The Bustle of Horses on a Ship: Drug Control in New York City Public Housing
46 Pages Posted: 4 May 2005
Date Written: August 30, 2005
For decades, violence, drugs and public housing have been closely linked in political culture and popular imagination. In 1990, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) made funds available to public housing authorities to combat drug and crime problems. This program, the Drug Elimination Program (DEP) combined several strategies under one administrative umbrella: police enforcement, drug treatment, drug prevention, youth and gang outreach, community organizing, integrated health and social service agencies, and tenant mobilization projects. In New York, the Housing Authority spent $165 million on DEP in its 330 public housing sites between 1990 and 1996. Yet there has been little research on this large investment, either in New York City or nationwide. In this study, we examined the effects of the DEP intervention at three levels of complementary theoretical relevance: the public housing development itself, the neighborhood in which public housing is situated, and the police precinct that surrounds each public housing project. We used spatial analyses and hierarchical regressions to estimate DEP effects on drug and crime in public housing sites and their surrounding neighborhoods. We show that crime and drug problems were reduced significantly in the immediate neighborhoods and police precincts surrounding the public housing sites, but crime and drug problems in public housing sites were unaffected by DEP interventions. The absence of effects within public housing reflects the details of the DEP strategies, with its disproportionate allocation of funds to policing strategies compared to demand reduction and informal social control programs. DEP police efforts were nominally focused on public housing sites, but in reality were diffused in the NYPD's broader administrative units to provide resources that benefited law enforcement generally. Seen this way, DEP was an important and strategically valuable supplement to the NYPD's strategic response to a particularly acute violence and crime epidemic, but did little to alter the basic social organization of crime and drugs within public housing sites. We argue for an intervention model that promotes collective action between residents and legal actors, interactions that promote citizen compliance and cooperation with police. The police depend heavily on the voluntary cooperation of citizens to fight crime, and DEP created disincentives for cooperation. This social norms approach would invite policing of drug problems in the context of a legitimacy-focused approach that promotes citizen-based regulation of crime and disorder.
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