Making Drug Enforcement Work


Tomorrow’s issue of the Economist has a brief piece on some new drug policing in Virginia: “Cleaning Up the Hood: Focusing on drug markets rather than users means less crime.” The article is on DMI, or Drug-Market Intervention, a law-enforcement strategy that has been spreading around the country since it was first introduced in North Carolina about eight years ago.

DMI is a combination of community involvement and police commitment that focuses on street dealers. The community is encouraged to report dealers. Police then notify the dealers that they know who they are, but promise not to arrest them if they take part in an intervention. The dealers are confronted with community leaders who show them what their dealing is doing to the community — and who promise to help them change their ways if they’re willing. The dealers are given a second chance. Meanwhile, the police increase their presence in the area, and those caught dealing now get locked up. Quick police response and community involvement increases people’s willingness to report dealers, and a cycle begins.

Law enforcement has long known that you don’t eliminate a drug problem by going after demand — addicts and users are too numerous, and no matter how many you lock up they just keep coming. Meanwhile, street dealers continue to operate, destroying the safety and livability of the community. The addicts they attract, the nastiness they inflict, the violence they commit, and the fear they instill all combine in ruinous ways, engendering more crime and blight.

Buyers are easy to arrest, though, and if a police force is going to be judged by its arrest numbers rather than actual results (as politicians are wont to do), then there is a strong temptation to arrest the users. Not only does this do nothing to stop the dealing problem, the users are typically charged with modest possession offenses that put them right back out to buy again.

Drug courts and similar diversion programs do actually work wonders with helping users break their drug habits and overcome the life-skill deficits that often led to them. But those programs are typically reserved for those charged with crimes to begin with, many times only those charged with felony possession, and of those only the defendants who are likely to succeed in the program to begin with. They’re great, but they don’t solve the underlying problem.

These DMI initiatives recognize that, like so much else in society, it is community involvement that makes all the difference. You can have a fantastic school filled with amazing teachers, but if it’s in a community that does not value education and is not involved in the school, it’s going to fail along with its students. You can have a brilliant social program with dedicated workers, but if it’s in a community that doesn’t share the same goals and drive, it’s going to be a flop. And you can have the most thorough drug-enforcement police in the world, but unless the community is on board nothing is going to change. They’ll just keep churning arrests, with an endless supply of replacements for every dealer and user they lock up.

The community attitude is hard to change. Decades of “that’s the police’s job, not mine” plus “the police are the enemy” plus “the police won’t really protect me” plus “the bad guys will hurt me” won’t go away overnight. But it’s necessary if any real change is going to happen.

If you want people to stop selling drugs, you do that not by making drug dealing illegal, but by making it socially unacceptable. People may not like the way things are, may not like living in fear and unpleasantness, but that’s not the same. It’s not dislike of the situation, but social mores that these things are just not done here, that make changes.

Other similar initiatives have been successful before. In NYC, for example, residents of blocks that had been taken over by drug organizations voluntarily waived some of their Fourth Amendment rights to enable the police to make searches and root out the dealers that otherwise couldn’t have happened, forcing the dealers to relocate and change their operations to be less damaging to the community. Even without such overt governmental involvement, social shifts have been the cause of the greatest increases in public safety. ¬†Gentrification and influxes of new residents who are unwilling to sit back and let the criminals mess up their neighborhood are amazingly effective at reducing street crime.

If this all sounds a little “blame the victim”-ish, that’s because it sorta is. Street crime proliferates in communities where the residents allow it. When the residents become less tolerant of it, they become not only more likely to insist on law enforcement, but also set societal standards that become a new norm, in which such crime is less likely to be seen as an option to begin with. It takes time, but it’s the surest and most effective method of change there is.

So kudos to those police forces that aren’t just making arrests, but are doing something to effect societal change. It’s thankless work that loses all those arrest numbers from whence budgets come (and all that overtime pay). But law enforcement’s job is not to get budgets and overtime, but to reduce crime. You guys are doing your job. Keep it up.

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3 Responses

  1. John Neff says:

    In the example it appears that about a third of the street dealers may have been deterred, a third relocated and a third were clueless. OTOH the ones that may have been deterred could have changed their mode of operation once they found out what the police were doing.

    I imagine the 1/15,000 estimate for cocaine sales that result in a conviction will be widely quoted but very few people will ask how do they know that. It is not a valid estimate because it gives a single value rather than a range of possible values (for example 1/10,000 to 1/20,000). So we have another low credibility “drug factoid”.

    OTOH getting a third of the street dealers to “change their spots” is worthwhile but tell me a year from now what they are doing.

  2. Your article properly notes that it is the social expectations that help perpetuate drug usage and dealing. Mainstream society does what mainstream society considers acceptable.

  3. Tim says:

    I think it’s a tremendous idea. When I was dealing, I was doing it because I had no other means of survival in my sick and addicted mind. But I had reached out many times to try and get help for my addiction. The problem is, when your occupation is a drug dealer, lets just say you don’t have the best insurance. I was repeatedly turned away from rehabs for lack of money. So if I had someone reach out to me, and show me a legitimate way out of the hell I was in, I would have been grateful for that opportunity. People who have never suffered from the disease of addiction can’t seem to understand this. We are not happy. This is not what we want to be doing. We don’t know how are lives came to this. We sure as hell don’t see any way out of it. When we make the effort to find help, it’s not affordable. What’s great about this story is it offers a practical solution. Drug dealers are actually potentially productive members of society. They should be given the help they need and the chance they deserve to recover. Putting them in jail is only increasing the amount of harm they have done to themselves. It only further pushes them into feeling that they are not welcome in society. When we put addicts in jail, nobody wins.

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