In the late 1980s, a promising tool was developed for deterring drug sales from indoor locations that are difficult to attack using regular police enforcement tactics. This tool applies nuisance abatement ordinances to pressure property owners to take action to stop drug sales on their premises under threat of closure or confiscation. This article discusses the types of abatement programs, evidence about their effectiveness, and concerns about their use or misuse.

Variety of Abatement Programs

Drug abatement laws vary in content and form (Finn and Hylton 1994). They can involve both civil remedies and criminal sanctions. Some drug abatement laws require only that neighborhood residents report drug activity, whereas others require the intervention of the police or district attorney. The laws are significant because they compel property owners to prevent drug sales on their premises. They also provide property owners, who might otherwise be to reluctant to evict dealers on their own, with the legal authority and mechanisms to rid their residences of drug-dealing tenants.

By 1992, an American Bar Association (ABA) study found that twenty-four states had passed statutes specifically designed to control drug activities on private properties (Smith et al. 1992). A number of these statutes updated old “bawdy house” laws designed to curb prostitution. With the filing of civil actions, most states authorize temporary injunctions requiring that the premises be immediately vacated. Judges issue permanent injunctions after civil hearings. The most common sanction is closing properties for up to one year. In practice, such orders are frequently stayed if owners post cash or property bonds. A few states allow buildings to be sold at auction with the proceeds going to state or local governments.

There are a wide range of abatement programs. Most are run by district or city attorneys and police departments and operate without any special funding. Most programs initiate abatement efforts with letters to property owners, which describe drug nuisances and the consequences of allowing them to continue. This first warning is typically enough leverage to compel owners to take actions. Programs that issue warning letters seldom have to file civil suits to induce compliance. Studies have found that civil suits are filed in less than 5% of abatement actions in cities that initiate actions with warning letters to property owners (Davis and Lurigio 1998).

Other abatement programs follow a different strategy. Instead of warning property owners, they immediately file civil suits against them. Temporary injunctions are obtained (in some states without giving property owners opportunities to participate in court hearings) and the problem buildings are ordered closed. These orders are usually stayed if property owners post cash bonds and agree to permanent injunctions.

In a few cases, cities have sent in SWAT teams with battering rams to vacate and padlock properties on the same day that temporary restraining orders are issued and before owners have been notified of the court order (Smith et al. 1992). Needless to say, such extreme measures are not well received by property owners. Moreover, padlocking of buildings in marginal areas creates a substantial risk that these properties will be vandalized or abandoned and kept out of the rental housing market.

Effectiveness of Abatement Programs

Abatement programs that rely primarily on warning letters have adopted a low-cost, and potentially effective, approach to controlling illegal drugs. Two comprehensive studies on drug abatement programs were conducted in the early 1990s by the ABA (Smith et al. 1992) and Loyola University of Chicago (Lurigio et al. 1998). The ABA study involved abatement programs in five cities (Milwaukee, Houston, Toledo, San Francisco, and Alexandria), whereas the Loyola University study focused on a single program in Cook County (Chicago). Both studies examined whether the programs actually had abated drug nuisances and assessed the impact of abatement actions on the quality of neighborhood life as judged through local residents’ eyes.

Across all six cities included in the ABA and Loyola studies, program records showed that most property owners complied with directives and that no further problems were experienced on the premises in at least 85% of the targeted properties. In the vast majority of cases, compliance was achieved through evictions of problem tenants.

The ABA and Loyola studies also investigated program impact on the quality of life in neighborhoods. The ABA study reported that abatement actions were highly visible and well received. Approximately half of residents surveyed in the five cities studied by the ABA were aware of the abatement actions, and more than 90% endorsed the local abatement programs. Community awareness was highest in cities in which the abatement programs padlocked properties and publicized their efforts through the media. Awareness was lowest in cities in which abatement actions usually consisted of letters followed by the quiet evictions of problem tenants.

There is evidence from the ABA study that abatement efforts reduced signs of neighborhood disorder. One in three residents believed that the actions had reduced drug sales on their blocks, and one in four believed that the actions had reduced crime in general. Similarly, one-quarter believed that the problems of public drinking and adolescents hanging out on the blocks had been reduced as a result of the abatement actions.

The positive changes in residents’ perceptions of crime and disorder observed in the ABA study are difficult to interpret because researchers did not include a comparison group of unabated properties. That is, they did not assess residents’ perceptions before the abatement actions occurred, and they failed to compare the perceptions of residents in areas in which abatements occurred to those of residents in other, similar neighborhoods in which no abatements had taken place. Loyola University’s investigation of Cook County’s abatement program addressed these shortcomings.

Findings from the Loyola study, which included surveys with residents on control blocks that had not experienced abatement efforts, were less favorable than the ABA study’s findings. Residents on targeted blocks were no more likely than residents on untargeted blocks to perceive reductions in drug activity and other signs of disorder, and improvements in safety on the block. These results might be explained by the fact that only one in five residents living on blocks with targeted properties was aware of the abatement actions.

In contrast, the majority of community leaders and police personnel surveyed in the Loyola study believed that the program’s initiatives resulted in visible neighborhood changes and that the program was an important component of community efforts to reduce drug activity. An ethnographic study also determined that blocks targeted by the abatement program evidenced fewer signs of physical disorder than did comparison blocks.

An evaluation of another abatement program in Chicago reinforced the finding that abatement programs are effective in reducing drug crimes. The program, designed to attack problem properties with code violations and abatement actions, was reported to reduce narcotics offenses (but not other violent or property crimes) dramatically (Higgins 2000).

Two recent studies of abatement programs employed more rigorous methodologies in which sites were randomly assigned either to be targeted by an abatement action or not. These designs are important because they increase confidence that any observed differences between targeted and untargeted locations are the result of abatement actions and not attributable to other causes.

Eck and Wartell (1998) conducted a randomized experiment on the effects of abatement actions in San Diego. A total of 121 rental buildings in which the police had evidence of drug sales as the result of enforcement actions were assigned to one of three experimental conditions. In the first condition, property owners were sent letters informing them of drug activities and warning them of fines or closures of their buildings if the problems were not abated. In the second condition, owners received similar letters, which also requested that they attend meetings with the police. In the third condition, properties received no abatement notices. Follow-up during the next thirty months showed significantly fewer reported crimes in the two abatement conditions when compared with the control condition. Furthermore, letters alone were as effective in reducing crime as letters and meetings.

Green-Mazerolle, Roehl, and Kadleck (1998) conducted a randomized experiment in which one hundred drug hot spots were assigned to traditional police enforcement (surveillance, arrests, and field interrogations) or to traditional police enforcement plus civil enforcement (abatement actions and code enforcement). The civil enforcement properties showed more decreases in drug sales and disorder compared with the properties assigned to traditional enforcement only.

Concerns about Abatement Programs

Reviewing the literature on crime prevention, Welsh and colleagues (2002) conclude that abatement programs are effective in ridding buildings of drug nuisances. The cost of the programs is minimal. Most abatements are achieved just through mailings of warning letters. In fact, many cities engage in drug nuisance abatement activities with funds from existing municipal budgets.

Despite many successes, serious concerns have been raised about drug abatement programs (for a thorough discussion, see Cheh 1991, 1998). Because abatement strategies hold property owners accountable for tenants’ behavior, nuisance statutes might be infringing on owners’ rights to use and enjoy their properties (Smith and Davis 1998). Moreover, as alleged in legal suits filed in Milwaukee, statutes that permit authorities to close properties without notifying owners may infringe on due process rights.

As abatement programs have matured, a number have encouraged property owners to cooperate in abatement actions by sponsoring workshops that inform owners about their responsibilities under abatement laws and provide them with suggestions on screening prospective tenants and improving building security (Davis and Lurigio 1998).

When drug dealers are evicted or buildings padlocked, innocent family members or neighbors might become homeless. Accordingly, some programs have developed procedures to minimize the number of innocent parties evicted as a result of abatement actions and to resettle innocent parties who are evicted. The use of court suits and building closures only as a last resort is key to reducing the numbers of innocent parties evicted.

Sending warning letters rather than padlocking buildings reduces the possibility that targeted properties will be abandoned. Targeted buildings are typically in poor condition and are located in deteriorating neighborhoods. Closing them for an extended period invites vandalism and deprives owners of the rental income necessary to cover mortgage payments.

A final concern about abatement programs is whether they reduce drug sales or merely move them to another neighborhood. Limited evidence suggests that abatement actions might actually reduce, not just dis place, drug sales. The most comprehensive look at displacement is reported in Davis and Lurigio (1996). The researchers worked with the Milwaukee Police Department to track one hundred persons who had been evicted as a result of abatement actions. Of sixty-three whom they traced to new locations (the remaining thirty-seven were either incarcerated, deceased, untrace-able, or gone from the jurisdiction), just nineteen continued to sell drugs, based on attempts to make undercover buys. Davis and Lurigio suggested that abatement may have been an effective deterrent because it made business more difficult for “opportunists” (Buerger 1992) or “occasional sellers” (Reuter et al. 1990) who sell small quantities of drugs. When relocation prompted by abatement actions made it harder for buyers and sellers to connect, these marginal sellers were encouraged to turn to other means of support.


Drug abatement programs have been established as an effective community antidrug initiative. They are particularly cost effective in curtailing drug sales on private properties and may actually reduce, not just displace, drug sales. Abatement strategies that directly involve owners in the process can minimize the unbidden consequences that property closures can have on owners such as the threat of physical assault and property damage and the leveling of unfair legal penalties. To be effective, abatement programs must also be cognizant that property closures can exacerbate urban blight in already rundown communities.

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