Washington — A few years ago, the city of High Point, North Carolina, had a seemingly intractable problem: neighborhoods with persistently high levels of crime, driven by open-air drug markets that were unresponsive to traditional policing methods.
Jim Fealy (the city’s police chief from 2003 until his retirement in early 2012) and colleague Marty Sumner (who succeeded Fealy in February) were looking for an alternative to the arrest-and-incarcerate law enforcement approach. They had seen that new dealers quickly replaced the ones in jail, and that the original offenders resumed dealing as soon as they were released.
So Fealy and Sumner consulted David Kennedy, a New York–based criminologist. Kennedy had devised a policing strategy known as focused deterrence, which concentrates enforcement on chronic violent offenders in local “hot spots” (high-crime areas), thereby reducing gun violence.
Working closely with Kennedy, “we took his model and adjusted it to suit the dynamics of drug markets,” Fealy said. “High Point is where the drug-market intervention [DMI] approach was first introduced. I refer to David Kennedy as the mad scientist, and we’re his laboratory.”
Dismantling open-air drug markets is essential, according to Kennedy, because such markets promote robbery, burglary and other crime by addicts. While violent offenders must be taken off the streets, many nonviolent drug dealers can still be reached, Kennedy says.
Kennedy “was the first to propose this set of ideas to us and said no other [police] department had tried to turn the theory into an operation,” Sumner recalled. “We were immediately interested.”
Drug-market interventions are carefully planned and executed: First, nonviolent dealers are identified and invited to a “call-in” meeting with police, social service providers, community leaders and influential figures in the dealers’ lives (including relatives and neighbors). Dealers are advised that they will not be arrested and that the meeting is for their benefit, but that nonattendance will have consequences.
At the meeting, dealers are confronted by family members and told that they are loved, but that their conduct will not be tolerated. Police tell dealers that although there’s enough evidence to prosecute them, their case files will be “banked” if the dealing stops.
GETTING THE COMMUNITY INVOLVED
Community members were receptive to the idea of drug-market interventions “after we dealt with some baggage,” Fealy said.
Areas plagued by drug markets “are almost universally minority communities, mostly African American,” he added. Because of racial tensions and distrust between police and local residents, “we had to engage repeatedly with large groups and small groups” in distressed neighborhoods.
“We said that police methods from previous decades weren’t working and were, in fact, harmful. I apologized to the community. We talked about how we’d be doing things differently, and we worked to dispel misconceptions about the police. We told them we needed their participation and asked, ‘Will you give us another chance and re-engage with us?’ It was a very dramatic moment.”
Local residents were “so dissatisfied” with pervasive crime “that they were willing to put aside all differences and try something new,” Sumner said. “We all quickly agreed the common ground for police and community was [that] everyone wanted to be safe. So we started there.”
At call-in meetings, drug dealers are given two choices: prosecution and incarceration, or working with the DMI program. “You have to take away all their excuses and all their denial,” said Fealy. “We show them videotapes of themselves dealing drugs.”
Community members’ testimony has a powerful effect on dealers, he said. “One of our ‘stars’ was a grandmother who read her grandson the riot act about what he’d been doing.”
The DMI approach “builds trust, re-sets the [behavioral] norms in the neighborhood [and] allows the residents to stand with police and exercise their community moral voice,” said Sumner. “There is a fundamentally new relationship with the community after this work is done right.”
Offenders, Fealy said, must follow three rules: “No guns, no violence, no drug dealing.” Former dealers aren’t suddenly transformed into model citizens, he added: “They still might shoplift or steal, but they’re much less likely to escalate to more serious crime.”
After the program’s debut, violence in High Point dropped nearly 40 percent in two years — and the improvement persists. “Something meaningful done for a few dealers had a great impact on the community,” Sumner said.
Police discovered that an open, transparent relationship with local residents creates sustained progress.
“People don’t throw bottles and rocks at our police cars,” said Fealy. “There’s a new understanding that the cops are straight and fair. Involving the community in this work has made all the difference. It’s hugely gratifying.”
High Point’s successful DMI program has inspired numerous other U.S. cities to adopt a similar policing model.
Sumner said the program not only helps offenders, but also affects their peers: “I have seen examples of an older brother stop dealing and, according to the mother, the younger brother did not follow in the older brother’s footsteps. The mother was convinced the younger brother would have been a dealer if we had not intervened.”