“The Remorseful Cop”
Jack Cole is a founding member of LEAP and a leader of the drug policy reform movement. He is a family man – a husband, father and grandfather. He is also a deeply remorseful cop who entered into a law enforcement career hoping to change the world and was ultimately filled with regret over his role in the “war on drugs” and the lives that were destroyed as a result.
One unforgettable chapter in my career began one night in a Paterson, New Jersey ghetto. I, accompanied by a police informant named “Fast Eddie,” drove up to three black teenage dealers hoping to purchase heroin. Not long after we pulled up, the three teens attempted to rob us and the encounter quickly escalated towards violence. Knives and guns were drawn, and while I was able to deescalate the incident without fatalities, Fast Eddie’s hand was sliced during the exchange and the three teens ran off. Luckily, another young black man approached our car to see if we needed help. He saw Fast Eddie’s bloody hand and offered to bring bandages.
He shared that he “hated drugs” and was “going to school” with plans to come back and put an end to the infiltration of drugs in his community. However, to complete my undercover mission that night, I still needed to make a hand-to-hand heroin buy, so, knowing he would be able to finger the local dealer, I told the young man I was sick and needed a fix bad. The young man reiterated his hate for drugs, but I kept pushing and he took pity on me. He led me to a dealer down the block and I was able to make my purchase.
About a month later, after I had bought heroin from roughly a hundred street dealers, a police raid was organized. At 5:00 AM, three hundred police officers swooped into Paterson, serving warrants to everyone from whom I had bought drugs, kicking down their doors and dragging them out in chains. There are too many arrests in the war on drugs for our court system to handle them all, so there’s a lot of pressure on defendants to take plea bargains rather than exercise their constitutional right to a fair trial (more than 90% of defendants currently plead out). As a result, the state police required undercover officers to be present when the accused dealers were booked so the defendants could see who was behind the arrest, and be more inclined to take a deal. I stood there and watched as dozens of people I had temporarily befriended realized I had deceived and betrayed them.
This was never easy – friendship is not a one-way street; in order to get these dealers to like me, I had to find something I liked in them. But this time sticks out in my head because as I was standing there, in walked the Good Samaritan, cuffed, barefoot, and still wearing his pajamas. He had been in my report, but I’d never imagined the department would have used it to arrest him. Upon seeing me, he realized what had happened and his eyes widened in surprise. His eyes never left mine as he walked down the hall, and when he came close to me, he stopped, his face inches from mine, and said quietly, “Man, I was only trying to be your friend.” He shook his head, “Only trying to be your friend.”
I don’t know what happened to him, but with a conviction record it would have been much more difficult for him to get student loans, it would have been more difficult for him to get a job. As dedicated as that young man was, as much as he wanted to save his community from the scourge of drug abuse, I doubt he was able to. Everything in his life changed that day. His potential, and that of his community, would never be the same. And it was because of me.
This story, and hundreds more like it, weighed heavily on me over time. In 2002, I began actively attending drug policy reform conferences looking for my opportunity to make a difference. After meeting other law enforcement professionals as disillusioned and angry as I was, the idea for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition was born. Beginning with just 5 cops, 12 years later LEAP is now recognized as a leader in drug policy reform, bringing unparalleled credibility to the drug policy reform movement, an international organization with more than 100,000 supporters.
Most importantly, drug laws and the perception of drug policy in this country – and around the world – are starting to change. In 2012, Colorado and Washington State became the first places in the world to legalize the sale and possession of marijuana for recreational use. At the end of 2013, Uruguay followed by becoming the first country to legalize the marijuana trade. Momentum is building and people want change.
I am now 75 years old and I believe that in my lifetime I will see more states across the U.S. legalize marijuana. I also expect to see some countries around the world legalize all drugs as a means to end the unnecessary violence, loss of life, and misuse of funds brought on by the disastrous War on Drugs.
I can’t undo the past; but I’m working every day to change the unjust policies I once enforced. Recently, after one of my LEAP presentations, a mother whose son suffers from heroin addiction approached me. She called me a hero. I replied, “You don’t understand. I’m not a hero. I do this out of guilt.”