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Cops making crack makes little sense

April 26, 1989

"It's sort of like making fudge."

Lab director of the Broward Sheriffs Office, explaining his recipe for crack cocaine.

So Broward County is manufacturing its own crack. Why not? Nothing better illustrates the misguided, haphazard state of the so-called war on drugs.

Talk about mixed-up priorities. Talk about headline-grabbing. Talk about a Keystone Kops mentality. Naturally you're talking about Nick Navarro, Sheriff Willie Wonka himself.

Of all the goofball stunts he's tried (including his comical TV partnership with Geraldo Rivera), a crack factory is the screwiest of all.

In a seventh-floor lab of the Broward Sheriffs Office, a county chemist cooks up a plate of fresh crack cocaine. The crack is cut into $20 rocks, packaged in tiny plastic baggies and sold on the streets. Sold by cops. When people come up to buy, they get busted.

You might wonder why no other law enforcement agency in the country has tried this clever scheme. There are plenty of reasons, starting with common sense.

The technique by which undercover cops "sell" drugs is known as a reverse sting, tricky enough under the best of circumstances. Typically, police officers posing as drug sellers must display or "flash" a package of real dope to the prospective buyers. Once the deal is made and money changes hands, the cops can make the arrests.

The danger is obvious: rip-offs. The bad guys arrive not with cash, but with guns. The plan is to steal the cocaine and take off. This is what happened when Miami Beach officer Scott Rakow was murdereda reverse sting gone bad. Years ago, DEA agents nearly lost a truckload of marijuana when a reverse sting turned into a bloody rip-off at a South Dade warehouse.

Suppose a Broward Sheriff's Office deputy trying to sell dope gets robbed, and suddenly some dirtbag is loose on the street, peddling Navarro-brand crack to school kidscrack manufactured by the same people who are supposed to be taking it off the streets.

Why is Broward cooking its own? Officers say they aren't confiscating enough crack to use in big drug stings. Not enough crack? Other urban police departments have no trouble seizing plenty. There's not exactly a shortage of the stuff, especially in South Florida.

Another problem is honesty. The Broward crack lab relies on the assumption that every officer who comes in contact with the cocaine will be straight and pure. In a dream world this might be true, but virtually every local law enforcement agencyfrom the DEA to the Sweetwater policehas suffered the scandal of drug corruption.

All it takes is one crooked cop and you've got more dope on the streets. Grade-A government dope.

An experienced DEA agent voices a different concern about cops making their own crack: What will happen when these cases go to court? If a fed-up judge trashes the Navarro scheme, it could affect all reverse-sting operations. Such a court decisionover a lousy $20 rockcould cripple many multimillion dollar cocaine investigations.

A second-year law student could have a field day attacking the crack lab: "And where did these drugs come from, Deputy Smith?"

"Uh, we made it ourselves."

"Really? So you manufactured the cocaine. You took it out on the street. You offered it to my client for sale. Yet my client is the one who gets arrested!"

The question that inevitably will be raised in court: By creating the drugs, are the cops creating the crime? Have they crossed the line between enforcement and entrapment? And for what15 seconds of glory on the local news.

Imagine, in the days of Prohibition, if the government decided to open its own distillery. Brewed up a batch of hooch, bottled it, parked a truck on the streets of Chicago and offered everybody a snoot. You don't think the jails would have overflowed in two hours?

Blockbuster statistics, sure, and big headlinesbut absolutely no dent in the problem.

Everybody expects cops to seize dope. Nobody expects them to make the stuff. Just try to convince a South Florida jury that there isn't enough crack out there already.


Mason jars won make roads safer February 17, 1989 | Kick Ass: Selected Columns of Carl Hiaasen | U.S. murder of drug lords invites chaos June 12, 1989