More Drug Enforcement, More Crime

A new study by LeMoyne College economists Edward Shepard and Paul Blackley, based on New York state data, finds that drug law enforcement is associated with increases in predatory crime. Possible explanations include diversion of law enforcement resources, violence generated by disruption of drug operations, and increased attraction to property crimes among people deterred from dealing drugs. "At a minimum," Shepard and Blackley conclude, "the empirical findings should raise serious questions about the effectiveness of drug enforcement as a crime control measure, and they suggest that significant social costs arise from existing approaches to drug control."

The study appears in the June issue of Social Science Quarterly. If you don't want to pay for access to the full text, you can read an earlier draft for free here.

[Thanks to NORML's Allen St. Pierre for the tip.]

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  • ||

    If I could offer a fourth possible explanation -

    Severe enforcement of drug laws changes the way the police interact with, and are perceived by, the residents (including the law abiding residents) of low income neighborhoods. The community policing model that worked so well in reducing crime in the 1990s in places like Boston become impossible when the police behave, and are viewed, primarily as the tough guys who kick in doors and arrest people, rather than the neighborhood beat cop who is part of the neighborhood's scene.

  • ||

    More war on terrorism, more terrorists.

  • ||

    joe:

    I've often wondered the extent to which MOST community policing efforts will tend to be perceived by urban minorities as racially motivated thuggery, since the areas to be cleaned up are almost always minority centers and minorities are on going to be on the blunt end of all the increased graffiti, littering, and yes drug enforcement. My suspicion has always been that community policing increases the perceived security of white folks essentially by nit picking in black neighborhoods. I dunno, though.

  • ||

    Clearly the only solution is to give the cops more funding and more power. Only when will our liberties be secure!

    And if you oppose extending the Patriot Act to drug crimes, or if you oppose a tax increase for Our Brave Men and Women In Blue, then you obviously don't care about The Children either!

  • ||

    Jason,

    I don't think you understand community policing very well, then. The strategy is not just to put more cops into those neighborhoods, but to change the way they operate. Successful community policing intiatives result in significantly better relationships between low income/minority residents and the police.

    Community policing is about taking cops out of the cars and having them walk beats, so that people in the neighborhood start saying "Hi" and recognizing who "their" cops are. It's about those beat cops shooting some hoops with the kids at the park for a few minutes, so they don't grow up assuming that cops are just those violent white guys who live out of town, but actually know them on an individual basis. It's about the cops actually knowing enough about the areas they work to know who's a good kid and who's a troublemaker, instead of every face they see through the windshield looking sort of the same.

  • ||

    While the phrase, "more cops," has not reached the point of diminishing returns for politicians, more cops are past the point of diminishing returns, crimewise.

  • Adam||

    I think joe is right on - cops (and the entire political system that back them up) spend a lot of social/political capital to appease the folks demanding fewer drugs in the 'hood...I suspect it's to appease nitpickers in white and black neighborhoods who demand zero crime no matter what the crimes may be, and nobody bothers to stand up and say, HEY, we can't have everything our way: when we enforce/strictly enforce drug laws. Whatever marginal gains we make in keeping people off of drugs (if we make even marginal gains, and there's a helluva lot of debate about that), we make at the expense of diminished contacts and trust with slightly- to moderately-unsavory characters who might otherwise help us keep the real brutal and careless scumbags in check.

    Instead, the cops paint drug dealers as bad guys then lock up a bunch of drug dealers and everybody's happy a bunch of "bad guys" are locked up. A change of all of this means admitting that drugs per se aren't really a problem: fat chance.

  • ||

    Thoreau, Only when will our liberties be secure! I think Dr. Freud has slipped you up, or not.

  • ||

    It's worth noting that this study covered all of New York State's counties, and from what I can tell it came to the same conclusions for low-income, mixed-race counties, high-income suburban counties, and rural counties. Obviously there are different rates of drug and violent crime in different types of counties, but the effect of increased enforcement was always negative.

  • David Woycechowsky||

    Yous said it, Adam.
    If I could strike one phrase from the language, it would be "bad guys." This talisman serves as a substitute fot actual thought far too often.

  • ||

    How far do crime records go back?

    I have to imagine that crime rates went down in 1933 when Prohibition ended.

    Liquor sellers could walk into court & enforce contracts without using Concrete Overshoes and cops were able to investigate real crimes.

  • ||

    One obvious explanation is that when drug laws are enforced more vigorously the price goes up. Rising drug prices entice more users to steal to support their habits.

  • ||

    thoreau,

    Coke and heroin have both gotten cheaper since the War on Drugs was ramped up in the 80s.

  • ||

    joe:

    My information may be bad, but it comes from a cop. In the NYPD version of the practice, my understanding is that community policing means cracking down on even little offenses that used to be overlooked. You create a visible presence in the community by way of cleaning up 'visible crime'. The notion is that presence creates a sense of law and order that people then want to maintain. It was community policing initiatives that led NYPD to start issuing tickets for everything under the sun in 2000, for example.

  • ||

    joe-

    Overall price levels respond to more than just law enforcement. My econ profs stressed that time-series data must always be used with caution, and should be supplemented by cross-sectional data. I would be very curious to know what the cross-sectional data says. Are drug prices higher in areas with tougher enforcement? If so, then drug prices may be declining overall due to innovations in evading law enforcement and economic conditions in the countries that produce the drugs, but local prices will vary due to local supply and demand.

    I strongly suspect that's the case. But, as always, the data will have to be the final judge.

  • ||

    Sorry, gang. I might believe that law enforcement's focus on drugs encourages other types of crime, but this paper fails to provide convincing empirical evidence of that relationship.

    The biggest flaw is that the paper explains crime as a function of drug arrests (and some other things), but does not control for drug use.

    Soooo, if drug use causes crime (as some claim), and drug use also causes drug arrests (there are more users to arrest for drugs), then we'd find that drug arrests cause more crime in this regression, even drug use really causes crime and drug arrests actually reduce crime. This is a pretty classic case of possible unobservable effects bias (also called "endogeneity") driving the results, which makes them questionable.

    Maybe if the authors could find survery data on drug use by county, and include that in their set of other explanatory variables, then there'd be something there. But until then, this isn't empirical evidence that I'd hang my hat on, as much as it might fit my own personal beliefs.

    K

  • ||

    Whatever the definition of community policing, there is no question that it is the attitude that cops must have because of the drug war that is one of the biggest problems.

    But being a cop gives you an attitude, in general, anyway. Look at it this way, if all you ever deal with are criminals and low-lifes (not a technical term, and not trying to be elitist) then you start to act like everyone is going to be a criminal or a low-life. So when I get pulled over for speeding, even though I'm being polite and am lucky enough to be a middle class white male, I get attitude from the cop immediately.

    The other thing I hate about the drug war, and we've discussed this before, is when someone gets busted for having some weed or meth and the cop starts telling them how, "See, drugs are messing up your life because now you're going to jail."

    Makes no sense.

  • Mike||

    While the phrase, "more cops," has not reached the point of diminishing returns for politicians, more cops are past the point of diminishing returns, crimewise.

    You may, in fact, be wrong.

  • David Woycechowsky||

    Thoreau,

    There is no antitrust enforcement for the illegal drug market. I am no economist, but I would expect that enforcement differences will be erased, minimized or distorted by the ultimately centralized control of the market.

    Also, there will probably be non-enforcement-related difference across the geography, differences that could dominate the cop differences.

    To draw an analogy, gasoline is more expensive in urban California than rural Missouri. I think only part of this difference comes from different tax or regulatory schemes, but that much more of the differences comes from the average ability-to-pay by customers in those respective areas.

    This doesn't mean we should ignore any cross-sectional data we can muster on the drug market. I am just saying that that kind of data generally has little meaning in oligopolistic "markets" because it is the kind of diffrerences that get created, manipulated, enhanced, reduced, etc. by the producers in their quest to maximize profits.

  • David Woycechowsky||

    My ulterior motivation here is that I would like to see antitrust enforcement in the recreational drug market (and some other places, too). We have a hard enough time bringing antitrust to bear in legit markets. I am thinking that antitrust enforcement, while theoretically possible, is more difficult in an illegal market.

  • ||

    Jason,

    The "Broken Windows"/zero tolerance strategy is not what people generally mean by "community policing." They have some things in common, such as a high visibility presence and a focus on being proactive, and not just waiting for serious crime then responding. But the two strategies diverge pretty sharply from there. The "Broken Windows" strategy, for example, does not necessarily involve the police getting to know the people they are serving.

    You may recall Rudolph Guiliani making some classless remarks about Boston and San Diego as he gave his good bye speech upon his retirement. What lay underneath that was Guiliani's support for Broken Windows policing, vs. the other cities' endorsement of Community Policing. Guiliani's term saw crime rates decline as well as resentment of the police increase. In Boston, crime rates declined by similar levels, while police/community relations improved.

  • ||

    Lowdog,

    "if all you ever deal with are criminals and low-lifes (not a technical term, and not trying to be elitist) then you start to act like everyone is going to be a criminal or a low-life."

    This is one of the great strengths of Community Policing - the cops have a great deal of face time with ordinary, peaceful people living in the neighborhoods they work in.

    The cop I bought my house from told me he was getting fat walking his beat in a certain neighborhood, because the old Portugese ladies kept giving him pastries.

  • R C Dean||

    dang, joe beat me to the inevitable cops 'n' donuts joke.

  • ||

    I have no problem with community policing. I studied it a little when I was a CJ major. If you're going to have cops, have them doing important stuff. Patroling the streets in a squad car, hoping to pull someone over for speeding so they can search the vehicle and find some weed or meth is not important. Walking a beat and making sure some assholes don't steal my car is important.

    So we're actually in some semblance of argreement here. :)

  • ||

    It amazes me that people are still trying to use facts and logic to criticize the drug war, as if one more convincing argument will finally make them see the error of their ways. Drug warriors just don't respond to that sort of stimuli. Try explaining String Theory to a dog and notice the similarities.

  • ||

    My dog (well, cat actually) paid a lot more attention than my human subject. They did about the same on the test, though.

  • ||

    Dogzilla-

    There's a big difference between string theory and arguments for legalization: Arguments for legalization are supported by real world experience, whereas string theory has about as much foundation as, well, something that a stoner might babble about.

  • ||

    Dude, you know, when you look at a stop sign just right it seems to be 8 dimensional. Add in time and thickness and it might be, like, 10 dimensional, man!

    Hey, maybe a 10-dimensional stop sign can explain gravity. Far out, man.

  • A Canadian||

    You racist homophobic Jesusfreak USians should learn that the proper solution to all this crime is to stop reporting crimes. Oh and release everyone and give early parole to everyone so you won't have so many prisoners.
    Oh and get free healthcare.

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