On February 28, 2019, authorities seized 3,200 pounds of cocaine from a shipping container aboard the MSC Carlotta, which had arrived in Newark, New Jersey, after departing from Buenaventura, Colombia. The bust was touted as the largest cocaine seizure at the East Coast’s largest port, the Port of New York and New Jersey, in nearly 25 years. Law enforcement agencies wasted no time in circulating photographs of the bust—a container piled high with packages of cocaine, and officers stacking them on wooden pallets. The press release accompanying the release of the images contained no fewer than six celebratory quotes from various arms of law enforcement: “Not only did this interception save lives, but it also put an end to the violence often associated with drugs”; “This interception prevents a massive quantity of drugs from getting to the streets and in the hands of our children”; and so on.
Bombast aside, aesthetically, the photos were pretty tame. Anyone who consumes American media has seen much juicier drug-bust arrangements, vast arrays of contraband laid out on tables by police with apparent relish and artistic flair. Confiscated cash is meticulously fanned, drug baggies stacked in neat pyramids, guns propped on their butts, pointing to the sky—arrangements that, if they featured any other kind of object, might look at home in a store window. A 2017 police photograph of contraband seized in a raid in Miami-Dade County even shows a cluster of drugs in small blue baggies arranged in a clear glass bowl. After several agencies carried out an October 2018 bust in Delano, California, the haul was arranged around two seized handguns, angled at each other, a round baggie of drugs placed above each muzzle like punctuation.
This genre of photography has achieved a sort of iconic status, served up by national and local media on a regular basis as evidence of law enforcement’s victories in the drug war, as well as a titillating snapshot of illicit deeds. It is also a genre that predates digital photography by many decades. In 1884, the then 39-year-old New York Police Department produced a 562-page history of the force titled Our Police Protectors, which included a detailed section on the use of opium, then widely publicized as a scourge on society. Curious readers found detailed descriptions of opium smoking and engravings of scales, pipes, drugs, and other tools. In the 1920s, a photographer was admitted into a brick-walled room at NYPD headquarters, where he snapped the image above of men in suits feeding opium pipes and drugs into the belly of a furnace. During Prohibition, between 1920 and 1933, images of law enforcement posing with, and then destroying, caches of illicit alcohol and stills abounded.
But it was J. Edgar Hoover’s appointment as head of the Bureau of Investigation in 1924 and, later, as head of the FBI when it replaced that bureau in 1935 that really kicked off a new era of law enforcement propaganda and media manipulation. Hoover cultivated a PR machine, making alliances with the press in order to disseminate a specific image of the tough G-man engaged in thrilling battle with murderous gangsters. He also spread his pro-Feds message through radio, FBI-approved books, and, later, through his work consulting on the fictionalized ABC show The F.B.I.
Harry J. Anslinger—who in 1930 was appointed inaugural head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, a precursor to the Drug Enforcement Administration—followed suit, tailoring Hoover’s tactics to his own agency’s mission. He worked with sympathetic reporters and outlets to publish sensational stories about drug use, launching an aggressive campaign against cannabis in the 1930s. In 1937, Congress passed the Marihuana Tax Act, effectively criminalizing the drug. Public relations didn’t just polish the image of law enforcement, it had helped produce real results.
“I think that both J. Edgar Hoover and Harry Anslinger understood that there was a fair amount of voyeurism in the stories they were peddling to the press,” says historian Kathleen J. Frydl, author of the 2013 book The Drug Wars in America, 1940-1973. And while Anslinger’s Bureau of Narcotics may not have trafficked in photography as heavily as the DEA does now, Frydl adds, “the drug-bust photo is heir to that sort of voyeurism ... it’s a glimpse at a world that most ordinary people wouldn’t otherwise see.”
Coordination between media and law enforcement wasn’t restricted to federal agencies; it happened on a municipal level, too. In 1941, LIFE magazine ran a long story on narcotics that featured an NYPD raid on the Bronx home of a couple accused of heroin dealing, meticulously chronicled in photographs—images that would not exist without some degree of partnership between the cops and the magazine. By 1951, the Los Angeles Examiner was running hammy photos like the one above, of a police lieutenant and a sheriff’s secretary, both of them grinning and posing with sacks of marijuana. A 1954 photo from New York shows both federal agents and local police clustered before a table upon which guns, heroin, and implements are carefully arranged—an early example of a now-standard format.
Displaying and describing contraband has also served as a savvy way for law enforcement to obscure its racist tactics. In Frydl’s book, she recounts the 1953 bust of the D.C.-based heroin dealer Randolph “Catfish” Turner, a media sensation at the time. Turner was black, and the Bureau of Narcotics made sure to furnish the press with information about his comfortable lifestyle: newspaper accounts reported that he owned a maroon Cadillac, $700 drapes, and two television sets. “There was a lot of cultural detail in there that Harry Anslinger suspected correctly would elicit a backlash,” Frydl says. “Especially among white readers who would view a middle-class black person with hostility.”
The stakes of this public relations push are incredibly high. By some estimates, over the past four decades, the United States has poured over $1 trillion into a drug war that focuses on reducing supply and punishing users and sellers. This has done little to change drug use, while resulting in a crisis of mass incarceration. As of last year, 456,000 people, or one-fifth of the country’s incarcerated population, was serving time for a drug offense. Almost 80 percent of those people are black or Latino—even though white Americans’ drug-usage rates are nearly the same.
This past December, a bust photo taken by police in the small East Texas town of Tenaha went viral—not because of how impressive it was but because of how proudly it seemed to publicize a minuscule haul: the image shows four officers standing with a paltry collection of one- to 20-dollar bills, two pounds of marijuana, two handguns, empty Ziploc bags, and prescription pills, all confiscated from a local residence. The internet ate it up, though perhaps not in the way that the Tenaha cops had intended. “Is that drug money or gas money?” joked one Facebook commenter. (The money that was confiscated appeared to add up to about $80.) “Who was the drug dealer ... El Cheapo?” quipped another.
There were so many jokes about the photo, it might be easy to forget that this puny haul could have dire results. But according to the Tenaha police press release, the three 20-somethings arrested in the bust faced felony charges for possession—Texas law recommends two years in prison for the marijuana alone—and a combined bond of $30,000; in the months since their arrest, their story has dropped out of the news altogether. All we remember now is the image.