Weekend Underground: Turncoat NarcJUNE 21, 2008
- Barry Cooper with some illegal contraband
- (Courtesy Barry Cooper)
- View the Slideshow
- Before: Cooper cop training video on smuggling
Today we kick off a new series, Weekend Underground, where we explore the dark underbelly of the American weekend. We'll look at some of the nation's favorite vices -- drugs, sex and violence -- and we'll start today with drugs.
- After: Cooper reveals a police dog 'false positive'
Congress is on the verge of approving a new round of grants to fund the nation's drug task forces, even though the actions of some of those task forces have sparked numerous civil rights scandals. Reporter Michael May brings us the story of one former drug task force member who's staying on the front lines of the drug war -- but in his own peculiar way.
- Good News, Bad News, No News
- Spending the Stimulus Money
- Foreclosure Double Punch
- The End of Weekend America
More From Michael May
Former Texas narcotics officer Barry Cooper leans close to the window of a helicopter flying just outside Dallas. He spots the signs of a hidden marijuana field below -- a trail leading from a water source to a clearing in the woods. He touches down, follows a trail through a hole cut in a fence, and finds what he's looking for.
"Here's a female plant," he says, pointing to a marijuana stalk. "It's already budding out... And here's another."
This scene is part of Cooper's "Never Get Busted Again" DVD series. In this episode, he lets marijuana growers know how to plant their crops so they won't be spotted from the air. "Don't grow pot in rows," he says. "It's much safer to plant four or five plants in one area and then move 50 yards and plant three or four more."
Cooper's long, strange trip from enforcer to enabler began when he joined a small eastern Texas police department when he was 21 years old. "I thought I had the greatest job in the world -- I was the young hot shot narcotics cop," he says. "It was thrilling for a young man being thrown in that game."
A video from a mounted police car camera shows what Cooper was like in those days: short hair, mustache and a cocky expression on his face as he stares down the driver he's stopped. "Where's the marijuana at? Did those ladies smoke some? Don't lie to me," he says in his thick Texas accent. "Their eyes are pretty red."
Eventually, he was recruited by a drug task force in western Texas. He admits he used questionable tactics in an attempts to up his arrests. He wasn't the only one -- Texas drug task forces caused so many scandals that the state pulled their funding in 2006.
Cooper admits he would pull over drivers based on the color of their skin. He would pretend his dog smelled drugs so he could search a car. He says he abused the power that came with his position. "Manipulating harmless, nonviolent citizens with such fear that they would snitch their own brother out to avoid losing their job and family and going to prison," he says. "That's not right. That's wrong."
As Cooper got older, he started to question what he was doing. He noticed that no matter how many arrests he made, the number of people using and selling drugs never seemed to change. And then he got curious about the people he was arresting -- the pot smokers, in particular, never seemed to pose much of a threat to society.
"And I wondered what the big deal was," he says. "Because there was so many people smoking pot. I was catching everybody."
Cooper kept his views to himself. But then he arrested a city council member and the mayor's son for drugs. After the political fallout, his superiors made it clear that his days as a cop were numbered. But before he left the force, Cooper wanted to try the weed he'd spent a decade stamping out.
"So I pinched a bit from the supply I was using to train my dogs, and my wife at the time and I smoked it," he says. "I thought it was the neatest thing since sliced bread, so for my last three months I didn't make any marijuana arrests."
After he left the force, he himself became the target of questionable arrests. Cooper was even was jailed for not returning DVDs on time -- "Jeepers Creepers 1" and "Jeepers Creepers 2." "Horrible choice in movies, my bad, but I didn't deserve to go to jail for it," he says. "And I saw that the courts were doing nothing to protect our Fourth Amendment rights against these unreasonable searches and arrests."
So Cooper decided to do something about it: He started producing instructional videos. His first one, "Never Get Busted Again: Traffic Stops," offers these tips: Always carry a cat in the car, it confuses the dogs, and transport drugs in the rain, because not even cops like to get wet.
Cooper saw it as a way of giving the victims of the drug war a way to fight back. The instructional videos have landed him on TV, including Fox News. "You are teaching drug thugs, not users," a commentator said to Cooper on a Fox news roundtable. "And it's not a protest. You're making money. You're exploiting people."
"No, you're wrong," Cooper responded. "I'm pouring the money back into my efforts to legalize pot."
Commentators have accused him of everything from encouraging teenagers to hide their drug use to aiding and abetting terrorists. Cooper's extreme methods have even alienated him from mainstream pro-marijuana advocates. But he's not giving up. He's put out a call on his Web site to get in touch with anyone he'd arrested.
A man he had arrested for possession at a traffic stop responded. Cooper invited him to his house and asked for his forgiveness. And then they got stoned together -- "which is thought was neat," he says. "It was bittersweet, though. Here I am, sitting in front of a man who had no reason to forgive me. The harm I caused on him... That feels good, but it hurts at the same time."
Cooper's now traveling to courtrooms across the country, using his expertise to testify against cops who have trained their dogs to do false alerts. And he's running for Congress as a Libertarian in his deeply conservative eastern Texas district. He wants to reform the criminal justice system, and he's funding his campaign by using the money from his DVD sales.
- Music Bridge:
- Open File
- Artist: Vibert and Simmons
- CD: Rodulate (Rephlex)