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date: 15 January 2021

Use of Civil Abatement to Combat Public Nuisances and Crimefree

  • Arthur J. LurigioArthur J. LurigioDepartment of Psychology, Loyola University of Chicago
  •  and Elizabeth Maine EllisElizabeth Maine EllisDepartment of Political Science, Loyola University of Chicago


Civil abatement involves the use of non-criminal remedies to address crime and public disorder in communities. Such remedies can hold accountable nonperpetrators of criminal activities, such as property and business owners, if those activities occur on the premises of the buildings or establishments that they are responsible for managing. Known as third-party policing, civil abatement strategies can also seek equity for non-criminal behaviors (e.g., standing in a public way), which are deemed to pose a threat to public safety, disrupt social order, and precipitate subsequent crimes. For example, antigang and antidrug ordinances are designed to alter situations or environments that provide opportunities for criminal activities. By bringing petitions to the civil courts, injunctions can be issued against the agents of public nuisances, such as known gang members who threaten the public by loitering on the streets or drug sellers who operate clandestinely from apartment buildings or drinking establishments. Violations of court injunctions can result in the closure of a property, the loss of a liquor license, or an arrest.

The uses of civil remedies to curtail or eradicate gang and drug activities have been challenged in the courts. For example, antiloitering ordinances have been found to be too vague in their proscriptions, too broad in their scope, and too nebulous in their targeting of residents. Such ordinances have also been found in violation of First or Fourteenth Amendment Rights. Nuisance abatement programs to reduce drug selling on private properties have resulted in modest successes in terms of enlisting property owners’ cooperation in evicting dealers from apartment buildings and appear to be effective with only an issuance of warning letters to landlords.

Civil Remedies for Crime and Disorder

Through the application of administrative codes and civil ordinances, civil abatement attempts are made to suppress or eliminate criminal activity and other types of disorderly conduct, known as incivilities or public nuisances (Mazerolle & Roehl, 1998). Civil abatement concentrates on focal points for criminal or publicly disruptive behavior and on people deemed responsible for either the behaviors (the perpetrators of crime or disorder) or for the places in which they occur (business or property owners). In general, a culpable state of mind (mens rea) must be established to ascribe blame to an individual for the planning or commission of a crime. This is not so in the case of particular civil abatement ordinances, which are analogous to strict liability laws in which mental state or intent is unnecessary to find fault or guilt. Indeed, civil abatement ordinances extend criminal responsibility or civil fault beyond the actual perpetrators of crimes that occur on the premises over which non-perpetrators (i.e., non-offending third parties) have ownership or authority (Mazerolle & Roehl, 1998).

Typically initiated through law enforcement actions (Buerger, 2011), the outcome of civil abatement proceedings can mandate non-perpetrators to rectify the circumstances or environments that fostered specific criminal or disorderly conduct. Such rulings can affect non-perpetrators (business or property owners or managers) even if they have had no extant knowledge, direct involvement, or intentions related to the criminal or disorderly activity (Cheh, 1998). Such rulings can also hold defendants criminally liable for actions that are inherently noncriminal.

Civil abatement can consist of interventions that reduce or eliminate opportunities for individuals or groups to become involved in criminal activity (Buerger, 2011). Civil remedies typically have a broader reach than law enforcement strategies. As a result, private citizens can be ordered to join formal policing efforts to monitor active or would-be lawbreakers, garnering supplementary resources to enhance local crime prevention efforts. Termed third-party policing, the enlistment of private citizens (non-state actors) to contribute to law enforcement and crime prevention efforts is an essential element of civil abatement. The inducements to conscript non-state actors in abatement activities are sometimes referred to as legal levers (Buerger & Mazerolle, 1998). Such enlistments, however, are sometimes unwelcomed, as the ascription of civil or criminal liability to these citizens through legal penalties—threatened or actual—can lead them to be labeled as secondary wrongdoers and to be leveraged, compelled, coerced, or enjoined to engage in anticrime strategies (Mazerolle & Ransley, 2005; Swan, 2014).

Civil remedies are diverse and applicable to various stages of the criminal justice process. They can be geared specifically toward reducing or eliminating particular instances of criminal activity and disorder or toward achieving more general crime prevention goals by changing the conditions of properties and the characteristics of environments that are considered “high-risk” places in which crime or criminal opportunities are concentrated (Clarke & Eck, 2005; Smith & Mazerolle, 2013). Civil remedies also can target both criminal enterprises and individual criminals. For example, closing a warehouse in which drugs are processed or stolen merchandise is sold can do more to deter or interfere with widespread criminal activity than individual arrests can. Such initiatives are often combined with asset forfeiture, which can also be more inimical to a criminal organization than are the arrests of its individual members. Similarly, place-based interventions, such as closing houses of gambling or prostitution, can reduce social disorder and the presence of criminally inclined nonresidents in a neighborhood, thus promoting community safety and returning control to law-abiding residents (Cheh, 1998).

Public Nuisance Abatement

Civil abatement is aimed at public rather than private nuisances, which are adjudicated in civil courts. For example, an occupant of a property can bring a claim against a property owner for creating or tolerating a private nuisance by ignoring complaints of loud noises, noxious odors, unregulated temperatures, or dangerous dogs on the premises. In other words, any conditions that affect occupants’ comfort, health, convenience, or “quiet enjoyment” can be considered private nuisances, the presence of which could form the basis for civil cases (Cadwalader, Wikersham, & Taft, 1993).

A public nuisance, on the other hand, can be the subject of a civil or criminal complaint, or both. As the term denotes, a public nuisance affects the safety, order, health, and welfare of an entire community. In general legal terms, a nuisance is continual activity that adversely affects “the interests of others” (Oleck, 1956, p. 1). Law enforcement officers and criminal court judges can consider even inherently noncriminal activities as public nuisances and target these activities for abatement actions. For example, local ordinances and state laws might criminalize loitering (i.e., remaining in a public place for no apparent purpose and for a protracted period); therefore, loitering can constitute a criminal behavior in itself. Alternatively, loitering can be a catalyst for other criminal behaviors, such as gang activities, violent crimes, or illicit drug sales. Hence, civil law or codes can regulate activities that would not otherwise be statutorily defined as criminal.

Use of Civil Remedies

As noted above, civil remedies (i.e., non-penal interventions) have been implemented to promote or protect public interests, safety, or rights through the abatement of public nuisances. Under special circumstances, civil or administrative laws may prohibit noncriminal activity. For example, anti-nuisance provisions, such as noise-abatement ordinances, have withstood court scrutiny when they were judged to be equitably enforced for the narrowly defined purpose of protecting residents from noxious auditory stimuli. Similarly, while the First Amendment safeguards freedom of expression, laws to regulate the time, place, or manner of protected speech are allowable if they are “narrowly tailored to serve the government’s legitimate . . . interests . . .” (Ward v. Rock Against Racism, 1989 as cited in Laven, 2004).

In civil proceedings, actions to abate public nuisances are heard before a judge who can issue an injunction that orders an activity to cease or an asset to be forfeited (e.g., confiscating a property from its owners if it is a site for illegal activity). Unlike criminal cases, the burden of proof in civil proceedings is a preponderance of evidence (i.e., more likely than not). Moreover, the subjects of such actions are not accorded with the same due process rights as criminal defendants (e.g., the right to a jury trial or to cross-examine witnesses) (Cheh, 1998).

The growth of civil remedies can be attributed to three factors (Mazerolle & Roehl, 1998). The first was the recognition of the limitations of criminal remedies in solving longstanding problems related to criminal activity and social disorder. The second was the increase in crime prevention initiatives, which encompassed a variety of proactive strategies to change people and places in order to lower the risk of criminal activity in a community. The third was the availability of previously unused tools to reverse the precipitous decline of impoverished neighborhoods, which stemmed from crime and public disorder.

The use of civil remedies to address crime and disorder is grounded in several criminology theories, such as opportunity reduction theory and situational crime prevention. An example of the former is discouraging youth from gathering on street corners, thereby reducing the chances for social interactions to spawn criminal pursuits. An example of the latter is demolishing, sealing, or refurbishing a building that is the site of drug sales and use as well as other illicit activities, thereby altering the physical environment to change the behavior of criminal aspirants (Mazerolle & Roehl, 1998). Civil remedies also vary on several dimensions, including their purposes (e.g., prevention or control), focal points (e.g., people or places), targets (e.g., gang members or property or business owners [third parties]), primary problems (e.g., crimes or incivilities), statutory basis (e.g., ordinances, laws, or codes), and sanctions (e.g., fines, evictions, or property seizures) (Mazerolle & Roehl, 1998).

Civil Abatement Precedents

Public nuisances were initially defined as offenses against “the crown.” The first public nuisance statute was enacted in the 12th year of Richard II’s reign in England. It dealt with the pollution of waters for which criminal liability could be assumed. The notion that a public nuisance interfered with common rights is evident in this historic statute (The Stat. of 12 Rich. Ii, 1389, ch. 13). Public nuisance laws were promulgated in the United States through the issuance of the Restatement Second of Torts in 1964, which differentiated between public and private rights. The former included the collective right to public health, safety, peace, comfort, and convenience (Rest. 2d Torts). The latter included the individual right to not be “assaulted or defamed or defrauded or negligently injured” (Gallo v. Acuna, 1997 p. 92).

In Gallo v. Acuna, the California Supreme Court considered both criminal and civil law (or equity) in its analysis of a public nuisance injunction. The court’s opinion legitimized the exercise of equitable relief to control public nuisances and expanded the concept of “criminal equity” to include the abatement of public nuisances. In Gallo v. Acuna, the court also ruled that the authority to determine which acts constitute public or private nuisances should rest with the legislature rather than with the courts. The justices also upheld the courts’ duty to protect public and social interests, including property rights (see People v. Lim, 1941). The court stated, “In a sense that cannot easily be dismissed, the availability of equitable relief to counter public nuisances is an expression of the interest of the public in the quality of life and the total community environment” (see Busch v. Projection Room Theatre, 1976).

By referencing People v. Lim (1941), Gallo v. Acuna (1997) argued that the legislature may identify an act as a crime and the repetition of that act as a public nuisance, affording the courts equity to abate noisome activity by injunction. In People v. Lim (1941), the court cited a West Virginia case, State v. Ehrlich (1909), in which the state’s high court wrote,

The Attorney General may proceed in equity on behalf of the public to abate the nuisance . . . whether it be a criminal nuisance or not is wholly immaterial. If it is an indictable as a crime, it does not bar the remedy in equity, because the citizen and the general public have an immediate right to the enjoyment of the thing interfered with . . . A criminal prosecution is inadequate in such case, because it does not prevent the doing of the unlawful act (see Armory Park v. Episcopal Community Services, 1985).

Emanating from separate areas of the law, civil injunctions strive to prevent or remedy harm by enjoining (stopping) criminal behavior or incivilities. Liquor control ordinances, which have been enforced in numerous municipalities throughout the United States, are among the oldest and most notable examples of the use of civil regulations to address criminal activity and to prevent social harm (Buerger, 2011). Liquor stores and drinking establishments are well-documented epicenters of criminal and disorderly conduct (Lurigio & Mariani, 2014).

By authority, police can respond to only immediate violations of criminal statutes; thus, they have little power to prevent the circumstances that cause ongoing criminal behavior on these premises. Specifically, police can arrest individuals for committing a crime in a bar, but they have little power to close down a drinking establishment when patrons engage in continued criminal activity or disorderly conduct on or near the premises. Liquor regulators, however, have the administrative authority to oversee the standard business practices of liquor establishments (Swan, 2014).

While maintaining separate roles, law enforcement officers and government regulators have coordinated their efforts to respond to violations of liquor control ordinances. In an indirect effort to prevent crime, the police can rely on the liquor authority’s ability to pressure a business owner through the suspension or threat of suspension of a liquor license as well as frequent visits to the establishment to monitor compliance with liquor and other ordinances. In turn, liquor authorities rely on the police to effectuate license suspensions or closures for liquor-law or other code violations, which are common civil enforcement tools (Buerger, 2011: Smith & Mazerolle, 2013).

Anti-Loitering Gang and Drug-Abatement Ordinances

Nuisance abatement ordinances began to be broadly applied in regulating places and behaviors in the mid-1980s (Buerger, 2010; Mazerolle & Roehl, 1998). As discussed above, anti-loitering and other anti-nuisance ordinances attempt to curtail activities that, although noncriminal, distally support or evolve into disorderly or criminal activities. Therefore, criminalizing otherwise legal behaviors that subsequently foster crimes is a means to reduce or prevent future criminal activities. For example, antiloitering ordinances attempt to combat criminal activity by criminalizing what would otherwise be considered “civil” activity (i.e., standing in a public way).

Passed in 1992, Chicago’s Gang Congregation Ordinance, or more commonly referred to as the Gang Loitering Ordinance, stated,

whenever a police officer observes a person whom he reasonably believes to be a criminal street gang member loitering in any public place with one or more other persons, he shall order all such persons to disperse and remove themselves from the area.

The ordinance defined loitering as “remaining in any one place with no apparent purpose” (Gang Congregation Ordinance, 1992). Similar to the broken-window ordinances in Los Angeles, which focused on public-order violations and minor infractions to prevent future crimes, Chicago’s ordinance criminalized otherwise permissible civil behavior. Unlike the Los Angeles ordinances, however, Chicago’s ordinance criminalized the use of public lands when a subject purportedly engaged in an activity within the purview of civil regulation.

The City of Chicago sought (indirectly) to stop gang members from engaging in vandalism, drug dealing, and shootings by preventing them from congregating on the street. The underlying rationale of the Gang Loitering Ordinance postulates that loitering helps gang members secure territory in order to promote their gang identity and illicit businesses (e.g., drug sales). Hence, by curtailing their ability to occupy public lands, gang members lose their control over neighborhoods, which reduces their power and sphere of criminal influence (Gang Congregation Ordinance, 1992).

The courts have upheld civil or administrative ordinances that prohibit loitering. For example, a school disciplinary action for loitering on a nearby public street withstood challenges grounded in the First Amendment’s rights to assembly and free speech, the Fourteenth Amendment’s right to due process, and a vagueness claim (Wiemerslage v. Maine Township High School, 1994). In Wiemerslage v. Maine Township High School, the court differentiated between proscribed activity in school regulations and in criminal codes and concluded that these regulations and codes need not abide by the same standards. The courts have also upheld antiloitering statutes prohibiting other disorderly activities (Linwood v. Board of Education, 1972).

The Supreme Court considered the constitutionality of Chicago’s gang-loitering ordinance in the 1999 case of Chicago v. Morales. The Court held that the Chicago ordinance neither provided adequate notice of the prohibited conduct nor set minimal guidelines for police officers to enforce the ordinance. Thus, the ordinance violated the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment (U.S. Constitutional Amendment XIV, §1). In particular, the Court declared that the Fourteenth Amendment’s right to travel and to move from one place to another supported “liberty” (City of Chicago v. Morales, 1999).

Since Chicago v. Morales, antiloitering laws intended to suppress illegal drug activity have also fallen under scrutiny, and several of them have been invalidated. For example, in Leal v. the Town of Cicero (2000), an ordinance prohibiting any person from “obstruct(ing) or encumber(ing) any street corner or other public place . . . shall be requested to move by any police officer” was invalidated on the grounds of being unconstitutionally vague, which is similar to the court’s findings in Morales. In both the Morales and Leal cases, police were afforded few, if any, law enforcement standards or protocols to guide the enforcement of these ordinances, which encouraged potentially discriminatory policing tactics (Strosnider, 2002).

In Annapolis, Maryland, an ordinance created “drug-loitering-free zones” in areas with ongoing drug arrests. After a zone was identified, police could order the dispersal of those who were “behaving in a manner indicating that the person is remaining at or in a public place . . . for the purpose of engaging in drug-related activity.” Such behaviors could include making hand signals to drivers, distributing small objects, or “warning others of the arrival or presence of a police officer” (Annapolis, MD, City Ord. 0-7-2000, as amended by §11.12.067).

The Annapolis ordinance was invalidated for lacking a mens rea requirement (i.e., a culpable state of mind) and for being vague. Specifically, the court determined that the ordinance’s provisions had enabled the police to infer culpability by observing hand signals or other conduct associated with drug sales; however, these provisions failed to overcome the vagueness doctrine. Furthermore, the court found that the ordinance was overly broad in its coverage of lawful activities protected under the Constitution (NAACP Anne Arundel County Branch et al. v. City of Annapolis, 2001). More narrowly construed, well-defined, and targeted ordinances have replaced generic antigang and antidrug loitering ordinances, and they have been more likely to withstand judicial review (Strosnider, 2002).

In 2000, Chicago officials supplemented the Gang Congregation Ordinance with a targeted “hot spot” law, which restricted the court-identified right to loiter within a more narrowly defined geographic area where gang members were prohibited (Alderden, 2012). The new antigang ordinance targeted gang activity or drug dealing in these hot spots. An individual’s wearing of specific colors or being positively identified by police officers as a gang member signified gang membership. The ordinance was constructed to follow Justice O’Connor’s concurring opinion in Chicago v. Morales in which she essentially directed the city to rewrite the ordinance with a more narrow definition of loitering.

Gang loitering was defined in the code as “remaining in any one place under circumstances that would warrant a reasonable person to believe that the purpose or effect of that behavior is to enable a criminal street gang to establish control over identifiable areas, to intimidate others from entering those areas, or to conceal illegal activities” (Chicago Municipal Code §8-4-015). Chicago also implemented a similar civil abatement ordinance that defined loitering as

remaining in any one place under circumstances that would warrant a reasonable person to believe that the purpose or effect of that behavior is to facilitate the distribution of substances in violation of the Cannabis Control Act or the Illinois Controlled Substances Act” (Chicago Code 8-4-017(c)(1)).

Gallo v. Acuna is one of the best examples of an anti-gang injunction. In this case, a street gang was allegedly “terrorizing” a neighborhood in San Jose, California through criminal activity on public streets, including drug use, violence, and shootings. Gang members were purported in the plea to have appropriated all public streets and sidewalks in the neighborhood for the gang’s nefarious usage. The City asserted in its complaint that the defendants’ behaviors created a public nuisance “injurious to the health, indecent or [sic] offensive to the senses.”

The Superior Court (lower court) granted the City of San Jose civil injunctions against 38 individual gang defendants under California’s Code of Civil Procedure and Civil Code, which contains the state’s public nuisance statutes. The Court of Appeals heard the case and invalidated 15 of the 24 provisions, upholding only those that enjoined acts under the penal code, which effectively limited the scope of allowable injunctive relief to conduct that would otherwise be defined as criminal (Gallo v. Acuna, 1997).

The penal and civil codes in California overlap in certain provisions dealing with public nuisances. In Gallo v. Acuna, the California Supreme Court agreed that criminal nuisances are enjoinable but disagreed with the appeal court’s determination that only conduct proscribed by the penal code may be enjoined independently. Rather, the justices found that

[a]cts or conduct, which qualify as [14 Cal. 4th 1109] public nuisances, are enjoinable as civil wrongs or prosecutable as criminal misdemeanors, a characteristic that derives not from their status as independent crimes but from their inherent tendency to injure or interfere with the community’s exercise and enjoyment of rights common to the public (Gallo v. Acuna, 1997).

The California Supreme Court eventually reinstated two of the invalidated provisions. One forbade defendants from engaging in any activity in public with a known gang member; the other enjoined defendants from “confronting, intimidating, annoying, harassing . . . assaulting and/or battering any residents or patrons or visitors . . . known to have complained about gang activities.” The court rejected a First Amendment vagueness challenge to the former injunction provision (Strosnider, 2002).

In summary, when reviewed by the courts, civil injunctions have been applied generally to named defendants and specific activities. The courts also have upheld the broad language of civil abatement statutes that define public nuisances in terms of various criminal activities, people, and circumstances (Gallo v. Acuna, 1997). Nonetheless, as exemplified in the Chicago v. Morales case, such ordinances may fail to pass Constitutional muster. In its revised antigang loitering strategy, the City of Chicago defined the prohibited activity and the geographic boundaries of the ordinance’s reach more narrowly. Despite efforts to reign in the scope of such civil abatement provisions, critics have continued to raise equal-protection and due process concerns about antigang loitering ordinances (Strosnider, 2002).

Drug Abatement Ordinances

Drug abatement initiatives have varied in terms of their emphasis on civil remedies and criminal sanctions. For example, the presence of a “nuisance” can be ascertained through residents’ reports or through the formal actions of police officers and prosecutors. Common to such programs is a mechanism to compel property owners by law and court order to remove from the premises tenants (or their visitors) who sell illicit drugs on these private properties. The court supplies property owners with legal remedies to safely, effectively, and permanently remove (i.e., evict) drug dealers from the owners’ properties (Finn & Hylton, 1994). Property owners must exercise ordinary care in protecting residents and visitors from the risk of harm stemming from crimes on the premises (Ruskell, 2000). The active management of places (e.g., apartment buildings) includes the regulation of people who use the property. Civil abatement ordinances hold property owners and building managers legally accountable for failing to do so (Eck & Wartell, 1998).

In the early 1990s, nearly two dozen states enacted statutes to control drug dealing on private properties. Many of these statutes were based on “bawdy laws” that had remained unused for decades and never enforced to combat illicit alcohol or drug sales, as their original intention was mostly to interrupt the sex trade (on the streets and in the brothels). Through civil hearings, judges can invoke these laws to authorize temporary injunctions to vacate properties for the immediate future or to close them for a year. Judges can also issue permanent injunctions to seize properties and sell them at public auctions with the proceeds being transferred to government coffers, which often earmark funds to support antidrug strategies (Smith et al., 1992). Other states issue warning letters to property owners, encouraging and assisting them to institute remedies that will remove drug sellers from their properties. In other programs, property owners are accorded no opportunities to participate in civil hearings, and their properties are seized without recourse. Still in others, SWAT teams storm and shutter buildings, which can result in property abandonment, vandalism, and long-term removal from the housing market (Smith et al., 1992).

Gang property abatements are an innovative but underused strategy in law enforcement’s armamentarium of antigang/antidrug efforts. Project TOUGH (Taking Out Urban Gang Headquarters) is one example of a property abatement program, which was designed to curtail gang and drug-selling activity in Los Angeles, California (Cristall & Forman-Echols, 2009). In this program, prosecutors assigned to a specialized unit of the criminal branch of the Los Angeles City Attorney’s Office target—for a nuisance property abatement action—the properties where gang members regularly commit crimes, such as drug sales, shootings, and other instances of gang violence. Signs of social disorder, such as gambling, public drinking, loud gatherings, loitering, and other common nuisance activities are also endemic to gang-dominated places.

For gang members, the occupation of these properties promotes their identity and survival. Moreover, the properties help solidify the gang’s control over the neighborhood by becoming a visible focal point for the gang (i.e., its hangout or headquarters). All criminal activities of the gang at these locations are documented as evidence for the abatement process.

The City Attorney’s Office in the name of the People of the State of California files a civil lawsuit (i.e., a gang property abatement complaint) that seeks to stem recurring criminal activity at targeted gang-controlled private properties. Named as defendants in the cases are the property owners who are legally responsible for abating the nuisance at the property and the gang members who have appropriated the properties as their safe haven or base for criminal activities. Following the filing of the lawsuit, the City Attorney’s Office pursues a preliminary injunction against property owners and managers as well as gang members and associates. The injunction against the owners requires that they take definitive and comprehensive steps to improve the properties physically by installing surveillance systems, gates, and lighting and by altering property management practices, for example, hiring new building managers and creating more effective tenant screening and eviction procedures. As a component of the lawsuit, gang member defendants are legally prohibited from returning to the property.

Review of the Literature

Drug Abatement Evaluations. Only a few published studies have examined the implementation and effectiveness of drug and gang abatement programs. For example, conducted by the American Bar Association (ABA), one such study explored five drug abatement programs in Alexandra, VA; Houston, TX; Milwaukee, WI; San Francisco, CA; and Toledo, OH, while another study, conducted by Loyola University Chicago, included only a single program (Cook County [Chicago] Illinois’ Narcotic Nuisance Abatement Unit) (Lurigio et al., 1993). The ABA investigation found that, overall, residents perceived abatement efforts as effective in reducing drug sales, crime, and disorderly behaviors (e.g., public drinking) (Smith et al., 1992).

In the Loyola study, however, residents on abatement blocks were no more likely than residents on non-abatement blocks to report reductions in drug sales, crimes, or disorderly behaviors. Awareness of abatement activities also appeared to be relatively low on the blocks where properties had been targeted. Nonetheless, drug sales on the blocks adjacent to the abatement actions showed no signs of displacement (i.e., the simple movement of drug sales from one location to another). Most important, the issuance of warning letters and consequent property owner actions precluded the filing of civil suits in 95 percent of cases (Davis & Lurigio, 1998).

A study of a drug abatement program in San Diego found that abatement activities (i.e., warning letters with threats to shutter properties) and police officer meetings with property owners reduced drug sales. Researchers reported that letters alone were as effective as letters and police meetings with property owners in reducing drug sales (Eck & Wartell, 1998). Another investigation found that the combination of hotspot policing and civil remedies was more effective than hotspot policing alone in curtailing drug activities (Cheh, 1998).

Another police-based, civil remedies initiative, the Beat Health Program in Oakland, California was aimed at eradicating drug dealing from residential properties. The program used notification and warning letters instructing landlords to evict drug-selling tenets from targeted buildings; the landlords were threatened with subsequent court action for failing to instigate eviction procedures. The impact of the program was studied through on-site observations of drug dealing and physical and social disorder within target and control sites. Visible signs of public drug sales and physical decay as well as outdoor drinking and other signs of social disorder decreased on the targeted blocks only (Mazerolle, Roehl, & Kadleck, 1998). Nevertheless, evidence of displacement of drug dealing was found within both intervention and control sites (Mazerolle, Price, & Roehl, 2000).

Gang Abatement Evaluations. Using a pretest–posttest design, the effects of several antigang injunction programs in Los Angeles, California were examined by comparing crime statistics from the programs’ target areas with those from noninjunction communities (nonequivalent comparison neighborhoods), one year before and one year after the injunction program was launched. The research also addressed plausible rival explanations for pre–post differences in crime (e.g., changes in employment rates in both types of communities). In general, the evaluation found 5 to 10 percent reductions in crime within the injunction neighborhoods and no reductions in crime within the comparison neighborhoods. No evidence of displaced gang activity was found within areas adjacent to the injunction sites (Grogger, 2000). A similar study reported a 10 percent reduction in crime within gang injunction areas in Los Angeles County before and after program implementation (Los Angeles Civil Grand Jury, 2004).

A process evaluation of gang abatement programs in California explored the participation of community organizations and other types of resident involvement in the creation and implementation of neighborhood antigang strategies. The evaluation found that the activities of community organization participants in highly disorganized neighborhoods did not signify widespread resident support or enthusiasm for abatement activities. The evaluation also revealed that the planning and effectuation of abatement strategies is complicated, time-consuming, and costly (Allen, 2002).

A residential survey and series of observations were conducted to assess the impact of the Verdugo Flats Gang Injunction Program in San Bernardino, California. Observations of gang activities were performed within Verdugo Flats and adjacent areas (to test for displacement effects) and within nonequivalent comparison areas (to enhance the internal validity of the research design). The residential survey and observations were implemented 18 months before and 18 months after the initiative. Within the gang injunction areas, surveys found pre–post implementation reductions in residents’ reports of gang presence, gang intimation, and fear of confrontations with gang members (Maxson, Hennigan, & Sloane, 2005).

A large-scale, 25-site study of gang injunction programs explored the effects of such initiatives on three major outcomes: serious crimes (felonies), minor crimes (misdemeanors), and calls for police services. Employing a retrospective, quasi-experimental design in a variety of sites across Los Angeles County, the study compared before and after data that were collected within and between injunction and comparison areas; the latter were selected to match gang-injunction sites in terms of levels of gang activity, proximity to targeted gang territories, and comparability of targeted and nontargeted sites on environmental characteristics. Results indicated that crimes (felonies and misdemeanors) and calls for service all decreased within the gang injunction sites but not within the control sites where serious crimes increased slightly. Greater pre–post reductions were also found within the injunction areas with respect to calls for service (O’Deane, 2012).

In short, drug and gang abatement programs appear to be cost-effective strategies to prevent continued drug sales on private properties and gang activities in public places. Notwithstanding, apprehensions have been raised about the infringement of drug abatement programs on the rights of property owners as well as the adverse effects of programs on neighborhoods when abatement properties are abandoned (Cheh, 1998). Similarly, the courts have challenged the vagueness and constitutionality of gang abatement ordinances, which have resulted in complaints about police profiling of youth of color.

Research on both types of programs (gangs and drugs) is not only scanty and outdated but also consists of mostly lower-level research designs (pre- or quasi-experimental rather than randomized field experiments) and flawed measures. For example, as a primary outcome variable, the crime data analyzed in these studies have consisted largely of reported crimes, which reflect only some fraction of the number of crimes that actually occur in a community. Although carefully conducted in reported investigations, observations are subject to bias and the mere presence of observers could alter the phenomena being studied. In addition, the comparison areas in quasi-experiments were incomparable in terms of levels of gang presence and activities. Furthermore, abatement areas can vary from housing developments, several square blocks, or entire cities, and gangs differ on their degree of territoriality, rendering comparisons among such studies challenging and misleading (Maxson, Hennigan, & Sloane, 2005; O’Deane, 2012).

To summarize, without updated and more tightly designed studies, the usefulness and effectiveness of civil injunctions to combat illegal activities and disorder are promising but must remain dubious. Such programs have the potential to modestly improve neighborhood safety and well-being (Maxson, Hennigan, & Sloane, 2005). However, to reverse the long-term spiral of decay in impoverished neighborhoods, which is associated with illicit drug sales and gang activities, the economic and social conditions (i.e., the root causes) within those communities must be fundamentally changed. Long-term effects are also more likely when drug sellers and gang members are provided with social services and prosocial options to replace criminal pursuits.

Further Reading

  • Brunet, J. R. (2002). Discouragement of crime through civil remedies: An application of a reformulated routine activities theory. Western Criminological Review, 4, 68–79.
  • Buerger, M. E. (2010). Civil abatement. In B. Fisher and S. P. Lab (Eds.), Encyclopedia of victimology and crime prevention. (Vol. 1, pp. 103–106). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.
  • Clarke, R. V. (Ed.). (1997). Situational crime prevention: Successful case studies (2nd Edition). Albany, NY: Harrow and Heston.
  • Felson, M. (2006). Crime and nature. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.
  • Finn, P., & Hylton, M. O. B. (1994). Using civil remedies for criminal behavior: Rationale, case studies, and constitutional issues. Darby, PA: DIANE Publishing.
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  • Mazerolle, L. G., & Roehl, J. (Eds.) (1998). Civil remedies and crime prevention: Crime prevention studies (Vol. 9). Monsey, NY: Criminal Justice Press.
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