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How Victimized Drug Traders Mobilize Police

Illicit drug traders are more likely to be victimized because they cannot report crimes committed against them to the police. Their inability to access law is seen as a major precipitating factor in retaliatory violence. But, as we demonstrate, sometimes victimized drug ...

Published onJan 27, 2013
How Victimized Drug Traders Mobilize Police


Illicit drug traders are more likely to be victimized because they cannot report crimes committed against them to the police. Their inability to access law is seen as a major precipitating factor in retaliatory violence. But, as we demonstrate, sometimes victimized drug traders do ask for formal mediation. Based on evidence from prior research combined with experiences recounted to us in the course of interviewing twenty-five unincarcerated drug dealers, we propose a typology of how this happens. We suggest that victimized drug traders mobilize the police in four conceptually distinct ways: “BSing”; getting over; criminal concealment; and criminal disclosure. Our typology provides the empirical grounding for future work aimed at theorizing this behavior and for reducing retaliatory violence by enhancing victimized criminals’ access to law. We conclude by discussing the relevance of our “inconvenient” results for the broader ethnographic audience.


Predators and retaliators frequently target illicit drug sellers and buyers (Jacobs 1999, 2000; Levitt and Venkatesh 2000). Prior research suggests that systemic victimization results from the removal of formal means of dispute resolution (Goldstein 1985; Goldstein et al. 1997). “The markets for illegal goods and services operate without the usual protections against fraud and violence offered by the court system” (Reuter 2006, 275). Without such safeguards, drug traders are rational targets for vulturine and vigilante acts (Jacobs 2000; Jacobs and Wright 2006; Wright and Decker 1994, 1997). Yet to assert that underworld participants operate in an anarchic vacuum overstates the case. On occasion, for instance, uninvolved citizens and police officers mobilize law when they stumble upon a drug market-related victimization (see, for example, Anderson 1999, 48-9). Perhaps more surprisingly, victimized drug traders also occasionally—albeit rarely—request formal mediation (see Copes, Forsyth, and Brunson 2007; Copes et al. 2011; Topalli 2005). Although researchers have recently started to direct explicit attention to this phenomenon, we do not yet have a clear answer to the question: How does it happen?

Our paper suggests a typology of how drug traders mobilize police after being victimized. This classification scheme holds promise for improving theoretical and empirical understanding of this behavior, and, in turn, for discerning how to promote formal mediation to reduce drug market-related victimization. In the following sections, we first review theories of why victimized drug traders typically do not mobilize law. We subsequently examine prior research on drug traders’ manipulation of law to punish victimizers. This discussion is followed by a description of our method and data, namely qualitative accounts obtained in a study of 25 un-incarcerated, lower-class urban drug dealers. We use their narratives to illustrate the two primary methods—criminal concealment and disclosure—used by victimized drug traders to mobilize law in a non-manipulative way. We follow our description of these methods with an integrated typology of how they mobilize the police. We conclude by discussing the implications of our findings for theory development, policy implementation, and broader ethnographic concerns. 

The Absence of Police Mobilization

Formal mediation is the handling of a grievance by the government (see Black 1976, 1998; Cooney 2009; Jacques and Wright 2008a, 2011a). The conceptual umbrella of “law” covers many behaviors, including prohibitions, calls to the police, investigations, arrests, prosecutions, and punishments (Black 1998, 9). Law enforcement is every act aimed at making people accountable for the specifications of prohibitions.

The first link in this judicial chain of events is mobilization, “the process by which a legal system acquires its cases” (Black and Mileski 1973, 6; Black 1980). If the government does not find out about a crime, then it cannot punish that crime. Anyone can mobilize law. For example, the police proactively mobilize law when they are the first to discover a crime has occurred, but uninvolved persons also have the right to report crimes, such as when they hear gunshots outside of their homes. Victims of crime represent a third potential mobilizing force.

As various researchers have demonstrated, victimized drug traders are not likely to request formal help in the first place (Jacobs 2000; Jacobs, Topalli, and Wright 2000; Topalli, Wright, and Fornango 2002). Consider what a few victimized dealers we interviewed said about mobilizing police.[1] After we asked Icy why he did not call the cops when robbed, he explained, “I just wouldn’t do that. Rather than get somebody locked up I deal with it in the street. Some people call it street justice. I wouldn’t call the police on my worst enemy.” OG shared a similar sentiment in describing why he shunned police assistance after his home was burglarized: 

“It [would be] like being a snitch. If every time something happens to you, you call the police then basically you can’t handle your business or your situation by yourself. You need the police to assist you and it lowers your credibility in the street. I mean you can’t handle your own business, you need the assistance of the police department, and that’s not how it works.” 

Another dealer, Smooth, said the following about handling frauds: “I mean what you gonna do? What you gonna go up to the police and say, ‘Hey man, he skeeted me out of an ounce’? Hell no.”

Four theoretical frameworks—the rationality, cultural, police legitimacy, and social structural perspectives—suggest reasons for why victimized dealers are reluctant to ask the police for help. The rationality perspective argues that rewards and punishments determine how people behave (Bentham 1988 [1789]; Cornish and Clarke 1986; Kahneman and Tversky 1972). As any given behavior—such as instigating and cooperating in formal mediation—becomes less beneficial or more costly, its rate of occurrence and magnitude should decrease. Persons who possess, consume, or sell illegal substances may fear that involving the police will lead to the detection and punishment of their own criminality (Jacobs and Wright 2006; Jacobs 2010). Also, criminals may believe police are less concerned about helping victims who are lawbreakers (Klinger 1997). Victimized drug traders who have such fears and beliefs are less likely to mobilize police.

The cultural perspective argues that social behavior is a learned adaptation stemming from a common set of values, attitudes, and beliefs in a community (Sutherland 1937). Culture affects people’s propensity to request and cooperate in or refrain from formal mediation (Anderson 1999). Persons who learn from their family, community, or personal experiences that law enforcement is discriminatory, ineffective, or costly are less likely to ask for help when victimized. Many criminals, including drug traders, subscribe to an “honor culture” that is hostile to law enforcement (Cooney 1998). They learn that police are, at worst, their enemies or, at best, indifferent to their problems. When victimized, then, they are unlikely to mobilize the law because their culture tells them not to, although they may manipulate it to their advantage.

The police legitimacy framework, which has been advanced principally by Tyler (1990, 2004), sits at the intersection of the rationality and cultural perspectives. It posits that victims are more likely to request help from police when they are viewed as legitimate. While such perceptions are based on the public’s assessments of police performance (e.g., effectiveness in fighting crime) and procedural fairness (i.e., equitableness in how people are managed in police-citizen encounters), the latter factor has a stronger positive effect (Tyler 2004). People attribute greater procedural fairness to police when they believe—due to personal or vicarious experiences—that (1) suspects, complainants, and bystanders are treated with respect and (2) allowed to give their side of the story, and that (3) police are neutral and (4) well-intentioned. Throughout life, many drug dealers experience or learn of interactions with police that lead them to regard the police as procedurally unfair and thus illegitimate (Anderson 1999; Brunson 2007; Carr, Napolitano, and Keating 2007; Stewart 2007). In turn, this belief makes dealers disinclined to mobilize police when victimized.

The social structural approach suggests, in part, that the amount of formal mediation that responds to a crime depends on the social status of the victim (Black 1976; Cooney 2009). In general, less law is applied to crimes against lower status persons. One aspect of a person’s social status is their respectability, which “is a quantitative variable, known by the social control to which a group or person has been subjected: The more social control, the less respectable. … To be subject to criminal law is especially unrespectable, and the more serious the crime, the more unrespectable it is” (Black 1976, 111). Thus, crimes against criminals, including drug traders, are responded to with less law since such persons have lower respectability (see Jacques and Wright 2010a). 

Manipulative Police Mobilization

As described above, a variety of theories propose explanations for why drug traders do not mobilize the law in response to their victimizations. Yet participation in an illicit drug market does not automatically disqualify victims from seeking legal redress. Regardless of whether a person buys or sells drugs, it is illegal to rob or assault them, steal from their vehicle or home, or damage their property. Legally speaking, being a criminal does not preclude a person from simultaneously being a crime victim.[2] Thus, when the police become aware of such crimes it is their duty to investigate.

Little previous research addresses police mobilization by drug traders. The research that does exist focuses disproportionately on cases of “legal manipulation” (Cooney 1998, 129). This term refers to cases in which victims seek justice through cooperation with police, but the reported crime either did not occur or is not the one motivating the cooperation. At a minimum, legal manipulation is misleading; at worst, it constitutes the crime of lying to a legal official (Rosenfeld, Jacobs, and Wright 2003; Topalli 2005).

In his ethnography of police work, for example, Moskos (2008, 100) quotes a police officer in Baltimore who describes false reports as “[b]ullshit”, or “BS”: cases where a “junkie … wastes my time because they get burned [i.e., ripped-off on a drug deal] and say, ‘I was robbed.’” In a seminal article on drugs-crime relationships, Goldstein (1985: 501) makes mention of BS: 

Victims of systemic violence frequently lie to the police about the circumstances of their victimization. Not a single research subject whom I have interviewed who was the victim of systemic violence, and who was forced to give an account of his or her victimization to the police, admitted that he or she had been assaulted because of owing a drug supplier money or selling somebody phony or adulterated drugs. All such victims simply claimed to have been robbed.

BS is thought to account for a substantial proportion of putative auto-thefts in areas where crack-cocaine is regularly traded for access to a buyer’s vehicle, which is known as a “rock rental” (Copes, Forsyth, and Brunson 2007). Loaners report their vehicle stolen—even though it was actually traded—when borrowers exceed the agreed upon rental length, damage the vehicle, use it to commit a serious crime (e.g., robbery or drive-by shooting), or are caught by the police (Copes et al. 2011; Copes, Forsyth, and Brunson 2007).

Another way that drug traders deceptively manipulate law involves reporting not their own victimization but rather other crimes committed by the perpetrator. Mobilizing the police in this way is designed as pay back against the victimizer. A female dealer interviewed in St. Louis, for instance, “fessed up to ‘hating on,’” meaning reporting to the police, “rival drug dealers in retaliation for them hating on her previously” (Rosenfeld, Jacobs, and Wright 2003, 302; also see Topalli 2005, 811-5). Although this case does not respond to a criminal victimization, it does indicate drug traders may report a crime by an adversary to exact retribution for another offense.

To summarize, previous research shows that victimized drug traders invoke police help (1) by reporting untrue or misleading facts about the victimization, and (2) by reporting not their own victimization but instead other crimes committed by the perpetrator. What previous research has largely overlooked are cases in which victimized drug traders make a police report absent any such manipulation. Such cases do exist (see, for example, Copes et al. 2011; Mohamed and Fritsvold 2009, 145). Yet we know little about how they happen. Below, we examine four cases in which drug traders responded to their victimization by non-manipulatively mobilizing police. 

Method and Data

The offenders’ perspective on crime and control has a storied history. It is exemplified by classics such as Shaw’s (1930) The Jack-Roller and Sutherland’s (1937) The Professional Thief. The use of this methodological strategy is premised on evidence that important knowledge can be obtained from communicating with and observing offenders, particularly because they know things that others, including police and some victims, do not know. Second, shifting the perspective from the law enforcer or law-abiding victim to the criminal provides insights into how existing concepts, typologies, and theories may be altered to achieve greater levels of validity, generality, and simplicity (see Jacques and Wright 2011b).

Over the past two decades, a variant of the offender’s perspective has generated substantial interest among qualitative researchers and criminologists as a whole: that of the active offender. This approach rests on the notion that active offenders know things that retired or institutionalized criminals may not know, remember, or be willing to discuss (Jacques and Wright 2010b; but see Copes and Hochstetler 2010). It has been used to improve our understanding of how and why many kinds of offenders—including robbers, auto thieves, burglars, retaliators, gang members, and drug traders—engage in crime (see, for example, Decker and Van Winkle 1996; Jacobs 1999, 2000; Miller 2001; Topalli 2005).  

The Present Study

Our data come from interviews with 25 un-incarcerated drug dealers. At the time of the interview, all of them were selling drugs or had done so within the past two years. The sample consists mostly of retail dealers (e.g., persons selling a few grams at a time), with some low-level suppliers also being interviewed (e.g., persons selling a few ounces, kilos, or pounds at a time).

All of the respondents are black. Six of the twenty-five are women. None of the respondents graduated from college; thirteen graduated from high school and another three received their General Educational Development (GED) degree. The age of the population clustered mostly around thirty years, with a few participants being younger. Involvement with police and government prosecutors is the norm for this group; practically all of them have been arrested in the past. Most of them sell crack cocaine, heroin, marijuana, or ecstasy, although some participants sell other drugs too.

The respondents reside and ply their trade in lower-class neighborhoods in St. Louis, Missouri. As of 2010, the city of St. Louis had a population of about 320,000, and that population is predominantly black (U.S. Census Bureau 2012). St. Louis was ranked as the United States’ most dangerous city around the time of our study (Morgan and Morgan 2007; but see Rosenfeld and Lauritsen 2008). The neighborhoods from which our participants were recruited, which are clustered in the northern part of the city, not only are extremely poor, but have many related social problems, including high rates of unemployment, low rates of educational attainment, large numbers of single parent households, and widespread substance abuse. Drugs are sold openly, often by youths in their mid to late teens, and they have no shortage of customers. Physically, these areas might reasonably be likened to a war zone—a landscape littered with abandoned buildings, junked cars, and gang graffiti sprayed on practically every available wall. Groups of young men with too much time on their hands congregate on the street corner, insulting one another’s sexual prowess, getting high, and looking for any opportunity to make fast cash. As the historian, David Courtwright (1998), has observed, this is a world tailor-made for conflict and violence.

We conducted interviews during the summer of 2006.[3] A specially-trained project fieldworker, who has cooperated with us in prior studies of active offenders, recruited participants for us. Trading on his trust, he worked through chains of street referrals to gain introductions to drug dealers, and then built on these initial introductions by obtaining further referrals from the dealers themselves. The fieldworker was paid $75 per successful recruit because the process of convincing active offenders to participate in research and coordinating their involvement is both time consuming and challenging work. Upon finding a dealer interested in participating, he would contact us to set up a time to meet the seller. In the interest of protecting confidentiality, the meeting place was always a private office at the researchers’ university. The fieldworker would escort the potential participant to that place at the prearranged time. That person would then meet alone with the lead author. Together they would go over an informed consent protocol to ensure the potential participant understood what the project was about, what was required of them, what they would receive in return, and their rights as a research subject. Included in “the deal” was a remuneration payment of $50. To avoid coercion, we remunerated each participant before the interview began. The rationale for these monetary payments was to enhance cooperation, not to mention that it is a cardinal rule of street life that you should never do anything for nothing (see Jacobs 1999). As travel to and from the university could take our respondents up to thirty minutes each way and interviews lasted about an hour, this payment equates to roughly $25 per hour of time devoted to the project.

As already noted, the interviews typically lasted about an hour. The reason for this length is that—based on our previous research—we believe this is about as long as most street offenders are willing or able to sit still and thoughtfully answer questions without becoming annoyed or mentally exhausted. Our questions were theoretically driven and guided by a semi-structured, open-ended interview protocol. The contours of individual interviews varied, but each ultimately addressed the pre-identified focal topics of the project. Interviews centered on stories and narratives, as compared to general descriptions.

We asked participants questions about the kind of victimizations they experienced in the course of selling drugs and how they responded to them. For example, “Has someone taken what’s yours by using violence against you? By stealing it when you weren’t around? By not giving you what was owed?” If yes, we would then ask them to provide a description of the most recent or serious events, including why they think those incidents unfolded as they did. Then, we would ask how they responded to each of the victimizations mentioned: “Did you”, for instance, “retaliate with violence? Stop doing business with the perpetrator? Negotiate with that person for a compromise? Do nothing at all? Call the cops?” Again, we would follow up on the response by seeking details regarding how events unfolded as they did.

As with any study based on interviews, ours raises concerns about internal validity, such as the possibility that some participants may have resorted to lying or distortion, or lacked sufficient memory of the incidents asked about during interviews. In order to minimize participants’ concerns, they were promised confidentially, with only the researchers knowing their true identities. Comments initially deemed unusual or unfounded were probed to reveal and, if possible, resolve inconsistencies. As some interviewees may be unwilling to talk truthfully about anything that would portray them in a negative light, we took two steps at the beginning and throughout each interview to safeguard against this possibility: we asked participants to say they did not want to talk about something, rather than lie about it; and, we reaffirmed our promise of confidentiality. Despite the steps taken to maintain internal validity, it is possible some of the participants lied or embellished their accounts.

Existing theory leads us to believe our social distance—meaning our degree of intimacy and cultural similarity (Black, 1976, 1998)—from our recruiter and respondents may have shaped our research method and findings (see Jacques and Wright 2008b). Our relational distance from persons cooperating with the study is neither maximal nor minimal because, on the one hand, we are strangers to most of the respondents but, on the other hand, they are close associates of the recruiter who we have known for years (for details, see Jacques and Wright 2008b). Because previous research suggests that closer intimacy between researchers, recruiters, and respondents produces more truthful information (see, for example, Weinreb, 2006), we suspect our data is largely but not entirely valid; as our recruiter once told us:

Nobody is going to tell you everything they do. Or what they did. They’ll let you know most of it. Like shit though, you can’t ever expect them to tell you the whole truth… They’ll tell you some shit and some of it might be mixed up or something. They ain’t gonna tell you exactly how it happened but they’ll tell you. That’s how it is.

Our cultural distance from the participants is rather large, as we share a “white” and a “middle-class” belief system that is in many ways dissimilar to the urban street culture of our recruiter and participants (Anderson 1999, 2011). Although in some respects that is an over-generalization, we know from talking with our participants that our own common sense often clashes with theirs (Geertz, 1983). Such cultural dissimilarities are a double-edge sword when it comes to the ethnographic method, as they facilitate insights but also missed opportunities and misunderstandings (Duneier 2011). For example, something that is important to our participants may wholly escape our attention at questioning or during data analysis.

A study of active or recently active drug sellers “in the wild” inevitably raises important ethical issues. Based on guidance from our university’s Institutional Review Board (which approved this study) and our past experience in interviewing hundreds of active criminals, we instituted a number of measures to protect participants’ confidentiality and otherwise minimize risks associated with the project. These include standard safeguards such as the use of number identifiers instead of names, the secure storage of sensitive data in a locked room, and having all transcriptions completed outside the United States where the audio files were beyond the reach of subpoena. Beyond this, we were careful to restrict our interviews to past events (albeit often quite recent past events) and to avoid inflammatory discourse that, in itself, could serve as a catalyst for offenses (e.g., retaliatory violence).

Interviews were audio-recorded and then transcribed verbatim. These files were coded with identification tags corresponding to relevant research issues. The tags permitted us to retrieve information about various predetermined research interests. The breadth of initial tags was generally broad and focused on the variables of primary interest (victimization and responses to it). Then we sifted through the data categories and engaged in detailed analysis of variance across cases, such as those in which law was mobilized in response to victimization. Specifically, we read through the broader categories and, for each issue, created narrower categories that capture distinctions recognized by prior research and the dealers themselves as being relevant (see Glaser and Strauss 1967). Put succinctly, we read through each interview transcription individually, searching for events and descriptions that shed light on the research questions at hand: Do victimized drug dealers ask the government for help? If so, how—meaning in what way—do they do so?

Following Katz (2004), we make use of extended, unbroken quotes in which dealers “speak in their own contextualized and historically specific vocabularies” (p. 83). This allows us to “show the people” (ibid.) apart from our interpretation of them and their actions. This is a useful presentational and analytic technique in that it allows for differentiating (1) what happened according to the participants from (2) what happened as viewed through our scholarly knowledge based on prior work by others and ourselves. Obviously we hope to combine these two perspectives into a unified understanding, but by quoting long stretches of conversation we leave the door open for alternative interpretations and verification by others. In the quotes provided and discussed below, we use pseudonyms to refer to all respondents.

Non-Manipulative Police Mobilization

In the course of our study, we uncovered a total of four instances where drug traders reported their victimization to the police without manipulating the law. This occurs in one of two ways: the victim (1) reports the victimization yet conceals the criminal context, or (2) reports the victimization and the criminal context.

Criminal Concealment

One way that offenders report their drug market-related victimizations to the police is by keeping the context of the crime secret. Rather than “BS” or report a separate offense, the victim simply does not tell the whole truth. This type of non-manipulative police mobilization is termed “criminal concealment.”

Such instances are scarcely documented in the existing literature. One of the few comes from Anderson’s (1999) ethnography of street life in Philadelphia. A drug dealer he spoke with, John, recounted a time when a “[g]irl had stole $250 worth crack. I go around the crib knocking on the door—boom, boom. … I’m banging on the door early in the morning. [‘]Get my shit, bitch[’]. … Then she calls the cops because I was disturbing her. Now, I don’t wanta tell the cops what I’m at her house for, that she got my shit [drugs]” (p. 272). While not mentioned explicitly, it stands to reason that the complainant also refrained from explaining to the police why John was at her door. Another example comes from New York City: “Mike began robbing drug dealers on his own, and on one occasion … he used a TEC-9 to rob two young drug dealers in a public park and boarded a city bus to go home. The young dealers, however, alerted two police officers sitting nearby in a patrol car, who chased the bus, catching Mike and charging him with the robbery, possession of a weapon and a variety of other charges” (Curtis and Wendel 2007, 879). Again, whether dealers reported the full details of the victimization to the police is unknown, but we can easily imagine that they did not. A third example comes from a college newspaper:

A University alumnus was arrested last night after police responded to an attempted burglary at the students’ own home. [He] was charged with possession of marijuana with intent to distribute… [He] was burglarized on Monday between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m., but called police again on Wednesday when he said he was burglarized again. According to the report, [the student] had been watching TV alone in his house when he heard a loud noise. When he looked outside he reportedly saw a black male run away from the house and into the passenger seat of a white truck. [He] gave police the driver’s license plate number. After arriving at the scene, the police observed that the windows of his car had been broken, but no items had been taken from his car or house. An officer saw “drug paraphernalia” through the windows of his car, according to the report. A subsequent search yielded an unknown quantity of marijuana and marijuana residue. [He] was transported to the Clarke County Jail. The officer took finger prints from the window of [his] house, but no suspects have been arrested yet for the robbery. (Ogunsakin 2012)

Police do not always pursue victims suspected of being offenders; an example is found in Mohamed and Fritsvold’s (2009, 145-6) ethnography of college drug dealers:

One evening…three armed men forcibly entered the home and operations center shared by three…dealers. At the time, two of the three dealers were home and the third was on campus attending a class. In classic home-invasion robbery form, while holding them at gunpoint, the robbers proceeded to restrain the two dealers with duct tape and rob them of substantial amounts of cash and drugs…and high-end electronics. Shortly after the robbers fled, the third dealer-roommate arrived home to find his partners still bound up…. [W]ithout a moment’s hesitation, these dealers…dialed 911…. When the police arrived a few minutes later, the crime victims described the robbery, the people they believed to have perpetrated the crime, and the direction in which they believed the robbers to be headed. They conspicuously left out the fact that they were drug dealers and were robbery victims for this exact reason. And, as one of the robbery victims told us, the police ‘totally knew what was going on.’ Nonetheless, the police officers aided the victims by contacting Border Patrol officers [who…] identified and apprehended the robbers as they attempted to pass through [a] checkpoint…. [T]he dealers were even able to recover their cash and stolen electronics, although they wisely refused to claim ownership of the marijuana also found in the car. 

Two of the dealers we interviewed, Pusher and Rollin’, reported cases of criminal concealment. First, we discuss Pusher’s experience. He was the victim of two separate crimes, a robbery and a burglary. Both of his victimizations resulted in lost drugs, but he only reported one to the police. This dealer describes the events, his different responses to them, and the rationale behind his reactions: 

Pusher: I was coming home from the club on a Friday. So, when I get ready to stick my key in the door somebody just come up behind me and they had a gun. Took me in the house and took my shit. They got like a half lump of weed, [and an] ounce and half of crack. You sit back analyzing, just trying to put stuff together. I ain’t never seen the dude or nothing, but I knew it had to be a set-up though ’cause I didn’t know them, so how would they know what I’m doing?—unless somebody told them.

Interviewer: And was there anything else like that?

Pusher: No, that was the only time I ever been robbed.

Interviewer: And no one has ever burglarized you, like stolen from you when you weren’t there?

Pusher: Well, yeah. Me and my girlfriend went out to eat. We come back home, our door wide open and everything left open, drawers and everything, but they came in through a window though and I mean they took everything—her money, her jewelry, everything.

Interviewer: Were you dealing drugs then?

Pusher: Yeah, and they took all that, they took everything. We called the cops. We didn’t tell them about the drugs, but we told them about everything else. They didn’t suspect about drugs or anything, they were just concerned that someone had broken into the house.

Interviewer: Okay, and when you got robbed that one time when you were walking into your place, did you call the cops that time?

Pusher: No.

Interviewer: Why not?

Pusher: ’Cause I had all types of stuff in my house. They got the drugs and money, but I had guns and all that. I couldn’t call the police when I had all that in the house.

After being robbed, Pusher just sat “back analyzing, just trying to put stuff together”, and ultimately took no action to handle the victimization. When subsequently burglarized, however, he called the cops. He did not “tell them about the drugs but” did tell “them about everything else.” Note that there is an important difference between withholding information and distorting it; the latter often is illegal and therefore manipulative (i.e., “BS”). Refraining from telling the whole truth is not manipulative because doing so is legally permissible.

Why did Pusher ask for formal help when he was burglarized, but not when he was robbed? In the robbery incident, the only items stolen were drugs. He “got like a half lump of weed, [and an] ounce and a half of crack.” This might explain why Pusher declined to report this victimization to the police. The dealer-victim was not injured during the event, and thus it did not qualify as assault or battery. With no licit items stolen, there was no legitimate way for Pusher to substantiate his robbery report without implicating himself in crime. A separate reason that Pusher reported one victimization and not the other relates to his criminal involvements beyond drug dealing. In both the robbery and the burglary Pusher’s drugs were stolen, so he had no reason to fear the police finding them in his home. Yet the two victimizations differ in that after the burglary no illegal items remained on the premises, whereas after the robbery Pusher “had all types of [other] stuff in [his] house,” he “had guns and all that.” Thus he concluded, “I couldn’t call the police when I had all that in the house.”

Another dealer, Rollin’, offered a third-party account of a drug-market victimization that was reported to the police without revealing the context in which it occurred. One of his business partners reported a burglary in which not only drugs and money were stolen, but so too were priceless possessions. In discussing his partner’s response, Rollin’ contrasts the incident with a robbery against himself, noting how he and his partners usually react:

Rollin’: See the dope gang this is big for real, but it’s not like we’re sitting there running a liquor store or a supermarket or something and we get robbed and tell the police. See the dope gang, you don’t call the police into the dope game [saying] “He robbed me.” They ain’t questioning you. We run from the police every day so they know what we’re at. We don’t have the police involved in it, we handle the business ourselves.

Interviewer: Have you ever heard of anyone from anywhere just calling the cops when they get robbed?

Rollin’: Yeah. Somebody I know, he got hit at the trap house [i.e., where the drug supply is kept]. Dude watching all the shit, watching where he hid his shit at. He leave, him and the dude leave, dude drops him off and, when the dude’s gone, he goes back to the house, broke in the house and took the shit. Well, he took more than the dope, he took the money, he took the dope and the money, the TV, the VCR. He got to make a police report. I said, “Why did you make a police report and you bought all that shit hot from the streets? Everything you got is hot, that was stupid.” “Ah I was just tripping man, you know, they stole my camcorder. My baby was born on that, my girl’s pussy.” I’m like, “Man are you crazy? We need to get that dope back.” You don’t call no police, that’s just my number one rule, me and my guys. If something happens on the streets, if a dope fiend does something to you or you get ripped off, we gonna go fuck that person up. Fuck the police, the police can’t solve anything for real. We solve it ourselves.

Rollin’ clearly describes factors that inhibit reporting drug market-related victimizations to the police. But his street-theorizing notwithstanding, one of his associates did report his victimization to the police. Not only had his drugs and money been stolen, but also a recording of his baby’s birth, which obviously carried sentimental value out of all proportion to its monetary worth. In a state of emotional desperation, he went to the police for help. This case is similar to the one involving Pusher. In both instances, legitimate goods were stolen along with the contraband. So like Pusher, Rollin’s associate was able to report the burglary without manipulating law or necessarily revealing his own criminal involvement. He was able to mobilize legal action against the victimizer without implicating himself in crime by reporting the theft of the TV, VCR, and camcorder, but not the lost drugs. Again, this is not legal manipulation because withholding information about your own criminal involvement is legal so long as lying does not occur in the process.

Criminal Disclosure

As already illustrated, sometimes drug traders report crimes against them to the police and, when doing so, keep the context of the victimization secret. Yet the drug underworld is not always so guarded. In some cases, victims admit their own crime to the police in the course of mobilizing law; this is known as “criminal disclosure.”

Again, the existing literature provides few examples of criminal disclosure. Copes and colleagues’ (2011) study of rock-rentals is perhaps the only investigation to delve explicitly into the topic. Although transgressions over this form of trade are a frequent source of BS, they are also reported in honesty:

While most of the lenders tried to disguise that they rented their vehicles, some were more forthright. These reports included statements such as, “Complainant contacted police and advised that he rented out his vehicle for illegal narcotics. He stated that his vehicle has not been returned” and “Complainant contacted the police and reported that his brother rented out his vehicle in exchange for crack cocaine.” (p. 159)

Like the university alumnus who concealed the context of his victimizations, the following example of criminal disclosure also resulted in the victim’s arrest; the judge who presided over the prosecution described what happened:

[Y]our home was the subject of an aggravated robbery. Three people it seems went to your home and demanded the return of iodine and hypophosphorous acid. Both substances are used in the manufacture of methamphetamine. They apparently thought you had stolen these substances. In the course of this visit you were assaulted and had property, including your motor vehicle, stolen. You chose to call the Police. They attended your address and while they were dealing with the aggravated robbery, your response to their questions was to advise them that the robbery was due to your being involved in the manufacture of methamphetamine. You then provided the Police with considerable information regarding this manufacture, with the result the Police subsequently executed search warrants at four addresses you had informed you had set up drug making laboratories. At one of the addresses the Police located a fully operative clandestine drug laboratory where methamphetamine was being manufactured. (The Queen v. James William Grove 2008)

Two of the dealers we interviewed, Lady and Big Pimp, recounted cases of criminal disclosure. First we examine Lady’s experience. She explained how one of her customers used the law to get even with her, even though this meant revealing his lawbreaking:

Lady: I had this one guy [customer] who used to come by my house and I had been dealing with him for like two and a half years, and he just turned up one day and wanted a quarter [7 grams of marijuana] from me. I called my cousin and he brought it and dropped it off, and when I got ready to give it to him, he was like, “No man, this ain’t weighing right.” He was on about weighing, I don’t weigh. All I do is deliver it. It already comes to me bagged up. He was like, “Well I ain’t giving you no money for that.” So I was like, “Ok, well you can just go somewhere else, you don’t have to get it from me.” So that was one incident where I stopped dealing with him ’cause he got kind of funny acting, and then one time he did come back and I told him I wasn’t dealing with him no more. He made a scene on my front, and this and that. I had to let the dogs out on him. Yeah, my pit bull got his ass. I got two pits, one got him on the arm and the other got him on his pants. He didn’t really get his leg, he just got his pants and shook his leg and the other one ripped his arm. I’m still going to court on that.

Interviewer: So he got you to court on that?

Lady: Yeah. I’m waiting to go to court right now.

Interviewer: But what about the context? Has it not come up, haven’t they asked the guy why he was there?

Lady: Yeah, they asked why was he there.

Interviewer: And what was his answer?

Lady: To buy some weed... Nobody cared about the weed. I told the police he came to the wrong door. He came looking for somebody, but that person wasn’t at that address and he started going off on me and I let my dogs out on his ass.

Interviewer: And that’s what you told the police?

Lady: Yeah, that’s what I told them. I mean they watched my house, they watched me for a whole two months straight.

Interviewer: Did you cut back?

Lady: I did. But I never had traffic coming to my house anyway because I have kids, and I never had traffic coming to my house. Basically they just see me coming and going. They never see any transaction going on, so they just let me off and stopped watching me, ’cause they watched me for two months straight.

Interviewer: Why is it, do you think, that this guy brought this to the police?

Lady: ’Cause for one he was mad ’cause I let my dogs out on him, and two he came by my house unannounced, and I guess when he called the police and he came back with the police. He was mad at me and they were going to lock me up, which they did, and they put my dogs on what they call a house arrest, where they have to be in the house and they don’t come out. They put them on a house arrest and I had papers and stuff on them, and he was coming to my house accusing me of being somebody else. He told the police I had been selling him weed, but after I changed the story around, they just watched me.

After a series of disputes between Lady and her customers, the climax was reached when this dealer “had to let the dogs out on him” and they “got his ass.” Rather than retaliate in kind, the victimized customer instead went to the police. He did not manipulate his report or even keep the context secret. When the police asked why he was at Lady’s house, his answer was honest and forthcoming: “to buy some weed.” In spite of the illicit context in which the victimization occurred, the police investigated it. The police proceeded as “normal”, as though the victim’s behavior did not matter. They arrested the violent offender and put her in jail.

A dealer known on the street as Big Pimp described a more violent incident. He was the victim of a robbery during which his brother was shot and killed:

Big Pimp: My brother got killed when we got robbed. We got robbed. Shit, the dude killed my baby brother, me and my other two brothers were together. They were in my face with the gun and I blacked out so I woke up and one of my brothers [had] got shot, I didn’t know who got shot, I ran beating on people’s door to call the police. Somebody set us up. We’re gonna go talk to some detectives. I got to go ’cause ... I can’t afford to go to jail ... [because] then I ain’t gonna make it to my brother’s funeral so I’m like, “Shit, fuck that.” I’m not gonna get like no dope fiend or nothing. So they just want to talk to me, ask me questions, look at some pictures. So I’m like, “Cool”, and we set it up. My momma wanted me to give it up. That’s basically what I’m on.

Interviewer: So you’re gonna go to the cops and tell them what happened?

Big Pimp: Yeah. They know what happened ’cause of my other brother. He stayed there with my baby brother. So they know what happened.

Interviewer: What happened, just what you told me or …

Big Pimp: Yeah, they pulled up on us [and acted as though they wanted to buy something]. We were like, “You got the wrong guy.” They [the brothers] are like, “Who are these niggers?” One of the girls are like, “They’re cool, they’re cool.” So they came and asked if we had lots of weed or whatever. We’re like, “Yeah.” ... Shit, dude hit me in my face with a gun and I blacked out. I don’t know what happened after that until my brother talked to me.

Interviewer: So you do know who it is then?

Big Pimp: Yeah.

Interviewer: And the police have got him?

Big Pimp: Yeah, and I got to go in and identify the picture.

After Big Pimp gained consciousness and saw his dead, or at least dying, sibling, his first response was to “beat … on people’s door to call the police.” He perceived the murder of his brother as being far more important than any problems that may arise from revealing his involvement in drug dealing. In the end, it was too late for Big Pimp’s brother; but not too late for Big Pimp. After his brother’s death, he must have contemplated retaliation. But he refrained from striking back, reasoning that he “can’t afford to go to jail” because this would mean not attending his brother’s funeral. So he was like “Shit, fuck that. I’m not gonna get”—meaning injure or murder—“no dope fiend or nothing.” The police discovered the murder was drug market-related “’cause of [his] other brother. He stayed there with [the] baby brother. So they know what happened”, but they continued to investigate the case and eventually arrested a suspect. The prevailing local honor code may have counseled against snitching, but in spite of this Big Pimp was “gonna go talk to some detectives.” Maybe he resisted initially, but his mother talked him into it. “I got to go in and identify the picture.” On his way out from the interview with us, Big Pimp said his next stop was the police station to be interviewed by detectives. 

A Typology of Police Mobilization by Victimized Drug Traders

Compared to law-abiding persons, drug traders are at greater risk of victimization because they are more reluctant to seek police redress (Goldstein 1985; Jacobs 2000; Jacobs and Wright 2006; Wright and Decker 1997). That reluctance, however, may be overridden in certain circumstances, however rare. Probabilities notwithstanding, drug traders sometimes do respond to victimization by mobilizing the police.

With that made clear, our other objective in this paper has been to delineate how this happens. Previous research has examined how individuals victimized in the context of drug market trade manipulate law to get even. They either (1) make false or misleading statements, which is what the cops call BS (Moskos 2008), or (2) refrain from reporting their own victimization but instead report other crimes committed by the perpetrator, which in the streets is called getting over (Rosenfeld, Jacobs, and Wright 2003; Topalli 2005).[4]

Experiences recounted to us by drug dealers demonstrate that victim-criminals do not always resort to manipulation when making a police report (also see Copes et al. 2011; Mohamed and Fritsvold 2009). In some cases, they make non-manipulative victimization reports to police (3) without reporting their own lawbreaking and, thus, engage in criminal concealment. In other cases, victim-criminals (4) admit the drug market context of the victimization and take part in criminal disclosure.  

Taken together, these four methods comprise the conceptually distinct ways that victimized drug traders mobilize police for help in punishing wrongdoers; see Table 1. 


These forms of police mobilization vary in three aspects: whether the victim lies to police; whether the victimization motivating the report is the crime actually reported; and, whether the victim engages in complete disclosure of the victimization’s criminal context. 

Discussion and Conclusions

Theory and findings are inherently reliant on typologies: hierarchical and horizontal classification schemes (see Bailey 1994; Cooney and Phillips, 2002; Homans 1967). To be clear, our immediate purpose is not to explain why victimized drug traders mobilize law, but rather to propose a typology of how this happens. We conclude by discussing the implications of our findings for (1) theorizing the four ways of invoking legal assistance; (2) arresting the spread of violence by increasing offenders’ access to law; (3) police mobilization among all sorts of victimized deviants; and (4) using the ethnographic method to find and build on inconvenient phenomena and interesting ideas. 

Theorizing Police Mobilization among Victimized Drug Traders

Many explanatory factors may serve to discourage victimized drug traders from going to the law for help. By and large, such offenders are unwilling to cooperate with the police, even under extraordinary circumstances, so it is hardly surprising that this occurred infrequently among members of our sample. Although rare, such cases are important to study because their exceptionality illuminates factors that facilitate citizen cooperation with the legal system.

Future research should build on the present work by theorizing the behaviors we have typologized. Specifically, theorists should strive to answer two interrelated questions about why victimized drug traders mobilize the law: (1) Generally, why do victimized drug traders sometimes mobilize law instead of resorting to another form of social control, such as retaliation, informal settlement, negotiation, avoidance, or toleration?[5] (2) And when drug traders do mobilize the law, why do they use one method instead of another, be it by BSing, getting over, criminal concealment, or criminal disclosure? Although this paper cannot fully answer these questions, allow us to provide illustrative examples by drawing on the four perspectives most commonly used to explain the absence of law: rationality; culture; police legitimacy; and, social structure. Keep in mind that the following discussion includes only a few examples of possible explanations, and that the full array of theoretical possibilities should be developed.

Rational factors may facilitate police mobilization. For example, when a criminal-victim is not in possession of or under the influence of drugs, then evidence of lawbreaking is not available and thus not punishable. Or, if victimization involves violence or theft of non-criminal items, such as money or jewelry, then victims can report the crime without necessarily implicating themselves. Thus, it is sometimes possible for victims to ask for formal mediation without revealing their own offenses to the government (see, for example, Copes et al. 2007; Mohamed and Fritsvold 2009, 145-6). In such incidents, we might expect criminal concealment to be more likely than disclosure, BSing, or getting over.

Another aspect of rationality involves the seriousness of the offenses. The more minor and less punishable a victim’s crime when compared to the victimization suffered, the more rational is a request for formal mediation. In some cases, the costs of making a report may be low compared to those associated with other potential reactions; this situation especially applies when comparing calling the police to alternative lines of action such as retaliation, which may result in imprisonment. In short, then, victimized offenders may perceive that the benefits of obtaining formal justice outweigh the costs of disclosing their own criminal involvement.

Cultural theories view social behavior as a learned adaptation that stems from a common set of values, attitudes, and beliefs in a community (Sutherland 1937). Although many criminals live by an honor culture that militates against formal mediation, it is well-known that people do not always adhere to the behaviors prescribed by their culture. They address this discrepancy by drawing upon neutralization techniques (Sykes and Matza 1957). For instance, people with a law-abiding culture may break the law on occasion but they justify their illegal actions by condemning the condemners or by denying responsibility, injury, or a victim (ibid.). The flipside of this situation occurs when people with an oppositional culture are “good”; for example, they make a report to police rather than retaliate (Topalli 2005). Again, this conduct is made possible by their use of similar neutralization techniques. Criminals may claim that they had to make a report, that no one was harmed by it, or that the victimizer deserved it. These kinds of neutralization techniques may be used to explain police mobilization in general or specific types. Such neutralizations seem especially likely to produce manipulative mobilization since they allow victims to simultaneously punish victimizers and deceitfully take advantage of the police.

The literature on police legitimacy suggests that victims are more likely to mobilize police for assistance when they are viewed as procedurally fair (Tyler 2004). While many drug traders accumulate experiences that lead them to hold negative views regarding police legitimacy (Anderson 1999; Brunson 2007), this is not always the case. Since whites, for example, generally have greater confidence in police than blacks (Tyler 2004), we might expect white dealers to more often mobilize police than do black dealers when victimized. Moreover, we might expect dealers of the same ilk—such as blacks or whites—to rely on police mobilization to different degrees depending on the ability of police in their respective neighborhoods to foster a positive perception of legitimacy. In other words, because views of police legitimacy are not a constant across neighborhoods, then neither should be the rate of police mobilization by victimized drug dealers across communities.

The social structural approach argues that drug market participants are unlikely to mobilize law because they are low in normative status. But status is not the only predictor of law enforcement included in such theories (Black 1976; Cooney 2009). Social distance is another component, with further distance being theorized to facilitate more law enforcement. Many drug markets, especially those situated in urban disadvantaged neighborhoods, are open virtually to anyone. Strangers often do business with each other (Jacobs 1999). Thus, the social distance between victim and offender may provide a structural foundation for formal mediation, despite the low social status of the persons involved. This theory may provide a general basis for understanding whether victimizations are reported to police, managed with retaliation, or handled with a less severe form of social control such as toleration or avoidance (see Black 1998; Cooney 2009).

Arresting the Spread of Violence

It is widely accepted by the public, law enforcement officials, and criminologists alike that victimized drug traders are reluctant to mobilize police and therefore are likely to take the law into their own hands by retaliating (Jacques 2010). Researchers long have recognized that the retaliatory conflict spirals set in motion by drug market victimizations play a major role in the contagion of violence (Jacobs and Wright 2006; Wright and Decker 1997; Topalli, Wright and Fornango 2002).

In the past, scholars have proposed that one way to inhibit these retaliatory conflict spirals is to allow victimized illicit drug traders to make a police complaint without fear of putting their own legal standing in jeopardy:

Although those who break the law may appear undeserving of the benefits of formal justice, the cost of denying them those benefits is that many will resort to informal methods of dispute resolution. The resulting crime and violence are not easily contained, threatening populations at far remove from the original disputants. Altering the relationship between police and street criminals could help constrain the spread of retaliatory violence. … [T]he bulk of street crime consists of property offenses, simple assaults, and low-level drug dealing. Persons who engage in these activities on a regular basis make up a disproportionate share of crime victims. Widening their access to legal resources could reduce their reliance on informal means of dispute resolution, and help contain the spread of contagious violence. (Rosenfeld, Jacobs and Wright 2003, 307-308; also see Jacobs and Wright 2006; Topalli, Wright and Fornango 2002)

The feasibility of this proposal rests on the willingness of drug traders to involve the police in their victimizations, and for police to take such complaints seriously. Our study indicates that contrary to popular belief, this already happens in some cases (also see Copes, Forsyth, and Brunson 2007; Copes et al. 2011; Mohamed and Fritsvold 2009; Topalli 2005).

Instances in which victimized drug traders non-manipulatively seek police assistance represent important opportunities to reduce the possibility of retaliation and its associated ills. Police simply need to take the complaint seriously and handle it as they would any other reported crime, leaving it to the courts to decide if the circumstances of the offense mitigate its seriousness. And while manipulative mobilization presents the police with more difficulties, even here it is important for them to take the report seriously unless and until it can be shown to be complete BS. When police are called into “real” victimizations of drug traders, they should act neutrally, show concern, treat everyone with respect, and allow each person to tell their side of the story (Tyler 2004). The fact that criminals are often networked (see, for example, Brunson 2007; Wright and Decker 1994, 1997) suggests that word will spread that the police are willing to act in good faith and thereby encourage offenders to report crimes against them instead of taking the law into their own hands. 

How Victimized Deviants Mobilize Police

This study has suggested a variety of circumstances in which the law may be mobilized by one particular deviant population, namely illicit drug traders. But many other deviants confront this problem as well. Future ethnographic research should explore the relevance of our typology for other deviant populations. Our preliminary hypothesis is that the four categories of police mobilization we have identified may apply to a wide range of criminal and non-criminal deviant groups. But, if so, how exactly is that application enacted in any given case? And does our four category typology exhaust the range of mobilization possibilities? These are the sorts of questions that might fruitfully be pursued by other ethnographic researchers.

For example, when prostitutes and undocumented immigrants are raped, robbed, or otherwise taken advantage of they may fear reporting the victimization because doing so can lead to their own legal troubles. All members of the offender caste—such as “career criminals” involved in robbery, burglary, shoplifting, etcetera—have reasons to be hesitant about calling the cops when wronged; there may be a warrant out for their arrest or they may adhere to a culture that is averse to “snitching.” Despite such concerns, we suspect that across a variety of offense types some criminals will report their victimizations to law enforcement officials, if only rarely (see, for example, García and Keyes 2012; Jenness 1993; Topalli 2005). A question for future research is whether, how, and why the nature of different crimes affects the ways in which criminals mobilize police when victimized. For instance, do prostitutes, undocumented immigrants, and robbers have somewhat different concerns about interacting with police and, therefore, a different array of methods for requesting their assistance?

Of course, criminals are not the only sort of deviants. Even when obeying the law, people’s deviant status may make them apprehensive about invoking legal assistance when victimized. This assertion conceivably could apply to deviants like adulterers, swingers, and gamblers who are victimized in the course of being deviant. Although making a police report has little or no chance of leading to their own arrest (assuming they are not also criminals), it can result in informal consequences such as ostracism by family and friends. For this reason, non-criminal deviants may be motivated to keep their deviance secret too (see Goffman 1963). Thus when mobilizing police they may BS, get over on the victimizer, conceal what they were doing at the time of victimization or—alternatively—disclose it. The question, then, is whether, how, and why non-criminal deviants of all types go about marshaling formal justice when victimized. 

Inconvenient Phenomena and Interesting Ideas

While some scholars suggest that good typologies and theories are simple (Cooney and Phillips 2002; Kuhn 1977; Popper 2002 [1959]), social life does not always conform to this preference. Were we, for example, to listen only to portrayals of conflict management in the criminal underworld provided by the media, law enforcement officials, or criminologists, we would conclude that it is in a state of virtual anarchy where law is always absent and retaliation always rules. But when we ask criminals about their lives—and do not force response categories on them—we find that the true state of affairs is far more complex.

As described by Duneier (2011, 2; also see Weber 1946), inconvenient phenomena, or inconvenient facts, are findings that disrupt what is “known.” To uncover such a fact is to throw a wrench into the everyday scientific machinery. Although inconvenient phenomena cause problems for normal science, they have an upside. Davis (1971) suggests that, broadly speaking, ideas fall into two categories: “interesting” ones that attract attention and “non-interesting” ones that do not. In part, what makes an idea interesting to someone is the degree to which it contrasts with their knowledge, especially their common sense. Thus, inconvenient phenomena are, by their very nature, interesting. As evidenced throughout the history of social science, breakthrough ideas are those that are interesting—i.e., disruptive to the taken-for-granted knowledge of the era (Davis, 1971).

The ethnographic method’s open-ended and inductive nature makes it perfectly suited for discovering inconvenient phenomena and interesting ideas. In Sex and Repression in Savage Society, for example, Malinowski (1927) demonstrated that the Oedipus Complex is not universal. In Outsiders, Becker (1997) showed that labeling persons as deviants causes deviance. And in Street Corner Society, Whyte (1943) revealed that so-called disorganized communities are just the opposite. Rather than collect and use data to verify an existing theory or conception of the world, these researchers allowed the data to speak for themselves and thereby uncovered an alternative understanding of reality. In doing so, these and other ethnographic studies have fundamentally changed what was and is known about social life.

Our results serve as an example of what are inconvenient facts and, we hope, interesting ideas. By and large, a substantial group of people—including our recent selves—have “known” that drug traders do not respond to victimization by mobilizing police. Increasingly, however, a new and much smaller group of scholars know that this is not invariably the case (Copes, Forsyth and Brunson 2007; Copes et al. 2011; Moskos 2008; Taylor 2007). In some ways, this new understanding is problematic because it requires rethinking many of the other currently “known” aspects of illegal drug markets and crime generally. For example, criminologists have asserted that the inability of criminals to seek formal redress makes them attractive targets to predators (Wright and Decker 1994, 1997; also see Jacobs 1999, 2000). But if in fact offenders do have the realistic ability to access law, even if that ability is circumscribed and limited to a particular array of circumstances, what are the implications for our understanding of predators like drug robbers, burglars, and defrauders? Our findings reveal that this sort of question needs to be addressed.

Every scientific finding is at risk of being displaced by inconvenient truths (see Kuhn 1962). We should not fret over this reality, as new and inconvenient ideas are interesting. These “problems” are the morsels of discovery that push understanding forward. As scientists—and especially as ethnographers—we should embrace inconvenient findings. “The method of ethnography should accustom itself to explicitly identifying such phenomena” (Duneier 2011, 2) because, ironically, they expand the frontiers of knowledge by showing us that we are wrong, or at least not completely right.


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Table 1. How Victimized Drug Traders Mobilize Police


Lies about Victimization

Reports Victimization

Reveals Illicit Context





Getting Over


Criminal Concealment


Criminal Disclosure



Abbreviations: +, presence of characteristic; –, absence of characteristic


[1] Details about our method, participants, and data are provided below.

[2] An exception to this is fraud; selling and buying drugs are illegal acts and thus the government is not responsible for mediating frauds in this illicit marketplace.

[3] Our data collection method consisted solely of interviews, as opposed to field observations, due mainly to time constraints. Police mobilization by victimized dealers is a rare event (compared to, e.g., drug sales). Thus it would have been enormously time consuming to collect data on such instances through observations. However, observations are useful for gathering information on the physical environment, social positions, and culture of subjects. Although we did not conduct field observations for this study per se, we did do so in our past studies of active offenders in St. Louis (see, for example, Jacobs and Wright 2006; Wright and Decker 1994, 1997). This prior research makes us well aware of the conditions in which our participants operate.

[4] We grant that our use of the term diverges somewhat from that used by Rosenfeld, Jacobs and Wright (2003) and Topalli (2005).

[5] For details on the different kinds of reactive social control used among drug market participants, see Jacques and Wright (2008a, 2011a).

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