The rise of the crack epidemic in the late 1980s led to substantial increases in crack-related crime in U.S. cities, placing a large burden on law enforcement. It was reported that street blocks where drugs were sold had levels of crime and violence that were three to four times greater than other street blocks. This prompted many urban police departments to use intensive strategies to combat crack-related crime, one of which was raids of crack houses.
In Kansas City, MO, drug-related arrests more than tripled from 1,110 in 1988 to 3,806 in 1989. From 1988 to 1989, there was also an increase in the perception among citizens that crack houses were spreading in Kansas City. Pressure was placed on the Kansas City Police Department to address the problem and as a result, the department implemented the Street Narcotics Unit in 1989. The unit was employed specifically to raid crack houses on blocks with high levels of disorder and crime. The stated purpose of the unit was not to lock up drug offenders or even to substantially disrupt the drug market, but rather to improve public order by reducing crack-related crime in neighborhoods. The goal was also to provide short-term deterrence in blocks with high levels of disorder.
As crack houses are not legitimate establishments that all look the same or remain located in a single dwelling, it can be difficult to identify which sites are truly crack houses. Activity around a dwelling may be interpreted in different ways: citizens may perceive that an abandoned house with people loitering around it is a crack house, but this isn’t necessarily the case, just as some crack houses may be located in nice-looking houses and therefore do not arouse any suspicion. Crack houses on blocks with high levels of crime and disorder were therefore selected using a combination of citizen complaints to a hotline, reports of crime in the area, and police identification of sites.
An undercover police officer or confidential informant (under the supervision of an undercover officer) would enter a suspected crack house and attempt to buy crack using marked bills. If the buy was successful, the drugs were impounded, and a search warrant was issued for the site. The warrant could then be issued within the subsequent 10 days.
To ensure that the correct house was raided, the undercover officer who participated in the buy would drive by with the tactical sergeant to confirm the location of the house before the warrant was executed. In some instances, a second undercover buy was conducted at the house.
To serve the warrant, a team of seven uniformed officers stormed the crack house using a great deal of force. They pulled up in a van outside the house, and several officers quickly broke down the door using a small metal battering ram. During this time, several other officers would go to all exits of the house to ensure that no one fled the house during the raid. Officers ordered all inhabitants to lie down on the floor, and they were all handcuffed.
Once all inhabitants were handcuffed, an extensive search of the house for drugs and weapons was executed. This search sometimes took several hours, and potential customers often came by in an attempt to procure drugs. After the search was completed and all drugs were seized, arrests were made and inhabitants were taken to the police station for questioning. They were also checked for outstanding warrants.
These raids were purposely made highly visible to people in the surrounding areas, with the intent of producing a short-term deterrent effect.
The Street Narcotics Unit is composed of about 20 to 40 officers of the Kansas City Police Department, including one captain and at least one sergeant.
The routine activities theory of crime proposes that crimes occur as a result of available opportunities. Crack houses provide many opportunities for a variety of troublesome behavior, including prostitution, loitering, drug disputes, romantic quarrels, and loud noise. These activities can occur in and around the crack house, creating disorder and crime in the immediate surrounding area. The idea behind the police crack house raids was to improve public order in blocks where crack houses were located; thus, the Street Narcotics Unit did not focus on the adverse effects of crack itself or crack drug sales, but rather on the detrimental microenvironmental impact that crack houses have on surrounding areas.
The high visibility of police crack house raids was additionally designed to produce a deterrent effect on block-level crime and disorder. The idea was to increase the audience’s uncertainty about future police activity and to produce at least a short-term deterrent effect on nearby potential offenders.