MSU, Lansing police join forces to battle illegal drug markets
LANSING, Mich. – On a recent frigid Thursday afternoon, a team of Lansing police officers wearing bulletproof vests and helmets raced across a frozen lawn and rammed open the door of a suspected drug house.
Monitoring the raid from his vehicle was Lt. Larry Klaus, who was accompanied this day by Ed McGarrell, a Michigan State University crime expert. McGarrell is helping coordinate the latest in a long history of joint projects between MSU and the Lansing Police Department: a federally funded effort to combat illegal drug activity in the capital city.
McGarrell, professor and director of MSU’s School of Criminal Justice, and a team of faculty members will help Lansing develop the program based on lessons learned from other communities. During the past several years MSU has helped 16 U.S. cities implement a similar anti-drug program and recently landed a $1 million grant from the Justice Department to work with 12 more cities.
The work is just one example of the type of criminal justice research and community service that reflect MSU’s land-grant mission by attempting to solve real-world problems. Other examples include the creation of a computerized image-retrieval system that allows police to identify suspects by their tattoos and a nationwide training program for police to battle terrorism.
“This is a fantastic example of our core mission,” McGarrell said of the anti-drug effort. “It’s research-based and involves translating that research into practice. There’s also an educational component: The lessons learned in Lansing will make their way back into our classrooms, so students are exposed to cutting-edge research and practice.”
Klaus, who supervises Lansing’s undercover narcotics team, said cocaine, heroin, ecstasy and other illegal drugs continue to be a problem in the city. During the recent raid – in a modest residential area not far from downtown – officers seized heroin, drug paraphernalia and a handgun, and the house was boarded up.
“Narcotics trafficking is significant; it drives many of our major crimes including robbery and homicide,” said Klaus as he watched the raid with McGarrell. “And a lot of the trafficking is now cell phone-based out of these homes. It’s not like the old days when it was mainly sold on street corners.”
To attack the problem, Lansing will use a $300,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice to implement the innovative program, which essentially works like this: Authorities continue going after serious, repeat drug offenders while offering a second chance to first-time, nonviolent offenders. Working with the prosecutor’s office, community groups and social service agencies, police attempt to get the young offenders on the right path by lining them up with drug treatment, job training, mentoring and other services.
The drug case is held over the first-time offenders’ heads, meaning if they commit another offense they are prosecuted for both. The goal is to break the cycle of drug dealing and eliminate drug markets one neighborhood at a time.
McGarrell and his team will help Lansing police create a database of drug offenses in the city, determine which neighborhoods to target, interview residents for their input, train officers and then evaluate and further refine the program.
The School of Criminal Justice, which turns 75 this year, is the nation’s oldest degree-granting criminal justice program. Faculty and students from the school have worked with Lansing police for more than four decades, McGarrell said.
In fact, the concept of community policing – in which an officer is assigned to a specific neighborhood and works hand-in-hand with residents and shop owners – was essentially developed in Lansing in the 1980s by the late Bob Trojanowicz, former director of the school.
Community policing took hold nationwide and generally is seen as successful. “It has changed the way police departments police their communities across the country,” said Klaus, who started his 24-year career as a community police officer in a rough Lansing neighborhood.
When the U.S. Justice Department launched a neighborhood-level program to address gun violence in 2001, MSU was tapped as its national research and training partner. Under MSU’s guidance, that program, called Project Safe Neighborhoods, has been successful in many urban areas (see story). The anti-drug program in Lansing and other cities is an offshoot of Project Safe Neighborhoods.
Over the years, criminal justice researchers from MSU also have helped Lansing police devise a way to reroute traffic patterns to deter drugs in certain neighborhoods. In addition, the school produces a report for the police chief analyzing whether Lansing patrol officers engage in racial profiling.
The latest joint project to combat narcotics is in the early planning phases. Klaus said the city has some 180 suspected drug houses – many more than in years past. To get to the heart of the issue, he said factors such as housing must be addressed. Drug dealing is more prevalent in neighborhoods with a high percentage of rentals, he explained, so law enforcement officials often work with low-income housing agencies to rehab seized drug houses and get more responsible owners in them.
McGarrell said he may involve officials from Rockford, Ill., in Lansing’s efforts, since Rockford was one of the first cities in the anti-drug program to successfully address problem housing and neighborhood revitalization.
McGarrell agreed that attacking the illegal drug markets goes much deeper than standard enforcement. Essentially, it involves changing a criminal culture, returning control of the neighborhood to local residents and increasing the quality of neighborhood life.
“What’s important about this initiative is looking beyond the short term,” McGarrell said. “What we want to do is reclaim these neighborhoods. Michigan State University has been advancing knowledge and transforming lives through innovative teaching, research and outreach for more than 150 years.
Michigan State University has been advancing knowledge and transforming lives through innovative teaching, research and outreach for more than 150 years. MSU is known internationally as a major public university with global reach and extraordinary impact. Its 17 degree-granting colleges attract scholars worldwide who are interested in combining education with practical problem solving.