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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