Rethinking the war on crime

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McGill Reporter
March 21, 2002 - Volume 34 Number 13
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Home > McGill Reporter > Volume 34: 2001-2002 > March 21, 2002 > Rethinking the war on crime

Rethinking the war on crime

Tom Naylor isn't so sure that Osama bin Laden did it. He thinks organized crime isn't nearly as organized as we're led to believe. And he worries about the threats posed by a heavily armed group that doesn't seem to care much about civil rights or the niceties of property law - that group being the police.

Photo Economics professor Tom Naylor
PHOTO: Owen Egan

Enter Naylor's office, and you'll notice rows and rows of files dedicated to a wide assortment of criminal activities, shady dealings and suspect characters. His expertise in this terrain is widely acknowledged - UN officials, federal government bureaucrats and forensic accountants have all sought out his views.

Mind you, they often don't like what he has to say. "Cops hate me," offers Naylor.

Naylor's new book, Wages of Crime: Black Markets, Illegal Finance and the Underworld Economy (McGill-Queen's University Press), isn't likely to make police officials feel any more kindly towards the acerbic economics professor. According to Naylor, law enforcement agencies often use slippery statistics and puffed up notions of criminals' power to create fear about an assortment of bogeymen - the Russian mob, the Colombia drug cartel, biker gangs.

The media, ever eager for a juicy story, follow along, suggests Naylor. The ensuing nervousness often leads to tougher laws and bigger budgets for law enforcement.

While police forces paint a grim picture of a tightly run Mafia that operates on a global scale, Naylor says the facts point in another direction.

The mob, according to Naylor, is more like a Rotary Club than an all-powerful multinational.

The Mafia (like biker gangs and drug cartels) is really a host of smaller groups that share a loose affiliation with one another. They'll cooperate when it's in their best interests, but they usually stick to their own relatively small operations.

A "godfather" of sorts often emerges, but he is far from being a god-like Brando figure. He mediates conflicts, oversees an "insurance" fund for members who are imprisoned or killed in the course of their activities, and organizes efforts where cooperation makes sense - bribing a key official, for instance.

But the godfather is often ignored, his power is far from absolute, and he doesn't amass a Midas-like fortune for his efforts.

Famous New York don John Gotti enjoyed a comfortable upper-middle-class existence, but authorities never turned up the sort of wealth he was widely rumoured to have assembled. Naylor thinks it's because the job just doesn't pay all that well.

In his book, Naylor writes about encountering one of the UN officials responsible for the now-famous estimate that the world trade in illegal drugs is worth $500 billion each year.

When pressed by Naylor, the official fessed up that the estimate was based on pretty flimsy evidence. But, the official added, it was great for catching public attention.

When asked what he would do if he could be justice minister for a day, Naylor is quick to respond.

"I would take all the drug legislation away from the criminal code and move it to the regulatory side. I would purge the criminal code of lots of offences - just strip it down to the things where there is a broad consensus that something is wrong and there is a clear understanding of the damage that's done by these acts."

Naylor thinks law enforcement agencies spend far too much time and money on what he describes as "market-based crimes." The focus, he argues, should be on crimes where there are clear victims and where damage and suffering have clearly occurred - murder, rape, theft, assault.

Market-based crimes are murkier terrain. Do we all agree that gambling that isn't sanctioned by the government is far worse than gambling that is sanctioned by the government?

"If someone wants to smoke a joint, there is no clear social consensus on whether that's right or not," reasons Naylor.

And busting the people who supply illegal drugs or illicit sex to willing consumers isn't an effective way to cut crime in any case.

"If you get rid of a few dope dealers, you don't get rid of the dope users," Naylor says. "If someone wants dope, if someone wants to gamble, they'll just look for another source. All you're doing is changing the identity of the supplier."

But doesn't cocaine ruin people's lives? Shouldn't we try to stamp out the trafficking of such substances?

"Valium ruins some people's lives," responds Naylor. Alcohol and cigarettes do, too.

In his book, he writes, "Unless it can be established that a drug user...was forcibly held down and injected, not once, not twice, but often enough to create a heroin addiction, it must be assumed the user is just as much a consensual participant in the criminal marketplace as anyone on the supply side."

Naylor professes his nervousness about a popular new weapon in the law enforcement agencies' arsenal - taking away the proceeds of crime from alleged drug dealers and mob bosses.

Thanks to new laws in the U.S. and Ontario, cops can swoop in on a suspected Tony Soprano and take away the keys to his Cadillac. An envious RCMP, says Naylor, is currently lobbying for similar powers.

Trouble is, suggests Naylor, these laws "have a terrible effect on civil rights." Unlike criminal cases, where the accused must be proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, these laws tend to require only "the balance of probability," a much lower and looser threshold of evidence.

In some cases, police budgets have been readjusted to acknowledge these laws as a new source of income - the cops get to keep what they seize.

This makes police forces predisposed to devoting their resources to these sorts of cases. If cops nab a rape suspect, they get nothing extra for the effort, reasons Naylor. But if they seize a suspected drug trafficker's yacht, their budget gets a nice dividend. Cops are being transformed from protectors of civil society into bounty hunters.

Naylor says some of the cases in the U.S. have yielded bizarre results - police forces running gambling dens and brothels that they have come into temporary possession of. At least one man has been killed in a "search and seize" police raid in the U.S. and Naylor knows of one instance in which a wheelchair-bound cancer patient had his specially equipped van seized when he was caught smoking marijuana.

As for Osama bin Laden...

In the book's last chapter, Naylor outlines the reasons why he believes the world's most wanted man isn't nearly as capable of funding international terrorism as most people believe.

Yes, his father was very rich when he died, but bin Laden had to share that inheritance with the family's business and with 19 brothers. He was also likely robbed of millions of dollars by corrupt Sudanese officials during his stay in that country.

Naylor paints bin Laden as a big mouth and a troublemaker, but doubts he had the kind of keen tactical mind required to plan an attack as well coordinated as the September 11 hijackings.

But what about the videotape where bin Laden talks about how only the trained pilots knew about the full plan when they boarded the planes - their fellow hijackers were in the dark.

It was the only logical way to carry out such an attack, says Naylor. The more people that knew the full details of such a strike beforehand, the greater the chance that somebody would spill the beans. Bin Laden was only stating the obvious.

Naylor worries that in the aftermath of the terrorist assaults, all sorts of suspect characters will be putting their own spin on "the war against terrorism."

"It's a very dangerous period," he says. Russia, China, India and many other countries have used September 11 as a justification for cracking down on opposition voices, "all claiming that 'Osama bin Laden slept here.'"

Naylor says the ongoing freezing of worldwide bank accounts suspected of being linked to terrorist activities is also problematic.

It's largely a wild goose chase, he says, noting that it was already happening well before September 11 and it didn't make a dent against the planning of that attack.

"It doesn't take money to carry out these acts, it only takes dedication. The only big expense was the training for the pilots."

The freezing of accounts is also likely to damage many legitimate Islamic charities which play a key role in alleviating the poverty suffered by many in the Muslim world.

Whenever police forces and politicians talk about the need for sweeping new powers to take on scary super-criminals, Naylor says citizens should always demand detailed proof of the peril before acquiescing.

By avoiding that kind of disclosure, Naylor writes, "police and prosecutors secure a big advantage. No one can prove they are wrong in their assessment of the threat."

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