Part of what made Breaking Bad work was a thread of plausibility amongst the violence. We spoke with a fan and former drug squad cop to test the show’s realism. //
For 13 years, starting in 1993, Dale Kirk roved the Waikato, catching crooks. He started as a beat cop, then joined serious crime unit the CIB in 1999, just as methamphetamine was making its first tentative forays into our drug culture, finally ending up in the drug squad.
Within a few short years meth was everywhere, and changed everything. Ordinary decent criminals became violent, and violent criminals completely unhinged. Eventually he quit, in part due to becoming disillusioned with policy toward drug use – where resource is poured into enforcement while rehabilitation is neglected. He subsequently became a real estate agent and did some contract work for a drug education business called Methcon, which helped businesses deal with the drug.
Methcon was founded by another drug squad veteran, Mike Sabin, who left it to become an MP, though just this week news broke that he was under investigation and is likely to need a new job in short order. Kirk, based in Tauranga, took over Methcon when Sabin left, and I called him on a Tuesday morning to talk with him about his career, and Breaking Bad, a show which dramatises the stakes and violence of the methamphetamine trade, and one which Kirk loves.
Do you recall when you first encountered meth. Obviously, it’s something that has kind of risen over the past twenty or so years?
Dale Kirk: I guess I don’t ever recall encountering it when I was a uniform cop. The early part of my career was mainly about cannabis, and I guess a bit of homebake heroin. It was when I went into the CIB in 1999 that I first started coming across it and getting involved in manufacturing paraphernalia at different search warrants.
What were your impressions of the drug, in a broad sense?
Dale Kirk: It just became really, really common. Almost overnight, That’s how it seemed at the time. And also, it was really interesting noticing the behavior of people that used the drug; people that perhaps you’d dealt with previously who had been relatively normal. Their behavior, even though they were criminals, and you’d been dealing with them from a criminal point of view, they were relatively normal. But it was interesting to notice the changes in first the physical appearance and also the behavior later on. They were very erratic, and able to get wound up very quickly, as opposed to being able to deal with them in a more calm nature. On the physical side, I think weight loss and that sort of thing is really obvious. They just let themselves go.
What were the kind of particular challenges of dealing with suspects who were meth users – how did it change policing for you?
Dale Kirk: From a physical point of view, it did make it more challenging. I recall a specific incident. A guy that we arrested at a search warrant at a house in Hamilton. He was kind of a skinny guy, normally you would expect be able to contain him. I’m six foot and solid built. He was probably 70 kilograms wringing wet, but he was under the influence of meth at the time, and that usually means they don’t feel pain.
It’s very difficult to contain someone who does not feel pain, because techniques you would use to get them to comply don’t work. It took four or five of us to actually manhandle this guy, to get him cuffed and control him. Which was amazing, because like I say, if you looked at the guy, you’d deal with him quite easily. It was interesting later on when he sort of settled down and came down from his meth high, he was in quite a bit of pain from all the bruising he got from the scuffle. But at the time, he just didn’t feel it.
You’re a big Breaking Bad fan, but obviously it would have been different for you versus a civilian watching it. What stood out?
Dale Kirk: The manufacturing side of things resonated with me, because if you watch the series beginning to end, at the beginning it’s very rudimentary, so the mix and methods that they use to cook the drug, which is really the majority of the labs that we find in New Zealand, were pretty much DIY-type home labs. But getting into the super labs-type situation is like nothing like anything that’s been found in New Zealand.
It was interesting watching it transition from innocent school teacher to the criminal mastermind towards the end. Also the behavior of those characters, particularly Jesse [Pinkman] is a classic example of a user. Especially earlier in the series, when he was battling with his addictions. Also his mates Skinny Pete and Badger – there’s a bit of dramatic license, but it’s quite typical of the kind of people that you do encounter.
Do you have a sense that there are some very big labs out there that you guys just haven’t been able to uncover?
Dale Kirk: I’ve always said that it was my opinion that there are large labs in New Zealand that just haven’t been found. And the reason for that is the amount of money involved. In New Zealand, we pay a premium for methamphetamine here, in terms of most other countries. I’ve seen sophisticated cannabis set-ups that would have cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to set up, and the profits that arise from cannabis are nothing compared to the profits from meth.
It’s a no-brainer, as far as I’m concerned, that if you want to set up a lab that was as sophisticated as something you might see on Breaking Bad, and you had had the money – you could do it, and no one would find it. It’s got to be happening, because the amount of meth on the streets. The amount of lab seizures remains high. But like I said, it’s always generally the least sophisticated and low end-type labs that have been found. I have no doubt that there will belarge scale, sophisticated labs that haven’t been identified.
We published a piece just now by an economist who talks about some of the economic elements of the show. He believes prohibition hasn’t worked, and that the police end up inadvertently operating as kind of cartel for gangs – because of the danger involved, they make it a more profitable enterprise for meth sellers. He also argues that having the same sentence for manufacturing and supply as murder means that you might as well commit a murder if you suspect a snitch. Do you have any sympathy for those kinds of arguments?
Dale Kirk: That happens anyway. People get murdered in the drug world all the time, and cops get attacked and cops get shot, because it’s such a high stakes game. In terms of his argument about the law enforcement sort of attributing to the cost and the price, I tend to agree. It’s like OPEC with oil. You control the level of supply and demand. Law enforcement, be it customs or police, does that, because it takes a certain amount out of the market all the time, which means there’s always going to be more demand than supply of it, and that’s going to help keep prices high. At least compared to the States, where it’s always seen as a poor man’s drug. It’s very much a street drug, along the lines of crack cocaine. But in New Zealand, the price has pretty much remained constant since I’ve been involved with it. It remains the same cost today, give or take a few bucks.
Was there ever a sense within the police that because the price remains the same, the availability seems to remain more or less constant, that you were fighting a pointless battle that was essentially un-winnable?
Dale Kirk: That’s part of the reason I left the police. I’m not saying that was the dominant reason, but there’s certainly an element of frustration. And from my point of view, I am firmly of the belief that we need to put more focus on the demand for the thing as opposed to the supply. Reduce the demand by making people aware of the consequence of the this drug. Trying to reduce the amount of people that use it, because it’s the most addictive drug that’s around. If you can stop people using it, obviously you’re going to reduce the risk of addiction. I believe strongly that there is too much emphasis on supply and not enough emphasis on demand.
Do you have any sympathy for this idea which centered around drug use as opposed to supply, that the users should be always treated as sort of a health issue, rather than a criminal one, and that police resources might be better deployed if that were the case?
Dale Kirk: My personal views toward things are quite liberal, in terms of drug use, and in terms lots of things. There’s always a conflict, I guess, when you’re working as a policeman, . You’re sworn to do a job, and you do that. But my personal view is that an adult can do what he wants, basically, as long as it’s not hurting someone else. It’s my personal view. I think that the law should still come down hard on suppliers.
Returning to the show itself, what did you think of the character of Hank Schrader? Did you find him plausible, and because of your background, were you sort of rooting for him in a way that some people couldn’t help but be drawn to the darkness of Walter White?
Dale Kirk: I would have to say I was always drawn to Walter White and Jesse. I was always rooting for the bad guys. I thought the characters of Hank and the DEA agents were good. They were very plausible. It was a little more bravado than you would see in real life, certainly in my experience. But in all, they did a pretty good job of bringing those characters to life and keeping them real.
It’s a violent show – is it a pretty violent scene in New Zealand?
Dale Kirk: I’ve been involved in a number of murder investigations, where meth was involved either as the contributing factor in terms of the behavior, or a drug ripoff. An example of one that I was involved was a guy I arrested. He was a drug dealer but had never really been picked up.
I caught him with several ounces of methamphetamine and some LSD and ecstasy – quite a large haul. He was facing a number of years in prison, and for some reason, after a period of time, he was bailed, despite our opposition. Whilst on bail, he murdered his wife and shot himself in the head. So it’s a classic example – this guy, who had previously been a respectable member of the community, he would have been 50 at the time, and the drugs basically ruined his life.
Do you feel like the show accurately portrays the way that it does kind of spread its tentacles through legitimate businesses and brings together people into a pretty sinister web?
Dale Kirk: The classic example would be the wife, Skyler. Her character is initially totally anti-, but once she sees the money and human greed takes over, it’s very difficult to get out of it. To suddenly turn around and go back the other way. In some ways, with that show, it shows how it spreads.
For example, the girlfriend of Jesse [Andrea], how she got shot toward the end there. She wasn’t involved in manufacturing at all. She was an addict who got herself involved with the wrong people, and that was it. That’s an example of the sort of thing we see here – people get themselves in trouble or get themselves hurt.
‘Bad Week’ is a weeklong celebration of Breaking Bad ahead of the launch of its prequel Better Call Saul on Lightbox next week.
Subscribe to The Bulletin to get all the day’s key news stories in five minutes – delivered every weekday at 7.30am.