Major Daniels, as we’ve seen on The Wire has an idea that I think all good liberals are supposed to like — the Baltimore Police Department could stop doing “street rips” aimed at nailing low-level offenders and start targeting their energies at building felony cases against high-end drug figures. I wonder, though, how much sense this makes. The guys who pass for high-value targets in Baltimore are, at the end of the day, mid-sized fish at best in the drug trade at large. Arrest as many of them as you like and you’ll still have the wholesalers who bring the coke and heroin into Baltimore around. And you’ll still have all these drug addicts who want to buy drugs. The combination of demand for drugs and supply of drugs is going to ensure an endless stream of middlemen, no matter how many people you arrest.
Street level dealers, by contrast, are a bona fide nuisance. You wouldn’t want those dudes slinging on the corner where you live or right outside the shop where you buy stuff. And there’s no law of nature that says people need to be selling drugs more-or-less openly out in high-traffic public places. Are you going to get the people to stop selling drugs? No. If someone wants to buy them, someone will sell them. But if the cops made it a sufficient hassle to operate an open-air drug market while winking at people who manage to stay discrete, you could envision a world in which the drug dealers start showing some discretion and quality of life for the neighborhood’s taxpayers goes up.
It sort of sounds correct that the key to more effective crime control policy would be taking up Daniels’ suggestion and doing more highly professional police work — complicated investigations and the like — but the important thing is really to focus on what things are and aren’t achievable. A police department’s ability to influence the fact that people use drugs and other people sell drugs to them is going to be pretty minimal. Their influence over where, when, and how drugs get sold, by contrast, could be pretty large as long as you went at it with some focus.
UPDATE: Spencer Ackerman responds with, in part, some recollections of living in Columbia Heights during the great MS-13 War of 2002–2003. I was in that neighborhood for the tail end of the conflict and, I dunno, I recall it as having been scary as shit notwithstanding the fact that I knew, rationally, that virtually everyone getting hurt was in the game and that my odds of being killed were, in fact, extremely low no matter how often one heard sirens by night and saw police tape by day.