But the law is the law so what are the western cops gonna do? If they arrested every dude for tipping back a High Life, there'd be no time for any other kind of police work. And if they looked the other way, they’d open themselves up to all kinds of flaunting, all kinds of disrespect.
—Bunny Colvin, The Wire
The Bunny Colvin dilemma describes the difficult trade-offs required in smart policing.
With limited resources, authorities are faced with nearly impossible decisions on how and when to enforce the law in order to maximize public security. Drug offenses in particular have been a lightning rod for criticism as time spent cracking down on petty drug offenses diverts investigatory power away from more serious and often violent crimes.
A new report considers how police forces can balance these challenges. From Boston to Brazil, the briefing paper, “Focused deterrence, selective targeting, drug trafficking and organised crime: Concepts and practicalities,” describes different law enforcement techniques that have successfully minimized harmful impacts while deterring the most dangerous kinds of criminal behavior.
Smart tactics require authorities to target their policing to desired outcomes and to focus their attention away from the lowly “High Life” drinker (in Colvin’s metaphor) in favor of more strategic aims.
The focused-deterrence, selective targeting strategies also enable overwhelmed law enforcement institutions to overcome certain under resourcing problems. Especially, in the United States, such approaches have produced impressive results in reducing violence and other harms generated by organized crime groups and youth gangs.
The report also considers how police may balance what’s desirable with what’s achievable.
The complete suppression of drug markets and organized crime through so-called “zero-tolerance” approaches is impossible—especially in countries with weak government institutions. At the same time, heavy-handed drug enforcement efforts can have disastrous knock-on effects—increasing levels of violence by replacing stable drug markets with highly competitive ones, promoting human rights and civil liberties violations, and resulting in overcrowded prisons.
The report gives clear recommendations for how law enforcement can develop strategies to manage the market—strategies that will be less resource-intensive and much more likely to reduce the criminality and violence associated with the most pernicious elements of the drug trade.
IDPC, an Open Society grantee, has initiated this project, with the participation of Chatham House and the Institute of Strategic Studies, to develop strategies that manage drug markets while minimizing harms to communities. The paper is one of a series that considers how law enforcement powers can beneficially shape, rather than entirely eradicate, drug markets.