Using community to fight drugs

Flickr photo by funkandjazz

I went to an interesting lunchtime talk of the Overt Drug Market Strategy used in the City of High Point, North Carolina. Presenting were: Jim Summey – Pastor, English Road Baptist Church; Jim Fealy – Chief, High Point Police Department; and Marty Sumner – Assistant Chief, High Point Police Department.

The background to the story is a classic inner city crime-ridden neighborhood where police can’t effectively prosecute drug markets since it looks like community norms sanction them and the community thinks that police are in cahoots with drug dealers because calls to police are relatively ineffectual. Police Chief Fealy called open meetings with the community in 2003 to admit bravely that the police had been ineffective and often caused more harm than good. That led to lots of useful dialogue. The Police Department got community residents to understand both that their walking away from drug dealers let the drug trade continue and that they had a lot of moral outrage about what was happening. The Chief emphasized that by partnering with police they could both dry up the drug markets and all the associated crime.

The police identified the key players in the drug market and then surreptitiously filmed them selling drugs to undercover cops (ideally twice). They made 4 key arrests and then summonsed the other dozen drug dealers to a meeting at the Police Station May 18, 2004. They told the drug dealers to bring a family member and they would not be arrested. The Police arranged for key community leaders (from churches, social service organizations, elders, etc.) and state and local law enforcement to be there. The drug dealers were openly surprised by the community presence at the meeting. There were 4 empty seats for the dealers who had been arrested (with cut-outs indicating how many years each of them would do) and blow-up pictures of the other drug dealers around the room. They had dossiers (crime files) for each of the dozen drug dealers summonsed and police told them that they had all been filmed doing drug sales and would be prosecuted immediately if they sold drugs in High Point again or other neighborhoods. They were told that their life would change immediately in one of two ways: they could turn around their lives (with help from the churches, social services, etc.) or do time.

They intentionally had these drug dealers bring family members so the family members would witness this as well and be a moral force to convince the drug dealers to change.

Half of those at the call-in immediately asked for help and produced a “need sheet” detailing what they needed to stop doing drugs that the police and community agencies worked to provide.

They said that starting the next day, you could see that the market had been broken. The Police only needed to provide additional Police patrols in that neighborhood for the next six weeks. The Police Chief notes that the strategy intentionally has improved relations with the heavily African-American community of West Point where this was tried.

Since then, violent crime in the High Point area has fallen 38% in the 3.5 years as compared with 3.5 years before the call-in. There has not been dispersion of crime to other neighborhoods; there have actually been city-wide drops. And there are qualitative benefits like people now building homes in the area, residents sitting out on front porches and feeling comfortable with kids walking the neighborhood. And the pastor reported increased attendance at the vacation bible school of English Road Baptist Church which had previously been only sparsely attended by community residents. The police also noted for example that someone who made an anonymous 911 call to report a shooting in the West End prior to the call-in felt comfortable being a witness and publicly fingering the shooter one year later when the case went to trial because she felt supported by the police and community.

Drug dealers realized that they could no longer operate with tacit community support. The Police observed that there are non-linear dynamics in the drug trade so if you convince a core number of key individuals not to do drugs and a core number of community members to oppose it, it spreads through the social networks. The dynamics are similar to that noted by Clay Shirky with the ‘Adios Pizzo’ sticker movement in Palermo, Italy. Pizzo refers to payments to the mafia for protection and as the number of pizzo stickers increased, the chance of the mafia being able to take reprisals dropped remarkably, since the mafia could harm one or two community members who felt isolated and not supported by the neighborhood, but couldn’t take action against many, all the more so when there was greater manifestation of community will against the mafia. The Adios Pizza movement also made it easier for residents to find which busineses had signed on to the campaign to make it easier for residents to channel business their way and hence increase social pressure more.

Back to High Point: The police chief noted that the “call-in” meeting was intentionally held in the police quarters so that the police could control the layout, so it sent a strong deterrent message and so the police could eject participants if they weren’t behaving properly.

They have replicated this in Winston-Salem, Greensboro, and Raleigh, NC; in Providence, RI; and in Rockford, IL. The US Department of Justice is launching a national program to replicate the strategy in ten cities. The strategy is a brainchild of David Kennedy, who was then a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School. The presenters noted that critical to the success of replication is having a true partnership with community institutions and getting enough important voices from the community that people from the community who want to speak out have cover for their actions.

The program which won an Innovations in American Government award from Harvard’s Kennedy School in 2007. The PowerPoint presentation from the lunchtime talk will be put up on the Innovations website.  This project was also reported in the Wall Street Journal in “Novel Police Tactic Puts Drug Markets Out of Business” (9/26/06).

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