Policing Illegal Drug Markets:
Geographic Approaches to Crime Reduction
By George F. Rengert, Jerry H. Ratcliffe, and Sanjoy Chakravorty
Monsey, NY: Criminal Justice Press, 2005
This book analyzes the environmental, economic, and social factors that foster street drug markets, and identifies effective police tactics to counteract illicit drug sales at the local level. Its goal is to “encourage the police and public to think geographically and economically” (p. 147) by focusing on place rather than on offenders.
The authors first address the question why we should be concerned with illegal drugs. They then examine existing police responses, looking at the locations of drug markets from an economic perspective. The methodology is discussed in detail sufficient for others to replicate their study. Strategies for how to reduce the impact of street drug markets are proposed and discussed. A reference list is provided, though there is no index. A technical appendix explains the analytic modeling approach.
The study was conducted in Wilmington, Delaware, part of the Greater Philadelphia conurbation. Using police arrest data for drug sales as the dependent variable, the authors examined the influence of two sets of independent variables: census measures of susceptibility, based on a demographic profile of local demand, social disorganization, and social efficacy; and spatial measures of accessibility and activity. Two separate analyses were done; the first predicted likely areas of drug markets, while the second estimated the size of a drug market.
The authors found illicit drug markets spatially cluster and follow agglomeration economies. They observe that “Police cannot arrest their way out of illegal drug problems in their jurisdictions” (p. 135). Instead, they recommend a problem-oriented approach, one that considers the local nature of a neighbourhood drug problem. They argue that place is key because drug markets, like all economic markets, are optimally situated for the purposes of trade. The enduring nature of certain street drug markets, despite repeated police crackdowns over time, is strong evidence of geographic desirability.
Defining an open-air drug market location as a problem allows police to focus on the economic and situational factors that make a location attractive. By disrupting factors of production, the market location can be made financially unviable. The authors caution, however, that “Information has to be translated into crime reduction tactics … This requires going beyond the maps to identify the spatial and environmental context of a crime site” (p. 134). The socio-spatial context is a local one, and solutions have to be individually crafted for specific problems.
The book contains several important insights. For example, the authors note that criminologists can make an equally important contribution by determining – despite conventional “wisdom” – what does not cause crime. They also warn that policies of “blaming,” whether it be a foreign source-producing country or a neighbourhood homeless shelter, often distract us from understanding the true nature of a problem.
The study makes two assumptions that should be carefully considered in other situations. First, arrest sites are taken to accurately reflect all drug sales locations, an assumption justifiable here because multiple years of data were analyzed. Second, the authors argue drug sales will be reduced if markets are displaced to less desirable places. This assumes that illicit drug markets establish themselves in such places and do not create them by their presence, a question actually raised early in the book. In some circumstances, there may be an interactive dynamic relationship, particularly for neighbourhoods already close to a disorganization tipping point.
The authors provide an interesting perspective on the problem of local drug markets, demonstrating they are not randomly located but are rather the product of both demography and environment. This is an interesting and thought provoking text. While short and easy to read, it contains much information and its arguments do not simplify complex issues. It should be read by practitioners, scholars, policy makers, and anyone else concerned about community drug problems.
D. KIM ROSSMO
Texas State University