Operation Pipeline

Operation Pipeline
[Image Description: The logo of the DEA with the text: U.S. Justice Department Drug Enforcement Administration around a simple drawing of an eagle]

by Ellanora Lerner 

Author’s Note: This piece is part of a series on the War on Drugs; other articles can be found here. If you are interested in contributing to the series or publishing accompanying artwork or creative pieces please let us know! (Contact information will be listed at the end of the piece)

The War on Drugs, is a United States government initiative that has existed since the 1970s and is meant to address illegal drug use through a ‘tough on crime’ approach including mandatory minimum sentences and increased funding for drug law enforcement. This broad initiative has increased the population of people incarcerated for drug crimes by 1,000 percent since 1980. And this increase has disproportionately harmed People of Color. Today, while “the majority of illegal drug users and dealers nationwide are white, three-fourths of all people imprisoned for drug offenses have been black or Latino” (Alexander 98). One of the ways this has happened is through Operation Pipeline. 

Operation Pipeline is a program funded by the United States Drug Enforcement Administration that continues to be a “basic course of instruction for uniformed patrol officers, detectives, agents, or investigators.” According to the DEA, the program started in 1984 when law enforcement officers noticed that people using the highways to traffic drugs tended to share “many characteristics, tendencies, and methods”. The operation gives training and support to law enforcement officers on drug laws and “key characteristics, or indicators” of drug traffickers. The goal is to prevent drug trafficking however, “it has been estimated that 95 percent of Pipeline stops yield no illegal drugs” (Alexander, 71). 

The characteristics that law enforcement are trained to look for are known together as a “drug-courier profile” and they are extremely broad. People can follow this profile by “traveling with luggage, traveling without luggage, driving an expensive car, driving a car that needs repairs, driving with out-of-state license plates, driving a rental car, driving with ‘mismatched occupants,’ acting too calm, acting too nervous, dressing casually, wearing expensive clothing or jewelry, being one of the first to deplane, being one of the last to deplane, deplaning in the middle, paying for a ticket in cash, using large-denomination currency, using small-denomination currency, traveling alone, traveling with a companion”, or following traffic laws too closely (Alexander, 71).

Because it is broad and subjective, profiles such as this can be easily influenced by discriminatory biases and “there is a mountain of evidence—independent of any single test—that implicit bias is real.”  This means that even when law enforcement officials don’t intend to discriminate, they often do. “Decades of cognitive bias research demonstrates that both unconscious and conscious biases lead to discriminatory actions” (Alexander 106). 

In addition, the United States Supreme Court has made it much harder for those who believe that they have been racially profiled to fight for their rights in court. In 1996 in the case of U.S. v. Whren, the Court “ruled that claims of racial bias could not be brought under the Fourth Amendment” (Alexander 109).  This means that the police are allowed to racially discriminate in who they pull over and search. 

The War on Drugs-and more broadly the politics, policies, and media coverage surrounding how the government addresses crime and drugs-is a complicated piece of modern American politics and history that is often not well-enough understood. Operation Pipeline is just one part of it. But to begin to fix the problem, we must understand how so many individual components work together to create the system that we have today.

//Reminder to contact us by DM @risenzine if you’re interested in contributing to the series//