitution by an overwhelming desire for crack, the yuppies sucked into the dark world through a combination of exotica and arrogance, the street dealers, whose dream of making big money out of drugs frequently turns out to be yet another pipe dream. The story, co-written with crime writer Kris Hollington, vividly brings to life the slums and slum life lurking only minutes away from leafy suburban London.

The book, and especially the depictions of the depravity to which so many addicts have so quickly fallen, provides a sobering tonic for those advocating legalisation of all drugs, as a leader in the Economist did last week. Faced with this sort of evidence, it would take a frighteningly brave politician to decriminalise cocaine. And Keeble gives no quarter towards that view: he believes that the war on drugs - so often written off even as we spend millions more pounds on it - can be won, that if we raided crack houses with as much vigour as he and his small, underfunded team managed, strangling the supply of crack on the streets, we would save the lives or souls of the junkies, and protect and improve the lives of ordinary residents hugely.

But what appears self-evident from reading the book, that "the drugs war can only be won by constant and forceful vigilance", becomes less so on on further reflection. The vast majority of destruction caused by drugs is hugely aggravated by their criminalisation. Crack itself was created by criminals looking to make their coke sell quicker and for more money. Take the criminals out of the equation and who is going to turn young girls onto crack in order to turn them into prostitutes, as he describes? Who is going to be unleashing wildly inaccurate machine guns in quiet London streets to gain control of a crack house, as he describes? Who else but criminals would cut open the belly of a drug mule who has died after a bag of coke burst in his stomach, retrieve the rest of the drugs and then leave him in an alley, as he describes? Crack is a devastating drug, no doubt, but the argument for criminalisation falls down when taken to its logical conclusion. Alcohol, for all its destruction, for all the madness, illness, violence and depravity that it has engendered, remains legal. Consider the gin craze of the 17th century - the introduction of a new, foreign, powerful concotion, wreaking ruin wherever it took hold. Sound familiar? Yet no policeman, not even Harry Keeble, would suggest that we need to make alcohol illegal. Not because alcohol is incapable of being abused, of destroying lives, but because criminalisation would be entirely counterproductive. The same is true, it is increasingly apparent, about drugs, even cocaine, even crack. Yet this book, as exciting at times perhaps as a lick of the crack pipe, made me think again, if not change my mind.