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Weekend Underground: Turncoat Narc

Michael May

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Barry Cooper with some illegal contraband
(Courtesy Barry Cooper)
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Before: Cooper cop training video on smuggling
(nevergetbusted)

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'
(nevergetbusted)

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.


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)

Comments

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  • By Robert Taylor

    From Baltimore, MD, 06/26/2008

    Kudos to Barry! Finally a police officer with a conscience that realizes harassing and arresting non-violent marijuana users is wrong!

    People point out that he is helping "criminals" break the law. Well I don't believe marijuana users are "criminals" in any sense of the word, regardless of what the law says.

    To say that I cannot smoke marijuana in the privacy of my own home is a barbaric law, not to mention unconstitutional. A "free country"? Yeah right.

    Me, a lifelong Republican, is voting Democrat this year simply because of the medical marijuana issue. The Feds are still raiding medical marijuana "dispensaries" in CA, even though under CA state law they are legal. McCain has said he would not stop the raids, and continue to harass sick people that need their medicine. Obama says that raiding the medical marijuana dispensaries is not an efficient use of law enforcement and will stop them.

    By craig venske

    From Ironton, MN, 06/25/2008

    I find this story inspiring. Police braking the bill of rights to make a miderminor arrest is scary, or should be, to every American, not just the pot smoking ones. And I'm shocked at some listers comments about pot being the "gateway drug"; alcohol is the gateway drug. It's cheaper, legal and more readily avalable. I say without pride or shame that i have sampled many drugs, legal and otherwise, and in my opinion alcohol is the one that poses the most danger. I have vivid memories of my times on LSD and psilocybin mushrooms. Yet several years of my life are fuzzy at best when i was drinking daily. And dispite all my sampling, today i only use marijuana and psilocybin. Everyone has a drug of choice, and as long as people on that drug don't pose a threat to others, the gov't has no right to restict it's use; "persuit of happiness"

    By Marcia Bryant

    From Cleveland, OH, 06/23/2008

    Regardless of how one feels on the legalization issue, this is classic civil disobedience. He's breaking a law that he feels is unjust. That's what people were doing in the 60's when they sat at segregated lunch counters. Pro-choice people did it with the Jane network.

    Given the injustices he inflicted on people, by his own admission, I find his turnaround fascinating. I'm looking forward to more of these segments.

    By Cullen Tanner

    From Andover, MN, 06/22/2008

    The number of comments posted here related to legalization of marajuana is really disturbing. Not that there's anything wrong with the position, but because the story had nothing to do with legalization.

    Mr. Cooper's story is about a man who is aiding criminals - whether or not these people ought to be classified as such is not the point. We don't break laws just because we find them inconvenient or distasteful.

    Please listen for what is and is not being said. Careful, your bias is showing.

    By robert hildreth

    From charlotte, NC, 06/22/2008

    The legalization of marijuana is WAY overdue. One sad irony in reguard to access is that it seems that kids we seem so eager to protect from the "evils of the wicked weed" have the easiest time obtaining it. If you are an adult and want to smoke pot, and are not in a circle of adults with connections, what are you going to do? Wait, I know! Let's go ask the neighbor kids! Their back from school and I hear they linked on some dank Sour Diesel!!!

    By Leo Cornwell

    From Donnelly, ID, 06/21/2008

    When I was a kid, I learned that marijuana, the devil weed, would turn
    you into a murdering, screaming rapist.
    (Courtesy of Uncle Sam.) Then I heard that Robert Mitchum had been arrested for using "The Devil Weed" I expected to
    hear of his hanging for rape, murder etc
    but nothing like like that happened. Thus began the first lesson in my education, never believe anything the government tells you. THEY LIE. Since then I have found that anyone who is
    anti marijuana legalization, LIES. Therefore I conclude; "All those who have been arrested and persecuted by our various legal entities, are victims of LIARS."

    By Fritz Fritzstopherson

    From Raleigh, NC, 06/21/2008

    Way to go Barry. Anybody with half a brain cell knows that pot should be legal. The only reason it is not is because pharmaceutical and alcohol producing companies lobby to keep it illegal.

    By Jonas Nicholson

    From Seattle, WA, 06/21/2008

    The inequity in the way America's drug laws are enforced is as harmful to our society as the drugs themselves. This is particularly true of marijuana. A disproportionate number of poor and minority “offenders” are put behind bars, while affluent, white Americans are almost always let off with less than a slap on the wrist.

    While there is some evidence to support the claim that pot is a gateway drug, we need look no further than our legal system’s drug classifications to understand why. If the law tells young people that pot is an illegal drug, just like heroin, and they find out that pot isn’t that bad, why would they believe us when we tell them that heroin is? Furthermore as a result of our failed drug policies, young people are turning more and more to America’s pharmaceuticals companies to get high, with far more dangerous results.

    Mr. Cooper is a brave American willing to stand up for our constitution when it is unpopular to do so. That kind of true compassion is rare, and discouraged among those perpetrating this war on our fellow Americans.

    By Janis Pulliam

    From Los Angeles, CA, 06/21/2008

    Bravo for Mr. Cooper! I see his actions as a form of civil disobedience, challenging laws of dubious constitutionality. I agree with Joseph above - it's time to end the madness. Making consumption of arbitrarily defined mind-altering substances illegal is invasive and futile. The so-called war against drugs has cost American taxpayers billions of dollars without any noticeable return on their investment. The mere fact of the illegality of the substances guarantees that there will continue to be a corrupt, incredibly lucrative, ruthless cartel that caters to their users. The huge amounts of money involved seduce the very people who are supposed to be controlling the substances. I believe this applies to all banned substances, but with marijuana it seems particularly absurd given the benign effects of marijuana use.

    By Dabney Braggart

    From Boston, MA, 06/21/2008

    I think the drug laws are ridiculous, but this story is a bit troubling. Laws do a lot of things I like, at least in theory: protect the physically and economically weak and the unpopular, and form the basis for a relatively stable world in which I have a chance to grow and prosper without guarding my property twenty-four hours per day, seven days per week.

    It speaks to the essential immaturity and real unfairness of the drug laws that 1.) a decently conscientious officer of the law should find it necessary to subvert the law in the course of its enforcement, 2.) get in trouble for enforcing the law against a privileged member of society, and 3.) find himself making a life encouraging law-breaking.

    The first of these is particularly significant: what is a law if its enforcement nearly guaranties that our fundamental rights will be violated? The second is emblematic of the nasty compromise we've made on drugs: we generally won't put rich, respectable, white, citizens in jail for minor posession, allowing us to keep the laws in place for use against the people we know are disposable, basically born guilty of _something_ . The third partakes a bit of the tragic: I'm sure Mr Cooper could still do a good job protecting life and property, but instead he is assisting both decent people trying to avoid unfair punishment but also, unfortunately and inevitably,the often vicious individuals who flock to the drug trade.

    Laws against private moral "crimes" not only wreck the lives of those against whom they're used, but poison that respect for the Law necessary for the maintenance of a decent society.

    By Cullen Tanner

    From Andover, MN, 06/21/2008

    I've worked with young people for almost 10 years, and I've seen first hand how pot works as a gateway drug. I've seen kids who start off with cute hemp hats and Bob Marley t-shirts endure multiple inpatient treatments without success and even alienate themselves from the friends and family who want to help them. Perhaps there are those who can indulge in a little bit of 'forbidden fruit' without it entangling the rest of their lives, but on the whole, it is certainly not a bit of harmless fun. A responsible citizen ought to either fight against drugs or fight for their legalization so that they are under government control. But Barry Cooper's approach is entirely unacceptable, as he aids the criminals whom I thank for destroying the young lives that I try so hard to care for.

    By Nina Hathaway

    From Grand View, ME, 06/21/2008

    I'm not sure I totally agree with Barry in providing large volume smugglers information on how to avoid the law...but it's definitely time to stop ruining people's lives for petty non-violent possession charges. If the money that was spent on the 'drug war' was spent on taking drunk drivers off the streets, we would all be living in a safer world.

    By Ari Britt

    From Chapel Hill, NC, 06/21/2008

    As someone who has worked with teen- agers I really think it's time this 'drug' was legalized, it doesn't cause violence, it doesn't cause road accidents, it's less harmful than tobacco or too many beers.
    Kids try this and think ' hey this is cool and it doesn't turn me into a violent zombie, maybe the law lied about all those other drugs as well', we all know where that leads.
    It also leads to the inequality of a murderer getting less 'time' than a kid that uses a harmless leaf.

    By joseph formhals

    From erving, MA, 06/21/2008

    There is also a group called LEAP [law enforcement against prohibition]
    It's time to end the madness.
    END PROHIBITION.treatment is cost effective vs punitive measures.

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