Responses to the Problem of Drug Dealing in Open-Air Markets
Your analysis of your local problem should give you a better understanding of the factors contributing to it. Once you have analyzed your local problem and established a baseline for measuring effectiveness, we suggest you consider possible responses to address the problem.
When devising a strategy to tackle your local market, it is important to think not simply in terms of arresting offenders, but to also consider how best to disrupt the mechanism of the market. The following response strategies provide a foundation of ideas for addressing your particular problem. These strategies are drawn from a variety of research studies and police reports. Several of these strategies may apply to your community's problem. It is critical that you tailor responses to local circumstances, and that you can justify each response based on reliable analysis. In most cases, an effective strategy will involve implementing several different responses. Law enforcement alone is seldom effective in reducing or solving the problem. Do not limit yourself to considering what police can do. Give careful consideration to who else in your community shares responsibility for the problem and can help police better respond to it.
General Considerations for an Effective Strategy
Local crime managers have difficult decisions to make about containment or dispersal of open-air markets. The case is often argued that the best way of handling illicit markets where either drugs or sexual services are sold—is to tolerate a low level of buying and selling in a single site, provided that this remains within limits and falls within implicit rules. The rationale for this is that dispersing a single site to several new "satellite sites" might lead to a more rapid growth of the illicit market than a strategy of single-site containment. Although popular, there is no research evidence in support of this approach. There are also ethical questions about the legitimacy of requiring one community to shoulder the burden of hosting a drug market in the long term, simply to protect other communities from similar harms.
Whichever approach you choose, it is unlikely that you will be able to eradicate the drug market completely. Preventative strategies will most likely transform open markets into closed markets. However, suppressing an open drug market could lead to a reduction in related illegal activities in the locality and is likely to improve the quality of life for residents living in the neighborhood. The most effective interventions are those that have been tailored to a specific area. There is also the growing recognition that enforcement alone will have a limited effect and that a collaborative multi-agency approach can achieve more substantial change.31
Police enforcement activity, especially a crackdown or sweep, is likely to result in an increased arrest rate. It is important that police coordinate their approach with other criminal justice agencies in order to lessen the potential impact that this could have on the resources of the criminal justice system. Arrest is only a deterrent if the end result is appropriate sentencing and it has been suggested that although large enforcement operations are intended to send the message that dealing will be dealt with harshly, the reality is that in many cases, those apprehended will serve little or no time in jail.32 In the mid-1980s Washington Square Park in New York City was targeted by police officers and arrest rates rose dramatically—up 300 percent from 1984 to 1986. In 1985, 70 percent of the 1,490 drug-related cases that went to trial resulted in convictions. However, only 100 defendants received jail time of 15 days or more, and the drug market continued to thrive.331. Policing the area in a highly visible fashion. The desired effect of high visibility policing is to disrupt the drug market by increasing the risk of arrest and making it inconvenient for sellers and buyers to exchange drugs and money. Police in New York employed this tactic to destabilize a rampant drug market on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Police officers, patrolling mostly on foot, flooded the area and established an imposing presence in the community thereby increasing the risk of arrest for buyer and seller.34 The effect of this initiative was a reduced volume of drug traffic and decreased property crime. In South Carolina, police found that the presence of a uniformed officer—especially one who looked to be taking copious notes and detailing the scene—acted to stifle the drug market.35 A visible police presence within the neighborhood can also serve to assuage the fear of crime for local residents. Community officers often act as a bridge between the police and the local population36 and can help strengthen support for enforcement initiatives. Obviously, high visibility policing is expensive and therefore difficult to sustain for long periods. It can interrupt well-entrenched drug markets, giving other responses designed to change the underlying conditions of the market a greater likelihood of success.
However, police in Melbourne, Australia found that although the crackdown had some success in reducing the visible aspects of drug dealing, the market quickly adapted, resulting in only a temporary improvement. Negative outcomes were also observed such as partial displacement, public health dangers and an increase in violence.39 It is also important to consider the response of the local community to enforcement efforts. Tactical Narcotics Teams employed in Brooklyn, New York found that police crackdowns were not likely to achieve any lasting improvement unless the community became more involved in the process.40 In some cases, this type of enforcement strategy may even exacerbate the situation. Minneapolis police found that an infamous crack market in the city proved resistant to police tactics. Buy-busts and executing warrants were unsuccessful and improvement only occurred after police encouraged landlords to evict those selling drugs.41 Police crackdowns may even have a detrimental effect on police-community relations. Enforcement may be perceived as being disproportionately aimed at people from communities of color or to be overly aggressive and infringe on the civil liberties of the local population in general.42
The success of a police crackdown will rarely be achieved or sustained in isolation and whatever enforcement strategy is employed should be followed by a revitalization initiative.43
If buy-busts are part of your chosen strategy for tackling drug markets, it is important to protect the identity of the officers involved—a challenge when resources are limited. In response to this concern, the Virginia State Police developed an undercover interagency exchange program allowing police agencies from around the state to link personnel, investigative techniques and intelligence information about drug dealers.47
Seizing drugs that have been stashed in public places near a market can help drive out dealers and eventually close the market. Credit: Monroe County Sheriff's Office at www.keysso.net
Community Responses8. Encouraging community action. Community-led anti-drug initiatives can be an important component in combating open-air drug markets. Where grass-roots organizations already exist, their success is often dependent upon establishing a good working relationship with the police. It is imperative that officers overcome any skepticism they may have about the efficacy of such groups and provide them with adequate support. Where no such groups exist, police can galvanize local residents by arranging meetings, posting fliers and coordinating other forms of community activity. Research shows that being taken seriously by the police and other public officials increases citizen morale and their willingness to participate and there have been many examples of successful community-led action against drug markets.51 In Kansas City, a volunteer association known as Ad Hoc initiated anti-drug marches and drug-house "blitzes." Members of the group also coordinated with police and the district attorney to threaten landlords with civil forfeiture if they failed to evict drug-dealing tenants.52 Police in Vancouver, B.C. found that local residents willingly opened their homes for officers to use as surveillance points as well as organizing a Park Watch volunteer foot patrol to collect information on drug dealers operating in the area.53
Toll-free community hotlines are a good way to gather information while protecting the anonymity of the informant. Credit: Metropolitan Nashville Police Department
Successful responses to drug markets are invariably multi-dimensional and no single response in isolation is likely to succeed. Research suggests that the use of civil remedies can result in a decrease in drug dealing and signs of disorder.54 Properties surrounding an area where open drug dealing occurs often support the market and may also be liable for civil action. Police in Oakland, California worked with city agency representatives to improve the physical condition of areas used for drug dealing. Tactics included recommendations to landlords to evict troublesome tenants; inspections by housing, sewer, sidewalk and vector control inspectors; and warnings sent to building owners informing them that action would be taken if they did not deal with drug dealing and disorder problems.5510. Encouraging place managers to be more proactive. It is likely that open drug markets will exist in areas where place managers (including landlords, housing authorities, local business residents and tenants associations) are inadequate or corrupted. Within targeted areas, it could be beneficial to offer assistance to those responsible for place management to help them achieve more control over their properties.56 Levels of intervention may vary from distributing information pamphlets to providing financial aid or training for landlords and businesses.57 Police can work with place managers to ensure that additional improvements are carried out, such as better street lighting and regular garbage collection.
Modifying the Physical Environment
This involves manipulating, designing or managing the physical environment with the intention of affecting the behavior of those who use it.63 There are many physical features that may facilitate drug dealing in open-air markets including: thick or overgrown foliage, vacant buildings, poor street lighting, and access routes that can be modified to discourage drug dealing.16. Re-claiming public areas. Public areas that have been abandoned by members of the local community because they fear drug-related activity are at risk of further degradation. Where parks and other public spaces are used for drug dealing, police can negotiate with the relevant authority responsible for an area and assist in implementing working solutions. Police in Sweden found that re-designing a public park to improve visibility and encourage local residents' use helped eradicate drug activity and restore public order.64 In Vancouver, B.C. a significant increase in reports of drug dealing resulted in a community effort to reclaim a neighborhood park. In addition to enforcement against dealers, police coordinated with the Park Board requesting immediate action to control graffiti and litter; the landscaping in the park was altered to eliminate obstructed sightlines; and the dog pound stepped up its enforcement of unleashed dogs used by dealers to intimidate residents.65
Demand Reduction21. Providing drug treatment. Reducing the availability of drugs cannot be done by enforcement alone, and it is important to combine supply and demand reduction strategies. In some cases, enforcement will lead to an increased demand for treatment services.69 Disrupting a drug market may provide a window of opportunity in which individuals decide to seek assistance for their use. Providing adequate resources to treat problem drug use will ensure that this opportunity is used effectively. In some cases appropriately targeted treatment has been found to destabilize retail markets by stripping them of low-level staff.70
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Drug Dealing in Open-Air Markets
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