It has been argued that drug use is a victimless crime. But you're a cop, and you know better. You've seen the overdosed victims, the worried looks on parents' faces. You've also seen the neighborhood deterioration. You know that as drug dealers move in, citizens have a diminished feeling of safety and legitimate businesses move out. This creates an environment suitable not only for drug dealing, but also prostitution, burglaries, robberies, rapes, and murders.
The public is convinced that you are unwilling or unable to stop the criminal element. But that's not true. There's a lot that good cops can do to make life miserable for street corner drug dealers.
You can attack street drug dealing in one of three ways:
- Attack the demand (scare off buyers)
- Attack the supply (slow the dealer's business)
- Alter the environment (make the area "too hot" for dealers and buyers)
Never Underestimate the Power of Just Showing Up
The greatest deterrent to drug dealing is officer presence. Just being in the area in a marked unit will scare off drug dealers and drug buyers. Whenever you get a chance, drive through the neighborhood. Drive slow and take note of the corner boys staring at you. Remember their faces, but also take note of their footwear. Shoes are one of the few articles of clothing a suspect cannot readily discard during a foot pursuit.
When you have to fill out a report that can be done in the field, try to do it near the busiest drug dealing corner in your patrol area. Of course, you should take some precautions when doing this. I suggest you figure out how far the strongest kid can throw a rock, then park about 15 feet beyond that.
Do your report with your overhead lights on. Only the most hardcore junkie will buy drugs with a marked unit that close; they don't know that your head is down and you're completing a report.
Being visible will reduce fear of crime among the good citizens and enhance the chances citizens will come forward with good information.
Disguise Yourself and Watch the Buyers
Do surveillance on the drug dealers. Yes, your marked unit and uniform work against you, but there is no reason you can't park the unit around a corner and walk to a good observation area.
To disguise yourself, carry a baseball cap and a weathered Army field jacket in the trunk of your unit. The cap will cover your tell-tale flattop hair cut, and the field jacket will cover your uniform shirt. All of the pockets on the jacket are also great for holding flashlights/radios/binoculars.
Now that you have your disguise, stand on a corner or in a store about a block away and watch the comings and goings of dealers and buyers.
Are the buyers local to the area or do they have to travel? How do they travel? Car? Bicycle? Bus? Are the buyers clean-cut casual users or hardcore junkies? The hardest buyers to catch are local residents who can walk to the area from alleys and backyards. Watch for buyers in cars, then run the license plates to figure out where the buyers are from. When a pattern of buyers from a certain area is determined, stake out that route, and begin aggressive traffic enforcement. This will lawfully put you in contact with people who are in the area for unlawful purposes.
Try to note the full license plates of all buyers. A form letter can be sent to the vehicle owner, advising him or her that the vehicle was seen in a high crime area. The dangers of the area can be listed in the form letter. This will allow vehicle owners (parents) to address the matter on a family level.
Gather Intel on the Dealers and Their Methods
Your surveillance will yield information about the drug dealers. Does the dealer work alone or is he part of a network that includes lookouts, "steerers," and "runners"? The steerers and runners are usually far from cover and not carrying any drugs, so they tend not to run, which makes them easier to apprehend.
When you watch the dealers, gather intelligence about how violent you think they will be if confronted. Are they likely to run? Or will they shoot it out with you and your fellow officers?
Also, watch their behavior with their customers. Are they careful? Or are they brazen? In other words, do they just sell to anyone or is there some ritual the buyer must go through?
Scatter the Corner Boys and Go on a Treasure Hunt
Another way to hurt drug dealers is to confiscate their drug stash. Smart drug dealers do not carry any product on them. So formulate ways to make them reveal where it is.
Here's a really good technique: Turn the corner hard with your overhead lights on; this will likely scatter the drug dealers. When this happens, good surveillance will reveal the nook or cranny where the drugs are stashed.
Confiscating a drug stash is much more effective than securing and exiting a marked unit and then chasing a younger suspect. Odds are you won't catch him anyway. It's a lot easier on you and much more effective to just take the stash.
Shut Down the Sale of Papers and Pipes at Local Stores
It's likely that legitimate businesses in the neighborhood are also benefiting from the illicit drug trade. Locate stores selling rolling papers, loose cigarettes, pipes, and other items needed to make drug paraphernalia.
Once you've identified these businesses, advise the owners of your efforts to reclaim the local street corners from the drug dealers. Most store owners are good citizens who will remove certain items to facilitate a police enforcement effort. And the store owner, who may also be a victim of intimidation, may serve as a good source of information.
Go Fishing When You Make an Arrest
When you make a drug arrest, no matter how small, use it as a treasure trove of information. Casual drug users can't wait to talk because they usually have a business or family to get to; hardcore drug users can't wait to talk because they need their next fix.
Prepare your debriefing questions prior to making any arrest. Here's what you can learn with just a little effort:
• Other places to buy drugs. Working with detectives, the casual street drug buyer may be turned into a cooperating informant (CI) who can lead law enforcement to bigger and better stashes. Drug buyers can obviously go places where the police cannot.
• Who is committing petty crimes. Whether it is a suburban neighborhood beset by vandalism or an inner city neighborhood with a large number of burglaries, drug users have an ear on the street and are usually willing to trade information for a kind word to the judge.
Breaking up street-level drug dealing requires a department-wide commitment. You, as a street-level officer, should not assume that only the narcotics bureau can make a difference. The observations and the information generated by the street-level law officer are invaluable in reducing the number of street corner drug dealers.
Det. Joseph Petrocelli is a 20-year veteran of New Jersey law enforcement. He can be contacted through SAFECOPS.com.