Book review: Police, Drugs and Community

Mathieu Deflem

Published in the SSSP Newsletter 29(1):33-35, 1998.

Cite as: Deflem, Mathieu. 1998. ‘Police, Drugs and Community,’ by Mike Collison. SSSP Newsletter 29(1):33-35.

The study of the social dimensions of illicit drugs is among the richest fields of investigation in sociology, criminology and related fields. Building on a long tradition, studies on drugs have in recent years particularly focused attention on the rise of crack cocaine on America’s streets and, most prominently, the U.S. war on drugs (see, e.g., Reinarman, Craig and Harry G. Levine, eds, Crack In America, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1997; Friman, H. Richard, NarcoDiplomacy: Exporting the U.S. War on Drugs, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1996). However, though no one would ever deny the relevance of law enforcement strategies in the fight against drugs, issues of police and street-level drug control are a relatively neglected field of study. To be sure, there are some very fine contemporary studies on the policing of drugs, but, by and large, the field of police and drugs has mostly been dominated by instrumental perspectives analyzing the efficiency of certain strategies in rather confined settings. The best available, and by all standards truly excellent, study on police and drugs is now nearly twenty years old (Manning, Peter K., The Narcs’ Game, Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1980).

With Police, Drugs and Community, Mike Collison has made a serious and successful effort to add to the scholarly informed research on the policing of drugs. Collison’s study presents the results of an ethnography, conducted in 1990 in an unnamed English town, of cops in the street, police who make "shit bum arrests" of small dealers and hustlers (p. 12). By necessity, it can be anticipated, the results of this work will mainly pertain to England and the United Kingdom, to towns, moreover, similar to ‘Newtown’ (pseudonym), and cannot be readily transported to the American scene. However, that should and does not imply that Collison’s study has no relevance to scholars interested in the policing of drugs in the United States. Quite on the contrary.

Collison first offers a fine preface to his study by situating the problems surrounding drugs and police within some important broader strands of contemporary British (and generally western) society. One, there has been the rise of a consumption culture oriented towards a glorification of self-identity. Two, alongside of this development towards a new cult of the self, western nations have witnessed a disintegration of the labor market. Together these elements have according to Collison contributed to the development of a new drug economy and have led to transform drug abuse from a marginal activity to an essential element of personal identity, at least in the deprived underclass sections of society. In the U.K. (as in the U.S., though in less spectacular fashion) this has brought about a tremendous rise in the number of drug offenders caught in the criminal justice system and it has escalated the costs of law enforcement and incarceration. Placed within these broad contours of the late-modern era, Collison undertook a year-long ethnographic analysis of the ‘Newtown’ drug detective squad. After briefly outlining some characteristics of detective work derived from previous studies, Collison describes the broader organizational and structural aspects of drug policing. Two issues are relevant here: the transnationalization of drug police work, and the fact that drug police are given sweeping legal powers to target illicit drug markets.

Situated within the mentioned contours unfold the relevant findings of Collison’s ethnographic study. As is most often the case with any decent ethnographic investigation, I cannot in the confines of this review do justice to the richness of the account and convey the authenticity of the narratives. Suffice it to say that Collison relies in the remainder of the book on detectives’ representations of their work, themselves, and their environment and targets. Four themes form the empirical core of the work.

First, it is revealed that drug detectives typically uphold a facade of a modern cowboy energetically engaged in the fight against the enemy hordes of drug dealers. In reality, however, Collison argues, this police construction of a spectacular identity (a Goffmanian impression management in the presentation of self) takes place when, and because, much of the actual police work is mundane and routine.

Second, effective police power in terms of drug control, especially in terms of intelligence gathering and the control of personal information, is tremendous. Especially relied on are informants from within the criminal milieu (an irony of police work well documented by Gary Marx and others). The justification, for legislators especially, rests with the presentation of a drug problem of epidemic proportions. Though not denying the reality of drug abuse and drug trade, Collison does alert to the dead-end involved for users, not just because of addiction, but also and more because of prohibition. Relatedly, though treatment and harm-reduction strategies have been developed (in the U.K. more so than in the U.S.), they have since the mid-1980s come along with a broad mandate for law enforcement to vigorously curb the flow and use of drugs.

Third, deep inside the drug culture police also find the means to operationalize their activities. With informants, police exchange in trading transactions oriented at developing ‘buy-bust’ and ‘sell-bust’ strategies, whereby police pose as users and dealers, respectively. Much like has been documented in the American cops and drugs scene, the police resort to such intrusive tactics largely for pragmatic reasons. The possible implications, however, touch upon much more profound issues surrounding privacy, trust, and democracy. The central question revolves around finding the right balance between the fulfillment of pragmatic needs and the guarantee of normative rights, or the question of how to control a free society.

Fourth, and finally, some estimate is made of the operational success of drug detective work in ‘Newtown.’ By and large, most work pertains to street arrests for cannabis possession and, quite differently in terms of police work, heroin dealing. Though the detective unit is cohesive and entertains good internal working relationships, much of the actual job is done by smaller, typically two-person, teams and is carried out in an ad hoc manner (having flexibility but lacking supervision). Additionally, targeting the huge profits involved in illicit drug dealing (a major concern in the popular disapproval of the drug market), police more than before engage in actuarial strategies aimed at confiscating the material benefits derived from drug trafficking.

Rounding up the study, Collison discusses some of the costs and unanticipated consequences of drug law enforcement. Among the negative effects are to be considered the high costs, financial and otherwise, involved with the policing of drugs as well as the results in terms of reducing the availability of drugs, results which are indeed ambiguous at best. Arrests, moreover, indicate that those captured for drug offenses are mostly "the ‘little people’ in the drug game" (p.224) although they are presented in a clever public-relations move as the big fish. Penalization of drug offenders, finally, Collison argues to be additionally harmful on top of addiction, social isolation, and escalation of personal troubles.

Evaluating Collison’s work, it can be said that this is by many standards a very fine work and an extremely useful addition to a body of scholarship that, as said before, is not sufficiently developed. In an extremely well written style, Collison’s arguments are convincingly presented on the basis of a narrative that vividly presents the everyday reality of drug detectives’ work. As is inevitably the case with any ethnography of a relatively confined circle of research subjects, the original data of this study are self-perceptions and self-definitions that are, no doubt, an important dimension of social reality but cannot substitute for analyses of the broader historical structures and processes in which these life experiences are rooted. That said, I hasten to add that Collison does rely extensively in the introductory and concluding sections of the book on available research on several relevant dimensions that contextualize the detective work he analyzed in-depth. That makes this book much more than the usual rich but micro-oriented description of a fragment of reality.

Social problems scholars can in no rational way ignore the many troublesome facets of drug use and trafficking. Collison’s book (which, incidentally, also appears very useful for use in the classroom) will fuel the interests of SSSP members in at least two respects. First, the book discusses a dimension of street-level policy that the social problems literature has too often left to specialized but narrowly oriented police studies. That has led to the situation that much police scholarship is dominated by works that are unduly instrumental in perspective. But Collison shows how one can research the police with a commitment to standards of scholarship as well as an earnest concern to ameliorate social problems. Second, Collison’s arguments offer a useful antidote to the many over-the-top criticisms of drug prohibition and the ill-fated calls for legalization. Instead, we are informed of a much more realistic and balanced alternative which, in my view, can actually contribute to sensitizing the public and at least indirectly shaping policy.