Measuring the Effectiveness of Drug Law Enforcement

Article excerpt

Foreword | Seizing drugs and arresting those who import, manufacture, grow and/or distribute these drugs is often viewed as the most important purpose of drug law enforcement. This view is certainly strong in popular media depictions of organised drug criminals. Unfortunately, the reality is perhaps far less entertaining or straightforward, although just as, if not more, important. While there is no doubt that a key role of drug law enforcement is to remove drugs and high-risk offenders from the community, the most critical factor is what this actually achieves in the longer term. That is, a community that is less burdened by the impact of drugs, such as crime, illness, injury and death.

Increasingly, there is both internal and external pressure on drug law enforcement to demonstrate not just how much work they do (the seizures and arrests), but how well they do it (the community impacts)- something that has so far proven very difficult. This paper outlines the nature of these challenges and summarises findings from a national project that shows a practical and effective way forward in measuring the impacts of drug law enforcement.

Adam Tomison


Measuring the impact of drug law enforcement (DLE) practice on illicit drug markets is a notoriously difficult task. Conventional approaches to assessing DLE performance focus on the use of drug seizure and arrest data. However, these data say more about the extent to which police engage in certain types of activities and allocate resources than they do about DLE effectiveness because offences relating to illicit drugs are far more likely to be detected by law enforcement agencies than reported to them. As such, the more effort and resources DLE invest in detecting illicit drugs, the more likely it is that drugs will be seized. On the one hand, DLE can potentially claim success for not seizing any drugs- that is, based on the absence of seizures and arrests, it could be argued that there is no drug problem. Conversely, a lack of seizures and arrests could lay police open to substantial criticism for failing to address the drug problem.

Aside from this, traditional measures say little about the complexities of DLE work and the broader impacts of law enforcement effort. For example, they cannot provide an assessment of the full impact of DLE in producing something of value for communities, such as making communities feel safer and more secure, which is something that Australian DLE personnel view as an important outcome of their work (Willis, Homel & Gray 2006).

The volume of crime is but one measure that can be considered in the broader assessment of the quality of work done by law enforcement. A range of appropriate measures that captures the complexities of law enforcement work can:

* permit a more rigorous assessment of the broader range of outcomes that law enforcement actually produce for their communities (and so help law enforcement agencies demonstrate impacts in real terms);

* inform communities of the depth and breadth of work in which modern law enforcement is engaged;

* form the basis upon which both operational and long-term strategic decision making can be made; and

* assist agencies to justify expending and seeking resources.

Supply and use of illicit drugs are, by their largely clandestine nature, a hidden phenomenon that can only be monitored through use of indirect indicators linked to observable consequences, such as crime, drug-related illness, injury and death. The use of these types of multidisciplinar/ indicators to monitor and measure law enforcement performance is gaining increasing acceptance here in Australia and elsewhere as there is greater recognition that arrest and seizure data alone are unsatisfactory when interpreted in isolation from other factors (Castle 2008; Kilmer & Hoorens 2010; Osnick Milligan & Fridell 2006; Rossi 2001 ; Weatherburn 2000). …