Center for Problem-Oriented Policing

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

Drug Enforcement

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.33

  1. 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.
  2. Enforcing the law intensively. Research provides a mixed response to this type of enforcement strategy. In some cases, police crackdowns or “sweeps” have been shown to be effective in disrupting and dispersing the drug market leading to an increase in the number of arrests made, as well as a reduction in calls for service to the local area.37See the POP Guide on The Benefits and Consequences of Police Crackdowns [Full text] for further information.† † The effect a crackdown will have is largely dependent on the drug market that is targeted and the amount of resources available. A task force in Lynn, Massachusetts achieved a dramatic decrease in the blatancy and volume of drug sales, and a reduction in property crime through a combination of street surveillance and intelligence gathering, which included a telephone “hotline” for local residents. In addition, there was an increase in demand for drug treatment services and no reports of displacement to surrounding neighborhoods.38

    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
  3. Arresting drug sellers in “buy and bust” operations. Buy-busts (or test purchase operations) are used to gather evidence against specific dealers leading to their arrest. Police in Oakland found that as the operation progressed and flagrant dealing diminished, it became more difficult to make buys. Sellers adapted to enforcement by changing location and stashing their drugs in nearby hideouts rather than keeping it on their person.44 In addition, dealers began to recognize individual officers by sight. Dealers who become wary of buy-bust operations may require that unknown buyers prove their legitimacy by either showing injection marks or by using drugs while being observed.45 Buy-busts may also be complicated by the organization of a market in which a variety of roles are performed by several people, making it difficult for the police to arrest the actual seller rather than his or her ancillary staff. Because dealers associated with open-air drug markets tend to represent the lowest level of the dealing network, it is unlikely that buy-bust operations aimed specifically at street dealers will significantly disrupt the distribution system. Sellers operating at this level are easily replaced and while buy-bust operations may result in a large number of arrests, convictions rarely lead to lengthy sentences.46

    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
  4. Intelligence-led investigative work. Information from drug hotlines and local residents can advance a police officer’s ability to identify and analyze a problem. In addition, arrestees can prove to be a useful source of intelligence. Police in Brooklyn, New York suggest that any arrest can produce information if officers debrief the offender. For example, a drug buyer may facilitate access to a location for an undercover officer, greatly reducing the time and expense of other forms of surveillance.48
  5. Confiscating stashed drugs. Without regard for arresting dealers, if police can get good intelligence from the community about the location of stashed drugs in hidden, but public, locations in and around the market, they can confiscate the drugs. A sufficient level of confiscation can create a financial hardship for dealers and may compel them to move the market, hold the drugs (and make themselves more vulnerable to arrest), or raise prices.
    Seizing drugs that have been stashed in public places near a market can help drive out dealers and eventually close the market.

    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

  6. Arresting drug buyers. Arresting drug buyers in operations commonly referred to as “reverse stings” are a controversial form of enforcement and serve to impact the demand side of the market. They are most successfully employed against novice or occasional users who lack experience and tend to buy from strangers. Several critical legal issues arise in reverse stings. If officers sell simulated drugs, they should be clear about what offense they can charge the buyer with; if they are selling real drugs, then care must be taken to safeguard those drugs so that they don't enter the user market. The second issue is entrapment. Reverse stings have been heavily criticized by criminal lawyers in the past and entrapment can be used as a defense in court. To safeguard against this, officers should receive thorough training in the legal aspects of the operation and be advised how to react in any given situation. Police in Alabama used reverse stings to target users after a change of legislation made soliciting for the purpose of purchasing drugs a felony rather than a misdemeanor. In Miami, Florida police found that although the penalties imposed by the courts were light, the process of being arrested, charged, and required to appear in court as well as the possibility of having a vehicle impounded, acted as a deterrent for buyers. They found that of the 1,725 people that were arrested during 18 reverse sting operations, only seven were repeat offenders. The continued use of this type of operation led to two significant changes: the first was a lower arrest rate. The second was that those getting arrested were predominantly problem users implying that the number of the casual and novice users had decreased.49
  7. Warning potential buyers. Police in Fort Lauderdale, Florida implemented a scheme designed to discourage buyers in vehicles from entering the drug market area. Police monitored vehicles seen in the vicinity of the market, traced the registered owners of the vehicles, and mailed them a postcard warning that the vehicle had been spotted in a high-crime area. The effect of this strategy was a decrease in the number of drug-related arrests within the targeted neighborhood coupled with a decrease in overall traffic volume.50

Community Responses

  1. 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
  2. Operating a telephone hotline. A dedicated telephone hotline for local residents is useful for gathering intelligence and can help to build confidence in the community. Schemes that are widely advertised are likely to elicit the greatest response and might also serve to deter buyers and sellers by reminding them that local residents can report criminal or nuisance behavior easily and anonymously.
    Toll-free community hotlines are a good way to gather information while protecting the anonymity of the informant.

    Toll-free community hotlines are a good way to gather information while protecting the anonymity of the informant. Credit: Metropolitan Nashville Police Department

Civil Remedies

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.55

  1. 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.
  2. Applying nuisance abatement laws. Nuisance abatement actions are an important tool in controlling drug dealing in open-air markets and can be used against properties that are shown to be fostering a drug market. These actions may include the packaging and storing of drugs, housing dealers, or providing a place for people to use.
  3. Issuing restraining orders or “stay-away” orders. County Prosecutors in Newark, N.J. have begun asking judges to issue Drug Offender Restraining Orders (DOROs) against drug defendants. Similar to restraining orders in domestic violence cases, DOROs are designed to keep accused drug offenders out of specific neighborhoods or buildings and can be requested at a defendant’s first court appearance. The order then lasts until the defendant has been convicted or acquitted. “Stay-away” orders can also be used in conjunction with probation to keep convicted dealers away from a specified area.
  4. Notifying mortgage holders of drug-related problems at their properties. Police can serve as a conduit of information to entities that have a financial stake in the proper maintenance of real property. This may lead to private actions to compel improvements in property management, and ultimately a reduction in drug-related activity in and around that property.58
  5. Enforcing regulatory codes. Police can instigate building and property inspections and liaise with absentee landlords about the condition of their properties and the activities taking place in them.59 Where buildings are vacant, police can inform city officials and encourage them to take action. In St. Louis, Missouri, two officers took photographs of the exterior of a building that had been identified as problem location and submitted them to the City Building Division requesting that the buildings be inspected for code violations. In addition, they also contacted the landlord of the property to share information about the state of the building and the behavior of the tenants.60
  6. Seizing and forfeiting assets related to drug dealing. Seizing a dealer’s assets is likely to impede on their ability to conduct business as well as deprive them of profit accumulated through drug-related activity. In addition, seized assets provide additional revenue and resources to fund further enforcement efforts and community-based strategies against drugs. In addition to targeting dealers, civil forfeiture proceedings can be used to gain ownership of buyers’ vehicles. Where transactions occurred in buyers’ cars, police in Alabama were able to gain ownership of a number of vehicles.61 Police in New York worked with the Inland Revenue Service (IRS) and passed on the registration information of cars they suspected belonged to dealers. The IRS would then run an income tax check on the owner and if no taxes had been paid or return filed, or if the income reported was disproportionate to the cost of the car, an investigation ensued, resulting in the seizure of more than 100 cars.62

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.

  1. 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
  2. Installing and monitoring surveillance cameras. There is little information about the efficacy of using surveillance cameras to disrupt open-air drug markets. The installation of surveillance cameras has been shown to reduce crime, although in some cases, criminal activity adapted to circumnavigate the increased risk of arrest.66 A study conducted in the UK asked offenders their views about CCTV and whether they thought it could be used to combat street drug dealing. Although respondents felt that redeployable cameras would be more effective than static cameras, 78 percent of the offenders interviewed did not think CCTV would make an impact.67 Introducing surveillance cameras in an open drug market is likely to result in displacement or the transformation of an open market into a closed one; other possible benefits include an increased feeling of safety for local residents and a fall in street crime.
  3. Altering access routes and restricting parking. Limiting the access routes into a drug market, especially when a high number of buyers are not from the local neighborhood, may have the effect of dampening the market. Police in Charlotte, North Carolina blocked off two main routes into the neighborhood when analysis revealed that 60 percent of those arrested for buying or selling drugs in the area did not live in local vicinity—a factor that contributed to a 42 percent drop in arrest rates during the following 12 months. See the POP Response Guide No. 2 Closing Streets and Alleys to Reduce Crime [Full text] for further information.† † As well as discouraging buyers, blocking off streets and alleys can make it more difficult for dealers to escape in the event of enforcement activity, which may render the area less appealing as a drug market. Implementing parking restrictions may also have an effect on the market. Buyers will have to walk to and from the drug market, increasing the risk of police surveillance or street crime.
  4. Changing public pay phones. Removing pay phones or restricting them to outgoing calls can serve to hamper communication between buyers and sellers making it less convenient for them to conduct business.
  5. Securing vacant buildings. This can help improve the physical appearance of the neighborhood, and reduce the number of places suitable for selling or using drugs. With the support of the local community coalition, Houston police conducted a sweep of abandoned buildings in the Link Valley area to look for squatters and drug dealers. In addition, the coalition organized a clean up of the area and worked with city agencies to enforce health and housing ordinances – a combination of actions that greatly reduced the neighborhood drug trade.68

Demand Reduction

  1. 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