It takes a certain courage for a person to take an unflinching look at their life’s work, a cold, forensic, unwavering look. Most people simply don’t have the guts to do so, perhaps fearing that they might come up wanting. Neil Woods is not most people. Neil spent fourteen years infiltrating drug gangs as an undercover police officer; he put his life on the line many a time, he was responsible for the capture, prosecution and conviction of numerous dangerous criminals. And yet when he took that critical look at his life’s work he could only conclude one thing: that it was a complete waste of time. That the war on drugs had failed, that his part in it had failed.
Perhaps I’m being a bit harsh. Reading Good Cop, Bad War, it’s clear that more than a few of the people he helped convict needed to be taken off the street. These were dangerous and deeply unpleasant people. Throughout his deployments in towns and cities across the UK he dealt with psychopaths and villains who preyed on addicts, torturing, maiming and killing those who crossed them. The violence these people displayed was gratuitous and ugly, the contempt they showed their victims heartless and inhumane. And Neil did take them off the streets, and was very effective at doing so. But herein lay the problem: no matter how often he knocked a villain off his perch (I say “he” for they most often were men), no matter how many he took down, there was always another to take their place.
Right from the beginning of Good Cop, Bad War, Neil comes across as an idealist. He joined the police wanting to “fight the good fight”, to help the downtrodden. He writes about being appalled by the casual racism he encountered, first at training college and later in various deployments, and the attitudes some officers held towards addicts, down and outs, and other vulnerable communities. Throughout his accounts of his various deployments he writes with compassion for the addicts he encountered, describing their characters and personalities. This is a man with real empathy for the people he was trying to help, an outlook that is seriously at odds with most books penned by former police officers.
In fact, this is something that sets apart this remarkable work. I’ve read numerous police biographies, not a few by undercover officers, and none show such sensitivity to the people they met. Many such accounts demonstrate a jaded cynicism, combined with a macho posturing. There is little of that here and it’s a refreshing change. This ability to emphasise with the underdog might explain how the doubts started, it is certainly the case that Neil found it difficult when the very addicts he felt for were rounded up with the hardened gangsters when an operation came to a close. The powers that be saw little difference between an addict dealing to fund their habit and the gun-toting thugs a rung above and would charge them both just as happily. And unlike many of his colleagues, this stuck in Neil’s craw.
But it’s the sheer illogicality of the war on drugs that finally broke him. As a former current affairs journalist I can sympathise. For facts are facts and prohibition isn’t working. This is demonstrable on any measure. ON average street prices have fallen year in year, a clear demonstration that interdiction isn’t preventing drugs from reaching our shores. The population of addicts is rising. Violence in our inner cities is as bad as ever - while crime rates as a whole are falling, knife crime and gun crime is hardly a thing of the past on the sink estates that dot British cities.
What’s most alarming is the point Neil demonstrates with painful clarity: that police action drives much of this. Gangs have learnt the lessons of undercover policing, informants, etc. During his career he witnessed increased brutality, violence meted out to addicts who spoke out, or even who introduced a stranger to their dealer. Corruption within the police is also driven by the huge profits generated by drugs. Neil recounts how at one point, while chasing a major league dealer in Manchester, he came into contact with a secret squad of twelve police officers. This squad had been specifically set up to pursue this gangster in utmost secrecy, so fearful was the Commissioner of the Greater Manchester force that corrupt officers might tip the man off. How have we come to such a situation, Neil asks? That a secret squad has to be set up to guard against corruption.
It will be tempting for those in favour of prohibition to paint Neil Woods as a limp-wristed, bleeding-heart liberal. But this couldn’t be further from the truth. Throughout his career he got results, got the job done, locked up some really bad people. Indeed, there is no doubt that some of those involved in the drug trade are vicious bullies and would be whatever the case, after all a bully is a bully, no matter what walk of life he or she is found. But it’s equally evident that drugs are the most profitable aspect of criminal behaviour, that without prohibition the money gangsters could make would be much reduced. In fact, I would argue that Neil’s stance that something has to change, as well as being personally brave in that it calls into question much of his former achievements, is actually tougher on criminality than the prohibition brigade. For what hurts criminals more than an attack on their wallets? Find a solution to the drug problem, rob the villains of their incomes, and one does more damage to organised crime than any number of convictions. Less money from drugs means less money to invest in other criminal activity, too.
To be clear, Neil doesn’t argue for simple legalisation, he doesn’t want to see crack and heroin sold in Tesco’s. In fact he’s honest enough to admit to not knowing all the answers. He points to Portugal where simple possession of drugs has been decriminalised (not possession with intent to supply, e.g. dealing) and states in America where Cannabis has effectively been legalised, as pointing to possible solutions. But what he does insist on is a debate. For make no mistake, as this book abundantly makes clear, current policy has failed.
A painfully honest and touching memoir, this books is a must read for anyone even remotely concerned by the issues raised.