Tuesday, May 27, 2014

"Busted" by Wendy Ruderman and Barbara Laker (2014)

There are no good guys in this book; save for the authors, Wendy Ruderman and Barbara Laker, 2 reporters who won the Pulitzer Prize in 2010 for their searing expose of corruption on the Philadelphia Police Force. After that, everyone else is; how shall I say it; tainted. Even the victims aren’t quite squeaky clean. Of course, the worst offenders are the cops, who are paid to “protect and serve”, but in the end only served themselves.

You’ve seen this whole story before, in every major city across the country; vice cops on a crime spree of their own, similar to the antics of Vic Mackey on the TV show “The Shield.” The police charged with protecting us all have gone astray in the misguided war against drugs. This is a war which they will never win; and don’t really want to. There’s too much “loose change” at the bottom of the ladder to be “harvested.”As I said, there are no good guys here. 

There are the bodega owners, who make money selling everything from “loosies”; single cigarettes at about 50 cents each, making a pack cost $10; to the little plastic baggies for packaging weed and crack cocaine. The bodega owners claim that they are used for valuable coins and jewelry, but they know better than that. In a neighborhood where you sell “loosies” there are no valuable coins or jewelry. And the discarded empty baggies end up in the street right by the bodegas, where the owners can see the litter. Nope, no good guy there.

Then there are the people in the neighborhood; who are in need of work that just isn’t available. I can almost justify their claim to “just be making ends meet in the only way that we can”, except when “making ends meet” comes to include $200 Air Jordan’s for your kids; among other luxury items which are not a legitimate expense in the struggle to survive. These are the people who live a life of comparative wealth while feeding off the “sickness” of their neighbors. Nope; no good guys there.

The politicians who campaign for office on the promises that they will clean it all up; then take office and don’t even show their faces on that side of town until the next election; are no exception. They live a life of privilege and know full well that they will never, ever really do anything for the poorest of the poor. These are the ones who give false hope to the truly disenfranchised, with no intent to do anything but take the taxpayers money. I know you weren't expecting a good guy there.

Barbara Laker and Wendy Ruderman have written a very terse and to the point book. It’s based on their experiences in covering what became known as the “Tainted Justice” series in the Philadelphia Daily News. They each went; individually in most cases; to the worst parts of the drug zones in search of the veracity of the story they were told by a police informant, Benny; as in Benny Blanco from the Bronx.

Benny claims that he was used by a corrupt police officer; who, along with his fellow officers and at least one relative; had created a cottage industry by using a Confidential Informant to point out different drug houses. He would then make the buy, the officers would document it, and then they would raid the house. It sounds pretty straightforward.

But what if the cops began to use the raids to rob the dealers instead of arresting them for all of the drugs? What if they were raiding houses on the pretext that the Informant had pointed them out when he hadn’t? What if one of the officers involved was using the raids as an excuse to sexually assault some of the wives and mothers of the accused? Would you call the police?

These are the tough questions faced by not only Benny and the other victims, but also by a whole bunch of local store owners who were the victims of police raids in which their security cameras were destroyed by police officers, who then stuffed their pockets with cash from the register and carried off cases of cigarettes and other merchandise. The owners of these stores were largely immigrants who would never trust the police back in their homeland. And when faced by this type of behavior here, they just assume it is business as normal.

Ms. Ruderman and Ms. Laker both have tough rows to hoe as they try to track down the culprits; even fearing for their lives at times.  The hours spent on the story even take a significant toll on Ms. Ruderman’s marriage. This is a book which will take you from the newsroom of the Daily News to the file room of the police department, and then into the seedy streets of the very worst areas of Philadelphia.  

The two fearless reporters develop one lead after another, eventually building a case which rocks the police department and catapults them to a Pulitzer Prize. But; in the end; nearly 4 years after the facts were laid bare and the Pulitzer won, not a single officer has been disciplined beyond being assigned to desk duty. I say it again; there are no heroes here. This is a good, gritty account of the absurdity of the war on drugs.

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