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Police Chiefs Say Balance is Needed to Solve Drug Problem


May 1996

According to a survey released April 9 by the Washington-based groups Drug Strategies, Inc. and the Police Foundation, police chiefs believe a more balanced approach involving law enforcement, prevention, education, treatment, interdiction, and punishment is needed to solve the nation's drug problem (Drug Strategies and the Police Foundation, Drugs and Crime Across America: Police Chiefs Speak Out, 1996).

The poll, conducted by Peter D. Hart Research Associates, found that police chiefs think a new concept is needed to deal with the drug problem. 60% of chiefs said that law enforcement has been very unsuccessful or fairly unsuccessful at dealing with the drug abuse problem. 85% of chiefs said major changes or a fundamental overhaul is necessary in the nation's drug policy. (90% of chiefs said decriminalization should not be part of the new strategy).

318 police chiefs or police department spokespeople responded for the survey, with 92 from large cities, 60 from medium-sized communities, and 166 from small towns.

When asked if the drug problem is primarily a criminal justice or a public health problem, chiefs were split. For large-city chiefs, 41% volunteered that the drug problem should be considered both a criminal justice and a public health problem (34% said it is a public health problem and 24% said it is a criminal justice problem). Chiefs from medium-sized cities most often said the drug problem is a public health problem, but the split was more even (37% said public health problem, 30% said criminal justice problem, and 33% volunteered that it was both). 48% of small town chiefs said the drug problem is a criminal justice problem, compared to 20% who said it was a public health problem, and 31% who volunteered both.

The survey also found that chiefs of police see drug abuse as one of the major problems in their communities. 58%, more than for any other problem, said that drug abuse is very serious or quite serious in their communities. [A survey of the general public sponsored by Drug Strategies, Inc. last year found that 52% of people polled said drug abuse was very serious or quite serious in their community, see "Poll Finds Public Gives Low Grades to War on Drugs," NewsBriefs, April 1995, p. 7.] The second most frequently mentioned problem by chiefs was domestic violence (55%), followed by property crime (39%) and violent crime (23%). Chiefs in larger cities were more likely to say that drug abuse is a major problem in their communities (82% in large cities, 50% in small- and medium-sized towns).

63% of police chiefs said the drug problem has become worse in the past five years. 31% said the problem has remained the same, and only 5% said there is somewhat less of a problem.

When asked what strategies they are using to reduce the drug problem, chiefs most frequently said drug education (31%), followed by "buy-bust" operations (17%), neighborhood watch programs (13%), directed patrol or street sweeps (13%), or organized crime units (11%). While 48% of large-city police chiefs said improving education, prevention, and treatment programs should be emphasized to reduce drug-related problems, only 17% of small town chiefs said so. The majority (57%) of small-town chiefs said more emphasis should be given to prosecuting dealers and users, developing more punitive sentencing plans, and improving interdiction.

When asked what problems they face in dealing with the drug problem, large-city chiefs most often said there were not enough treatment programs (52%), followed by a lack of law enforcement resources (36%), and limited resources for school prevention programs (34%). The majority of small-town chiefs said their problem was a lack of law enforcement resources (61%), followed by inadequate control of the supply of drugs to their community (24%), limited resources for school prevention (22%), and a lack of treatment programs (19%).

[For more information about this survey, contact Drug Strategies, Inc. at 2445 M Street, NW, Suite 480, Washington, DC 20037, 202-663-6090.]