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Drug enforcement in small departments.

According to the National Crime Prevention Council, drug dealers are leaving urban regions at a rapid pace and moving their trade into rural areas.(1) With fewer police officers coveting vast distances, drug dealers view these localities as more vulnerable to their illegal activities.(2)

As illicit drugs spill over into the less-populated sections of America, administrators of small law enforcement agencies must find solutions quickly to the new problems confronting them. Working with limited resources, these administrators must develop innovative ways to deter drug dealers and make their jurisdictions less attractive to them.

The Edgefield, South Carolina, Police Department, which employs only 10 sworn officers, created a special team to combat drug problems within its jurisdiction. Through public support and outside assistance, this team has helped to reduce drug-related crime.


Careful selection of the drug team is the most important element of a successful program. Rural drug teams should include one full-time investigator to serve as team commander, as well as patrol officers, who act as part-time investigators. Administrators should select only those officers who exhibit a dedication to the drug enforcement effort to serve on the team.

Commanders should begin immediately to foster an atmosphere of teamwork and camaraderie within the department. This goes beyond the customary pep talks. Team members should train together on raid practices, firearms, search procedures, and other drug-related issues. In addition, team commanders need to establish clear lines of command to ensure the effectiveness of the unit.

Unit Commanders

Unit commanders perform most functions on rural drug teams. They handle all facets of the cases until the final disposition.

For example, when patrol officers develop information on specific suspects, unit commanders must decide whether to conduct a raid. If the decision to conduct a raid is made, unit commanders must formulate a plan, instruct team members on their specific responsibilities, and supervise the raid.

Unit commanders continue to work all investigations until the case is either closed or goes to court. After completing investigations, they must work closely with prosecutors to ensure that all guilty parties are prosecuted to the full extent of the law. This often includes testifying in court.

Finally, unit commanders must meet with the media concerning publicized cases. It is their responsibility to answer all questions concerning the cases and how investigations are conducted.

Patrol Officers

Patrol officers also play a crucial role on rural drug teams. These officers often develop critical information on drug suspects through regular patrol duties. This unusual circumstance exists because it is difficult to use certain investigative techniques--such as intelligence-gathering and undercover operatives--in rural areas, where local citizens know practically everyone in the area and often do not trust outsiders. In small departments, where resources do not exist to field a fully staffed drug unit, assigning patrol officers to assist the team investigator makes effective use of available personnel resources.

For example, patrol officers often recognize local drug dealers and the vehicles they drive, allowing the officers to incorporate the surveillance of drug dealers into their patrol duties. In addition, while on patrol, the officers can note the daily patterns of the suspects and gain a sense of how they might be conducting business.

However, in order to maximize the effectiveness of the patrol function, a high-visibility patrol plan should also exist. This type of plan ensures that marked patrol units frequently cruise through areas known for drugs and high crime. In addition, periodic saturation patrols and driver's license checkpoints can place a strong police presence in these areas.


Drugs and the problems they cause tear at the fabric of rural communities not accustomed to victimization. As a result, drug raids or sweeps typically bring an immediate, positive result throughout the entire jurisdiction in terms of public support.

Active public support can be crucial to the success of drug enforcement in rural areas. As small jurisdictions begin to implement antidrug programs, citizens are more likely to come forward with information that may eventually lead to the arrest and conviction of drug suspects. In addition, citizen tips may open new avenues for investigations that come to a halt because of a lack of leads.


The availability of outside assistance can also be critical to successful drug enforcement in rural areas. To aid one another, small departments can join together on a regional basis to combat drug trafficking. In a cooperative effort such as this, team members of all involved departments work together on a daily basis, sharing both information and personnel. This approach allows for a larger drug team and broadens the span of enforcement.

Another effective example of cooperation involves task force agreements. Departments that use this enforcement strategy sign cooperative agreements with larger law enforcement agencies in the area that allow them to request assistance on a case-by-case basis. Task force agreements also allow for the sharing of surveillance equipment and the use of officers from other agencies to act as undercover operatives or to assist during drug raids. The success of these agreements prompts many prosecutors' offices to draft agreements that unite all law enforcement agencies within their judicial circuits.


Full-time investigators should have a police take-home vehicle. Because rural drug investigators remain on call around the clock, they may receive calls at any time to question suspects, speak to informants, provide assistance to patrol officers on drug matters, or assist at drug crime scenes. In addition, full-time investigators often make out-of-town trips to deliver evidence for lab analysis or to pursue leads.

It is also important for investigators to have a place to store records, field test kits, evidence bags, and cameras. In many cases, departmental vehicles serve as temporary offices for investigators.


Drug trafficking, once believed to be primarily an urban dilemma, now taxes the resources of small agencies throughout the Nation. Experts expect this trend to continue, especially as urban drug dealers migrate to rural areas.(3) As a result, all jurisdictions, regardless of size, must formulate and implement drug enforcement programs.

Small police departments that build effective drug teams can work closely with other local law enforcement agencies to maximize their resources, while having a positive impact on the drug problem in their communities. Drug enforcement requires planning and organization. The time for action is now.


1 Donna Shulz, "City Comes to Country As Pushers Seek Safer Drug Markets and Fewer Cops," Columbia, South Carolina, State Newspaper, November 1992.

2 Ibid.

3 Ibid.

Case Example

A recent case involved an individual who approached a patrol officer and volunteered to make a drug buy for the Edgefield Police Department. The team commander met with the individual and created a criminal informant (CI) file on him. The team commander and a patrol officer then conducted surveillance as the informant purchased drugs in a known crack house.

The CI later introduced the suspect to an undercover police officer from another jurisdiction. The undercover officer also purchased drugs from the suspect.

The information collected allowed the drug team to raid the crack house and arrest the suspect. He was sentenced to prison for distribution of crack cocaine.

Sergeant Timothy Davis serves with the Edgefield, South Carolina, Police Department.
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Author:Davis, Timothy
Publication:The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin
Date:Sep 1, 1994
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