Global progressive policing

Police drugs crackdown operations can do more harm than good – I’ve seen it

New Home Secretary Priti Patel has promised a hardline approach to policing, with criminals feeling "terror". But do such approaches have the desired effect? Dr Will Mason of the University of Sheffield shows how one drugs crackdown in a northern city was seen by local residents as damaging trust and exacerbating the community's problems.

The new prime minister, Boris Johnson, has pledged to recruit 20,000 new police officers in England and Wales and appointed Priti Patel, an MP who said in 2011 that she wanted to bring back capital punishment (she has since changed her mind) as his home secretary. Many have voiced concerns about the hardline kind of governance this implies.

With the prospect of more police on the streets and with Patel pursuing such a hardline approach it is particularly important to reflect critically on police practices.

They aren’t wrong. In her first interview as home secretary, Patel has argued that she wants to “empower” the police to “stop criminality” and hopes that criminals “literally feel terror at the thought of committing offences”.

With the prospect of more police on the streets and with Patel pursuing such a hardline approach it is particularly important to reflect critically on police practices and to learn from mistakes of the past.


Research has consistently documented the over-policing of black and minority ethnic communities in Britain. Black people remain disproportionately represented across all areas of police data.

My research demonstrates that “terror” through intensive policing practices is not likely to “stop criminality”.

It is also the neighbourhoods where black and minority ethnic children are more likely to live that receive the highest levels of policing and surveillance. But more police does not always mean less social problems.

A number of contradictory and harmful consequences have been associated with intensive localised policing, known as “crackdown operations”. These include: the short-term nature of positive impacts, a failure to address the root causes of crime, and damaged police-community relations.

My recent research documents the immediate, short and longer-term impacts of one particular drugs crackdown operation in a disadvantaged part of a northern English city.

The findings of this study suggest that the operation failed to achieve its long-term goals. Drawing on detailed observations and interviews with a group of mostly Somali young men (aged 11-25) my work suggests that police must be wary – some of their practices can do more harm than good. My research demonstrates that “terror” through intensive policing practices is not likely to “stop criminality”.

Operation DRUGS

Operation DRUGS took place between 2009 and 2011. It involved deploying undercover agents into parts of the city known locally as drug dealing hotspots.

Efforts by local police to build trusting community relations had been undermined by an operation in which many local officers were not involved.

These agents were unknown to local police and created opportunities for crimes to be committed by offering to exchange designer items (such as clothing and trainers) for drugs.

Spanning nearly two years, the operation culminated in a series of police raids and the prosecution of more than 50 people for drugs-related offences.

This may sound like a success. But beyond the prosecution of convicted drug dealers, Operation DRUGS also produced a number of unintended and long-term consequences for residents in the communities affected. Paying attention to the voices of those residents reveals the unintended, yet harmful consequences of the operation.

I found that local police bore the brunt of community anxieties and frustrations in the weeks that followed the operation. In the local youth club, one young person explained how he had lost faith in the police, feeling like rather than acting as a preventative force they were “there to find their targets”.

Efforts by local police to build trusting community relations had been undermined by an operation in which many local officers were not involved.

At the Magistrates Court, where families gathered to oversee the trial process, community workers described how the police were accused of institutional racism and complicity in what was seen to be a deceitful operation, where vulnerabilities had been exploited to get young people to commit crimes. Following the trial a number of parents boycotted the local youth forum, for failing to protect their children from the local drugs market.

Drug dealing

The operation also had unintended effects when it came to the local drugs market. Research has shown that crackdown operations can create vacuums and opportunities for new groups of dealers to repopulate those markets.

Similarly, the young people in my study voiced their concerns that in the years following the operation the local situation had deteriorated. One young man told me:

Operation DRUGS, where loads of people got arrested … I don’t think it makes a difference people getting arrested because there will still be a new era coming up all the time. How many people got arrested? And it has still got worse.

Young people also worried that since the operation, the culture and practice of drug dealing had shifted, in ways that became more open and blatant. Adi* recounted how “guys now, they’re busin’ shots [selling drugs] outside their own mum’s house”.

This proliferation of local drug dealing provoked a range of anxieties for residents. These included increased contact with drug users and addicts (drugs had apparently become easier to purchase, due to the increasingly open drug dealing practices), exposure to drugs paraphernalia such as used needles as well as the perceived risk of violence associated with drugs markets and concerns that younger siblings might be enticed by the drug dealing opportunities that presented.

Police-community relations

The young people in this study were routinely subject to racial profiling and heavy-handed policing. Examples ranged from rough stop and search practices to one instance where a 15-year-old boy was rugby tackled by police officers in riot gear on his way home from football practice.

For these young people, Operation DRUGS compounded the harms of racial profiling and misidentification. This was communicated through their acknowledgement that the police viewed them as “permanent suspects” and were preoccupied with “catching them out”.

Zimbo*, a 19-year old, told me:

That’s why there is no trust between the community and the police. There just isn’t. If they would be honest with us … then there would be, but with them finding ways to just do you over, there’s going to be no trust

On more than one occasion young people shared accounts of being photographed by police as they went about their daily business, like playing football or going to the library.

At a time of significant investment in the police, it is critically important to think about what good policing looks like. The accounts observed by this research and supported by other international studies show that intensive policing interventions can fail to achieve their goals. Instead, police crackdown operations are likely to exacerbate the structural inequalities that can influence criminality in the first place.

Rather than emphasising fear as a deterrent of crime, investments in policing should focus on the restorative task of building trust in communities and working collaboratively to create safer environments by tackling the root causes of crime.

* All participants’ names have been anonymised to protect their identity.The Conversation

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

3 Responses to “Police drugs crackdown operations can do more harm than good – I’ve seen it”

  1. Martin G says:

    Hi Will, am I right that this operation was commenced a decade ago, and finished 8 years ago?

    The police have a duty to prevent and investigate crime – you seem to suggest the drugs market should have been left untouched, and this would have stopped a vacuum and transformation to street dealing. I don’t know the inns and ours of the post operation contingency plans but I can assure you that an unpoliced illegal market will always metastisise into something worse – post prohibition USA is the perfect example, where unacknowladged organised crime networks grew to be the ancestors of the drugs markets afflicting both south and north america now.

    Colin Atkinson, Del Middleton and I have an article on here in respect of the fairly recent and successful drugs and violence operation ‘Winter Shield’. We used stop and search heavily, in a targetted and intelligence led fashion. Please do have a read and let me know if it changes your opinion at all.



  2. Will Mason says:

    Hi Martin,

    Apologies for the delayed response. Unfortunately, I’m struggling to view your article without a paid subscription, though I’m keen to read it.

    You’re right to note that the operation this comment piece describes was commenced some time ago and methodologically that’s a problem. The full article, from which this shorter piece is based, offers much more detail about the methods, approach and so forth. This article is not neutral, in that it focuses solely on the reflections of young people and youth workers in relation to one operation. The intention here has been to share young people’s interpretations of an intervention, as this group are often impacted by said interventions, but rarely heard. I’ve argued that their voices reveal some of the unintended but arguably damaging consequences of this intervention.

    My intention here is not to universally criticise crackdown operations. Instead, I’m hoping to reflect critically on the issues raised as an opportunity to begin to think through (a) alternative forms of policing, or (b) ways to mitigate against the kinds of unintended consequences raised in this instance (damaged trust, police-community relations and the transformation of street dealing).

    You mention the post operation contingency plans and this to me seems like a really important point. In this study my respondents described very little in turns of post operation support. There were some accounts of attempts to rebuild trust by local police, but the clearest message was that said attempts were undermined by the damaged relations caused by the operation itself. Five years on, young people explained how they felt like the area had been neglected by police who didn’t seem to be acting on what (to them) were quite obvious examples of routine and predictable drug dealing. Perhaps, in this instance, it is long term contingency plans that were lacking. There is also an interesting tension here between young people’s wishes to see active policing of the local drugs market, but not in the form of undercover crackdown operations.

    Certainly in the communities where this study was based, there is a local need to develop positive police-community relations (and there have been some excellent examples of that), but this work can mean managing sometimes generations of difficult experiences – no doubt on both sides.

    I fully accept that policing is valuable and can be an important part of creating safer and happier environments for people. Balancing the duty to prevent and investigate crime with the restorative task of working collaboratively to tackling the root causes of crime feels like an important aspiration. At the local level, this is tricky territory!


  3. Martin G says:

    Hi Will,

    Indeed! Long term legitimacy has to be the aim of policing operations. But… we’ll never please everyone!


    For another post on the operation or get the editors to send me on your email address and i’ll send the policing insight article.



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