Center for Problem-Oriented Policing

Understanding Your Local Problem

The information provided in the previous section is only a generalized description of drug dealing in open-air markets. In order to understand the potential effect that any preventative strategies will have, we recommend that you combine the basic facts with a more specific understanding of your local problem. A detailed analysis of the problem in your area will help you design a more effective response and allow you to better predict the outcome of any action taken against the drug market.

The nature of an open-air drug market makes it likely that its location will already be known. However, other key characteristics of the market should be examined. A community survey can serve to identify residents’ concerns as well as trouble hot spots in the neighborhood. In addition conducting a survey is a demonstration of police commitment and can help build relations between the police and local residents. A dedicated telephone hotline for local residents is also useful for gathering intelligence; and provided that information is acted upon promptly, can help build confidence in the community. Systematic and well-recorded observations by an officer can help define the nature of the drug market and identify some of the characteristics that allow drug-related sales to thrive in that area. Other data sources that may be useful to identify discrete drug markets include:

  • narcotics sales arrests,
  • citizen observations, and
  • emergency calls for service.27

Because open-air drug markets vary in terms of size, drug type and clientele, it is important to understand the conditions of each particular market to best focus your response strategies.

It is also important to identify the reasons why drug markets exist in the area. These are likely to be a complicated mix of situational and social factors.28 Some open-air markets—especially those that are centrally located—owe their development and their persistence to the amenities that the area offers to buyers and sellers drawn from a wide geographic catchment area. Others may serve the needs largely of local users. The balance between supply reduction strategies and demand reduction strategies is likely to vary according to such factors.

Asking the Right Questions

The following are some key questions we suggest you ask in analyzing your particular problem of drug dealing in open-air markets, even if the answers are not always readily available. Your answers to these and other questions will help you choose the most appropriate set of responses later on.

Nature of the Drug Market

  • Where is the drug market situated? Are there any clear geographical boundaries? Is it located near a transport hub or arterial route? Are there any physical or environmental characteristics that could encourage drug-related activity (e.g., vacant buildings, vacant lots, overgrown foliage, pay phones)? Are there suitable places for sellers to hide their drugs?
  • What are the times of operation? Are there any particular days that are noticeably busier, for example, weekends or days when people receive their welfare checks?
  • What types of drugs are being sold? If several types of drug are being sold, do sellers specialize in one particular drug or is there an overlap between markets?
  • Is the market well-known as somewhere that drugs can be bought easily? How is the market advertised?
  • Does the market have a reputation for violence? Is the market in fact violent? (Bear in mind that not all market-related violence will be reported to police.)
  • Where are drug transactions completed? On the street, in vehicles, elsewhere?
  • Are there places for people to use drugs once they have purchased them?
  • How many open-air drug markets are operating in your jurisdiction?
  • For how long has this particular drug market been operating?

Market Participants: Buyers and Sellers

  • How many sellers are operating in the area?
  • Are sellers who are incarcerated or killed replaced easily and quickly by new sellers?
  • Do sellers operate alone or use ancillary staff such as runners or lookouts?
  • What is the structural organization of the market (e.g., is it fragmented—made up of freelance sellers with any alliance being on an ad hoc basis; or hierarchical—where organizations of sellers may dominate their local area and drive out competition)?
  • What role do firearms play in the market?
  • What proportion of customers is local to the area?
  • If buyers travel to the market, how do they travel?
  • Are buyers’ mainly serious or casual users?
  • How is the market advertised?

Current Responses

  • Have there previously been any preventative strategies used against drug markets in the area?
  • What were the consequences of any previous enforcement? How was the market disrupted? How did the market adapt to enforcement? Did police activity lead to displacement?
  • Aside from enforcement, what other actions have been taken by the police or other partnership agencies to try to control the drug market?

The Effect of the Drug Market on the Local Community

  • Does the local community consider the drug market to be a problem? (This could affect the level of support that can expected from residents.)
  • What activities and conditions specifically are of concern to citizens in the area (e.g., loitering, noise, traffic congestion, harassment, litter)?
  • Have some areas become “no go” areas due to drug-related activity?
  • Do local residents feel intimidated by drug sellers and their customers?
  • Do local businesses feel that trade is being affected by drug-market activity? If so, how, specifically has it been affected? Are some local businesses profiting from the drug trade (e.g., by selling products or services necessary to support the drug market)?

Drug Treatment

  • Are there any provisions for drug treatment in the community? Is there a local drug treatment agency or are there any needle exchange schemes operating in the area?
  • Do the police have any contact with local drug treatment providers?

Measuring Your Effectiveness

Measurement allows you to determine to what degree your efforts have succeeded and suggests how you might modify your responses if they are not producing the intended results. We suggest you take measures of your problem before you implement responses to determine how serious the problem is, and after you implement them to determine whether they have been effective. All measures should be taken in both the target area and the surrounding area. (For more detailed guidance on measuring effectiveness, see the companion guide to this series, Assessing Responses to Problems: An Introductory Guide for Police Problem-Solvers.)

The following are potentially useful measures of the effectiveness of responses to drug dealing in open-air markets:

  • Reduced visibility of drug-related activity in public places.
  • Reduced calls for service related to drug dealing and using.
  • Reduced calls for service related to crime and disorder.
  • Diminishing arrest rates for drug selling or drug possession with similar levels of enforcement.
  • Increased price of drugs or increased search time to purchase drugs.
  • Increased feeling of community safety. (This may entail conducting a survey of local residents.)
  • Renewed legitimate use of public spaces such as parks or recreation areas.
  • Reduced vehicle traffic and loitering.
  • Reduced evidence of drug-related paraphernalia.
  • Reduced levels of crimes in the vicinity of the drug market that are plausibly related to drug dealing (e.g., thefts, burglaries, robberies).

Displacement

The most frequent effect of preventative strategies against drug markets is displacement. Displacement takes place when action against a drug market causes market participants to alter their patterns of behavior, whether by moving from one place to another, changing their times of operation, changing their mode of operation or replacing drug dealing with other forms of criminal activity. The effects of displacement are difficult to measure—especially in cases where the market is dispersed over a large area. Enforcement aimed at the Lower East Side of New York was successful at reducing drug-related activity in the local neighborhood; however, because of the size of area involved, it was difficult to ascertain whether the market was displaced to other areas of the city.29 However, it has been argued that even if displacement occurs, it may be preferable for crime to be diffused over a wider area.30 There is also an argument to be made for displacing open-market methods of transactions into less visible closed-market ones, if community concerns about open drug dealing are high. In summary, the fact that displacement may take place does not in itself undermine the benefits of strategies employed against the drug markets. It is essential to try to anticipate both the form of any displacement and its extent. In some circumstances displacing the market either to other geographical areas or to indoor locations may be regarded as a partial success.