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"Smoking Them Out": Community Efforts to Shut Down Crack Houses


February 1995

In the Winter 1995 Policy Review, Tucker Carlson describes the work of community activists to drive crack houses out of business (Tucker Carlson, "Smoking Them Out," Policy Review, Winter 1995, p. 56-65).

The author, a fellow at The Heritage Foundation, spends most of the article discussing the methods employed by Herman Wrice and the Philadelphia organization Mantua Against Drugs to close crack houses. According to Wrice: "the trick to solving the crack problem is getting the neighbors involved."

Wrice organizes and leads groups of neighbors who want to target a crack house in their area. They use such tactics as harassing people going in and out of the house, getting the owner of the house to evict the tenants, talking utility companies into shutting off water and electricity, and working with police to arrest people inside the house. The groups also show up at a dealer's bail hearing to "stare down" judges.

"We can scare judges," Wrice says. "We're going to stand in court with our shirts and hats on and say 'you better make the bail a hundred thousand.' He gets the point. If he does that [gives low bail] a couple of times, we put it in our newsletter."

Wrice and his groups are successful in moving drug dealers out of their areas -- so successful that Wrice has been asked by other cities and towns -- from Taylor, Texas to Marion, Indiana to Washington, DC -- to help organize neighborhood groups.

[The author, writing for the conservative Policy Review, beams with unbridled admiration throughout his article for Wrice and his group. Despite the one-sidedness of the writing, this article raises some interesting (if unintended) questions about privacy rights and the role that residents have in managing the drug problem in their areas. Some of Wrice's activities are admirable, and others are downright scary.

In one incident described in the article, a youth cursed at a woman on the street. The woman went to Wrice, who organized a group to go and talk with the boy's mother. Such commitment to community building is to be admired and emulated. Lack of investment in one's environment has been targeted by the right and left as one of the root causes of despondency and crime in today's urban areas.

While Wrice's efforts to encourage "the whole community to raise one child" are admirable, some other activities are questionable. Wrice will continue to harass people coming in and out of a targeted house, even when threatened with violence or when he might be infringing on the residents' privacy:

Herman Wrice's justification for his tactics can seem a little thin in places, but to those who live in drug-blighted neighborhoods, getting rid of crack houses is justification enough. In Mantua, many crack houses are rowdy non-stop parties that cause extreme strains on their neighbors. Police are not always certain whether a residence is actually a crack house -- that is, a place where drugs are sold -- or simply a noisy house where drugs are shared among friends. Such questions may bother civil libertarians, and hamper police departments, but they do not trouble Herman Wrice. "It (sic) not for us to prove it's a crack house," he says. "If the place disturbs the neighborhood, we'll go there."

The freedom to act without making fine distinctions is one of the reasons Wrice and his group have been effective ... "Cops need hard evidence to **** with you. Neighbors don't."

Where is the line between healthy community involvement and harassment? While one can condemn these groups for intimidating judges into giving excessively high bail to suspected non-violent offenders, cn we condemn their attempts to do something that is absolutely vital to the survival of their neighborhoods? -- SMJ]