Taking Care of Business: Police Detectives, Drug Law Enforcement and Proactive Investigation

By Matthew Bacon
Oxford (OUP): Clarendon Studies in Criminology. 2016.

Jean-Paul Brodeur observed in his treatise The Policing Web (2010) that research on police in uniform dwarfs research about detectives in plain clothes (p. 186). He thought that scholarship in the field should aim for empirical completeness and that care and attention should be especially made to proactive policing methods. As Canadian criminologists know all too well, it has always been challenging to gain access to police organizations for the purposes of scholarly inquiry, and this is even more so the case when it comes to covert forms of policing. Things have started to change somewhat, at least in the UK, where some scholars have begun to ask questions about the impact of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA), which aimed to regulate all forms of covert policing including forms of electronic surveillance. Additionally, in the UK under the auspices of the National Intelligence Model (NIM), the controversial establishment of ‘intelligence-led policing’ as the guiding maxim of police professionalism also raised questions about the ability of senior ranks to affect the behaviour of police rank-and-file. Such questions are particularly acute with regard to police detectives because, as Brodeur also noted, it is officers in these roles who have the greatest discretion and operate in organizational areas of low visibility. How does law and administrative bureaucratic regulation affect the working world of police detectives? This is a crucial question and Matthew Bacon’s ethnographic study of specialist covert drug squads in ‘Smallville’ and ‘Metropolis’ provides an important piece of a very complex puzzle: a theory of policing.

Actually, Bacon’s book has more than one thesis. The author is also interested to understand the relationship between drug law enforcement and illicit markets. He wants to argue that by understanding the regulation of drug markets in terms of harm reduction we can thereby somehow limit the importance and centrality of criminal law enforcement in shaping them. I am pessimistic on this count and tend to agree with scholars of ‘organized crime’ who have argued that prohibition regimes in drugs, alcohol, gambling and other ‘vices’ long ago allowed the organization of criminal enterprise to reach take-off velocity and become selfperpetuating. Formal governmental attempts to affect the organization of crime define ‘organized crime’; everyone else is, as the title of this book suggests, just taking care of business. Time will tell, but currently the federal Government in Canada is looking to fully regulate the cannabis market, mirroring similar steps taken in quite a number of jurisdictions in the United States but on a national level. Many police experts in the field of organized crime in Canada estimate that approximately 80 percent of illicit street crime profits stem from the cannabis trade. How will street level criminal entrepreneurs adjust when one of their main sources of income is turned over to corporate profit makers and governmental regulators? What will cannabis regulation ultimately mean for the police detectives? Reading Bacon’s book I detect that the old-style ‘drug squad’ is being wound down, indeed the author notes that drug law enforcement was being deprioritized during his period of observation (p. 164), and this may be partly why he was able to gain such remarkable research access. If drug law enforcement is being denuded, one question that arises is: what will be the next assignment for officers who used to work the drug squad?

These is merely to voice questions that reading Taking Care of Business raised for this reader and are by no means intended as criticisms. Bacon’s book is an important contribution to contemporary scholarship in the field and will be usefully mined for insights by academic criminologists and many other types of scholar. What I found particularly good about this book is the meticulous ethnographic description of the workings of the drug detectives. The discussions about informant handling, the formalities of source and information evaluation and the descriptions of the intelligence process, help the reader to understand the management structure of covert policing. The guts of the book are three chapters which provide a faithful description of the routine workings of drug units. Chapter six is about ‘intelligence-led investigation’, chapter seven is titled “Licensing Criminals’, and chapter eight describes police ‘making cases’. The reader learns how police ‘intelligence’ is selected, shaped, interpreted and acted on at a stage prior to the manufacture of evidence for public presentation in a court of law. Since drugs markets are large, pervasive, elastic and fluid enough to allow for exchange and profit, intelligence-led drug policing can be like shooting fish in a barrel. As Bacon’s research subjects (police informants?) readily admit, there is more serious drug-related crime than police can feasibly turn into successful cases. Total drug law enforcement is not an option, but what are the criteria of selection? Here the book’s discussion involves consideration of the measurement of harm and concerns about harm reduction. As far as the drug squad is concerned, taking out dealers is what they do because they believe it to be central to effective harm reduction policy. Here I would have appreciated some discussion of Threat Analysis. The strategic assessment of organized crime has long been based on threat measurement and these analytical techniques are part of the repertoire of tasking and coordination in decision making regarding operational priorities concerning the translation of ‘intelligence’ into ‘evidence’ in making organized crime cases (Sheptycki, 2004). This is a grey area and these three chapters cast considerable light upon it. For instance, one of Bacon’s informants enthuses about how a crime analyst had set up a fake Facebook account and ‘had been accepted as a friend by one of the gang members’ (p. 159). That could be construed as entrapment in certain circumstances. In my own observation, threat analysis is a key technique in ILP decision-making and it needs to be better understood. Threat assessment is about choosing criminal ‘targets’.

To what extent are police organized crime targets ‘low hanging fruit’ as opposed to the seriously harmful criminal perpetrators, and how is the threat of organized crime measured anyway? Socio-legal scholars and others who are concerned about the relationship between policing and the law will find these three chapters particularly rewarding. Rule with law scholars will be interested to gauge the effectiveness of RIPA and the administrative imposition of the NIM accountability requirements on patterns of police practice. Legal realists will observe the ability of police agents to deftly apply legal instruments within a semi-formal organizational compromise (NIM-lite) in their endless quest to round up the usual suspects. Canadian criminologists might end their exclusive focus on uniformed policing and begin to refocus some of their concerns on the work of plainclothes officers.

This book also provides nice brief accounts of the historical origins of the police detective, the war on drugs, and of criminological theories concerning illicit drugs markets. One chapter carefully explains the author’s entry into the field and the process of negotiating research access as well as giving due methodological consideration to the project as a whole. Specialists in these topics may skip over these early chapters or stop to quibble, but novice students will find them to be readable, concise and informative. They help to hold the book together as a thoroughly interesting and compelling read.

As Brodeur records (p. 235-36), in a public talk given in 2005 by then RCMP Commissioner Giuliano Zaccardelli (now a senior official at Interpol) he remarked that intelligence-led policing “reeks of secret service, spy agency work – [it is] the capital ‘I’ in ‘Intelligence’” and that the police should have nothing to do with it. Possibly he did not want to draw attention to the centrality of high-policing in contemporary police institutions. In March 2016, RCMP Police Commissioner Bob Paulson publically stated that 500 officers had been reassigned from organized crime files to ones involving national security in a massive shift in policing priorities common to all policing agencies in Europe, North America and elsewhere. Police organization is malleable and changing. Taking note of what the RCMP Commissioners have said, it will be interesting to see how the documented practices for police informant handling and covert surveillance operations found in Taking Care of Business helps us to understand the use of police undercover techniques in other domains.

McLaughlin College, York University


Brodeur, J-P. (2010). The Policing Web. Oxford: Clarendon

Sheptycki, J. (2003). “The Governance of Organized Crime in Canada” in The Canadian Journal of
Sociology 28(3), pp. 489-517.