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Community Policing:
An Alternative Drug Control Strategy


January 1995

by Barry Goetz, Ph.D.

The passage of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 (the Crime Bill, Public Law 103-322) offers an opportunity to merge criminal justice considerations with those of public health, especially where drug and alcohol-related crime control policies are concerned. Our primary social control policies have stressed criminal justice solutions despite the existence of a sizable public health sector in the United States devoted to the study and treatment of drug and alcohol problems. More than two-thirds of the national drug control dollar still goes into law enforcement. Almost a third of all state prisoners and over half of federal prisoners in 1992 were convicted on some kind of drug charge. Nationwide, about 70% of drug arrests are still for possession (including marijuana) and not for sales. (1) The criminal justice approach to regulating drug use in the United States overly burdens the legal and correctional systems, possibly promotes and does not decrease drug-related violent crimes, exacerbates racial inequality, and most importantly, fails to reduce harm and promote the public health. (2)

The crime bill emphasizes community policing as crime control strategy, so it is necessary for us to consider how this approach will impact drug enforcement policy. Generally, community-oriented police officer programs (CPO/CPOPS -- what the crime bill calls "COPS," or community-oriented policing services) place less of an emphasis on arrest and incarceration as a way to control crime. Instead, CPOPs focus on prevention and "order maintenance" functions, which can be anything from supervising lot clean-ups, to suppressing the local retail drug market, to working with community groups to impose restrictions on neighborhood alcohol outlets. CPOPs usually have a great deal of discretion to solve social problems relevant to crime using both formal and informal means, and attempt to build the support of families and neighborhood-based institutions to increase public safety.

From this standpoint, the goals of community policing jibe with drug control policies that seek alternatives to arrest and incarceration, especially where the user is concerned. Many social service agencies and community organizations have long argued that drug use is a public health problem that requires an expansion of community-based treatment and prevention programs. (3)

Advocates of "harm reduction" policy envision an alternative drug control policy. Harm reduction is defined as "reducing the adverse consequences of both psychoactive drug use and drug control policies without eliminating drug consumption," (4) and stresses the implementation of measures aimed at reducing drug abuse and trafficking. Four such harm reduction measures include needle exchange, public information and education, the use of geographically designated "drug sectors" or tolerance for minor possession of "soft" drugs like marijuana, and methadone maintenance. All of these measures may exist within the context of drug prohibition, and community police officers may be able to play a crucial role in their implementation. Police officers are in constant contact with drug users and they can work with health departments, hospitals, schools, community-based organizations and other informal networks (including the family) that deter crime by increasing community integration and use alternatives to incarceration for minor offenses.

The description of the community police officer as community builder sounds good in theory, but one can see how problems might arise when one considers the implications of alternative drug control strategies. Most departmental drug control policies continue to stress market eradication and notregulation, and it remains unclear how harm reduction and other measures that deemphasize arrest and incarceration might be introduced into community policing programs.

Indeed, community residents often view drug users as deviant. The more successful CPOPs focus on reducing the fear of crime, protecting law-abiding citizens from what J.Q. Wilson and George Kelling call "untended behaviors." Untended behavior is defined as "disreputable or obstreperous or unpredictable." (5) The hustling, copping, and begging of drug addiction is a form of untended behavior frequently associated with crime. From this standpoint, community policing programs ought to be less tolerant of such behavior and thus may place stricter controls on users and traffickers, which may be in conflict with policies aimed at improving the lives of the user (such as needle exchange).

The vision of the community police officer as public health advocate is very new and remains problematic. Police departments around the country have welcomed attempts to return to foot patrols, decentralized police stations, and community programs that integrate police officers and citizens in common efforts at crime control. But drug reform advocates and police officers alike question whether police officers have the training to carry out policies like harm reduction. There are also civil liberties questions about forging links between law enforcement and human service sectors that may undermine privacy rights.

Nevertheless, the theory of community policing is a fundamental change in the nature and goals of law enforcement. Police agencies in Europe and the United States are becoming increasingly involved with alternative drug enforcement strategies. In Liverpool, England, the city police have instituted a "cautioning" policy where users are not arrested on first or even second-time charges but are referred to treatment or needle-exchange programs. In Baltimore, the Mayor's Working Group on Drug Policy Reform has proposed, and the new Police Commissioner Thomas Frasier is carrying out, a community policing program combining "an aggressive law enforcement intervention" for traffickers and violent offenders with a "health-based drug policy" for non-violent offenders, which emphasizes treatment and rebuilding communities. (6) In Santa Ana, California, the CPOP relies on a "civilian" corps of policing agents, many of whom speak Spanish, who are specially trained to incorporate citizens with crime prevention and other social service programs, and who involve themselves in everything from neighborhood cleanups to fire prevention. (7)

There are numerous government and community organizations that law enforcement can cooperate with to facilitate the social control of drug abusers without arresting them. The success of any CPOP program to adopt preventive measures will ultimately rest on its ability to forge interorganizational links. The 1994 crime bill provides $1 Billion in funding for "drug courts" that attempt to channel first time and non-violent drug offenders into treatment programs. But drug courts assume that an arrest has already been made. CPOPs emphasize solving problems before they get to the overburdened criminal justice system.

More research needs to be done on community policing and drug enforcement. At the Center for Alcohol and Addiction Studies at Brown University, we will be conducting a survey of police departments in cities with over 100,000 persons and doing ethnographic case studies to assess whether community policing programs promise a shift in America's approach to treating drug use as primarily a criminal problem. We will be interested in whether community policing programs can successfully incorporate public health concerns within a broader framework of public safety, especially where alternative drug policies are concerned.

(1) U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics -- 1993, (Washington, DC: USGPO), p. 458; Sourcebook information for years 1981-1992 from U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Crime in the United States, (Washington, DC: USGPO).

(2) W. Chamblss, "Policing the Ghetto Underclass," Social Problems vol. 41, no. 2 (1994), pp. 177-194; E. Currie, Reckonings: Drugs, The Cities, and the American Future, (New York: Hill and Wang, 1993).

(3) Who Is Really Fighting the War on Drugs? A National Study of Community-Based Anti-Drug and Alcohol Activity in America. Join Together, Boston University School of Public Health (1992).

(4) E. Nadelmann,, "The Harm Reduction Approach to Drug Control," Unpublished manuscript, Woodrow Wilson School for Public Policy, Princeton, NJ (April, 1994), p. 1.

(5) J.Q. Wilson and G. Kelling, "Broken Windows," Atlantic Monthly (March, 1982) p. 30; 31.

(6) The Mayor's Working Group on Drug Policy Reform, The City of Baltimore, Kurt Schmoke, Mayor (1993), p. 20.

(7) J. Skolnick and D.H. Bayley, The New Blue Line: Police Innovation in Six American Cities (New York: Free Press, 1986); J. Greene and S. Mastrofski (eds.), Community Policing: Rhetoric or Reality (New York: Praegar Publications, 1988).