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Woman, 88, lost to 'drug war'

All wars have a way of creating collateral damage, as deskbound bureaucrats euphemistically call the dead innocents. Kathryn Johnston was collateral damage in America's misguided "war on drugs."

On Nov. 21, the 88-year-old woman was shot dead by Atlanta undercover police officers who crashed through her door after dark to execute a "no-knock" search warrant for illegal drugs. Living in a high-crime neighborhood, apparently frightened out of her wits, she fired at the intruders with a rusty revolver, hitting all three. That's according to the police account, which says the officers then returned fire, striking Johnston in the chest and extremities.

Because there are suggestions of police impropriety in the case, police Chief Richard Pennington has asked outside law enforcement agencies to review the actions of the narcotics officers. Pennington also suspended his entire narcotics squad, with pay, pending the outcome.

The investigation may reveal police incompetence, and it may reveal police malfeasance. Unfortunately, however, it is unlikely to point to the root cause of this tragedy: a foolish, decades-long effort to curb illegal drug use through arrests and incarceration. Raging on mindlessly, the war on drugs has caused untold collateral damage - leaving children fatherless, helping to exacerbate the spread of AIDS, and filling prisons with people who, with minimal rehabilitation, might be contributing to society rather than draining its resources.

That only begins to tally the destruction, much of it inflicted on black communities. While black Americans are no more likely to use illegal drugs than whites, they are disproportionately imprisoned for drug offenses. There are three basic reasons for that, according to the Sentencing Project, a Washington nonprofit that advocates alternatives to incarceration: the concentration of drug law enforcement in inner city areas; harsher sentencing policies for crack cocaine, used disproportionately by black Americans, than for powder cocaine; and the drug war's emphasis on law enforcement at the expense of prevention and treatment.

Whatever led Atlanta police to the small, burglar-barred house in a downtrodden Atlanta neighborhood - contradictory claims have been offered about the search warrant - it's clear that Johnston was no drug dealer. Even if she had been, her crimes would not have justified the intrusive and dangerous tactics police used. Those tactics flow from a failed policy that emphasizes arrests - any arrests, no matter the offender's stature in the drug-trade hierarchy or the size of the cache of drugs.

That strategy also heavily burdens black communities. According to the Sentencing Project's Ryan King, black drug users tend to engage in higher rates of stranger-to- stranger transactions. That makes it easy for police to pose undercover. "It's a lot easier to come off the streets, buy a couple of rocks and make an arrest," King said.

By contrast, targeting affluent users who buy from friends and acquaintances "would require a lot of police work, months or years of undercover efforts for one or two arrests," King said. Most police jurisdictions will choose the easier targets.

Of course, the criminal justice system isn't colorblind, either. Reams of research have shown that white men tend to get probation for nonviolent offenses more often than black and Latino men, who are more often sent to prison.

It's no wonder, then, that an estimated one-third of young black men are under the jurisdiction of the criminal justice system - in prison, on probation or on parole.

This country now imprisons its citizens at five to eight times the rate of most other industrialized nations, according to the Sentencing Project. We've learned nothing from the earlier period of Prohibition, which produced criminal gangs and an epidemic of lawlessness.

Meanwhile, for all the wreckage from this drug war, the use of illicit substances has declined slightly but not substantially.

And Kathryn Johnston? She's not the first victim of our foolish, futile war on drugs. Sadly, she won't be the last.

Cynthia Tucker is editorial page editor for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

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