David Borden, Executive Director, [email protected], 5/10/02
Every so often, a big city police force decides it will "solve" the drug problem once and for all with a massive show of force. The latest incarnation is Philadelphia's "Operation Safe Streets," planning not huge numbers of arrests, they say (I'll believe that when I see it), just a lot of officers being present in the areas where open-air drug markets currently operate, making their sellers unable to sell.
Several years ago, the Boston police decided to make a show of force in Mission Hill, a housing project in the Roxbury area that had a massive drug and drug sales problem. In late spring of 1995, they swept in and swept the drug dealers out, so they said, bringing a small measure of calm to the suffering neighborhood. It didn't prevent gang members from approaching kids on their way to school and asking them to sell drugs for them, a friend told me, but it had a certain amount of impact, at least for awhile.
A couple of weeks later, I saw an article in the Boston Globe about gunfights in the nearby Dorchester neighborhood. The dealers from Mission Hill, it turns out, were out of economic necessity moving in to new turf, and Dorchester's established dealers weren't happy about it. The heroin they brought with them was also a change to Dorchester at that time, adding another hard drug to the neighborhood's mix. Needless to say, the gunfighting in Dorchester that the Roxbury Mission Hill operation had prompted did nothing to help that area's quality of life.
A former narcotics prosecutor told me once that a law enforcer can rack up years of experience, or can experience the same year over and over. The police planners mounting Operation Safe Streets, if they truly believe in it, need to show a little more imagination; doing the same thing over and over again will not produce substantially different results in the long term. More thoughtful observers, including a good number of prominent law enforcement officials, understand that new approaches are needed if better results are to be ultimately achieved -- and better results are clearly needed.
There will always be people who use drugs, and there will always be people who are willing to pay large amounts of money for them. There will therefore always be people ready, willing and able to supply them, one way or another. Only a legal, regulated market can supplant the violent and disorderly illicit market that plagues so many of our nation's poorest neighborhoods. Philadelphia would benefit from more enlightened thinking on drug policy than its current leadership is willing to provide.