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Identifying and Informing Strategies for Disrupting Drug Distribution Networks

This pilot project seeks to understand, describe, and disrupt networks of illicit sales of opiates from a public safety perspective in partnership with the Pennsylvania State Police and local treatment facilities. This project will help to understand hotspots of drug distribution and access, while addressing the utility of community based policing in addressing this complex issue.

Identifying and Informing Strategies for Disrupting Drug Distribution Networks: An Application of Community Policing to Opiate Flows in Pennsylvania

Prior research emphasizes the disruption of the supply of prescription opioids from healthcare sources and increased first-provider access to the opiate overdose reversal drug, naloxone. Additional efforts emphasize combating demand by increasing treatment options for users. Within this context, however, there has been less emphasis on understanding, describing, and disrupting networks of illicit sales of opiates from a public safety perspective. We aim to fill a gap in these efforts by partnering with law enforcement and community organizations to identify and describe opiate distribution of opiates in PA and the geographic hotspots of sales within urban and rural PA communities to inform recommendations aimed at disrupting the supply of illegal opiates (including heroin, fentanyl, and diverted prescription opioids). We will develop tools to identify and describe opiate distribution networks and geographic hotspots of opiate activity from administrative data and community input that will be of broad interest to public safety and health experts in other communities in PA and other states.

Project Team

Principal Investigators: Glenn Sterner, Postdoctoral Scholar, Justice Center for Research,; Ashton Verdery, Department of Sociology and Criminology,

Co-Investigators: Shannon Monnat, Assistant Professor, Department of Agricultural Economics, Sociology, and Education,; Pete Forster, Associate Dean, College of Information Sciences and Technology,; Gary Zajac, Managing Director, Justice Center for Research,

About the Project

  • Timeline is July 1, 2016 – December, 31, 2017
  • Pilot Study for larger NIJ Grant to be submitted Spring 2017

Research Questions

  1. Do residents’ perceptions of the geographic locations of opiate distribution match arrest and intelligence gathering data?
  2. What are the differences in demographic and socioeconomic characteristics and major highway access between neighborhoods with high versus low opiate distribution?

Project Objectives

  1. Develop and apply tools to record resident identified locations of local opiate distribution in Adams, Cumberland, Dauphin, Franklin, Perry, and York counties in Pennsylvania.
  2. Compare resident identified locations of local opiate distribution to arrest locations of opiate distribution.
  3. Describe the demographic and socioeconomic characteristics of neighborhoods with high vs. low distribution (as measured by arrest records and respondent reporting).
  4. Provide recommendations for policing and arrest strategies for law enforcement for targeting heroin, fentanyl, and prescription opioid distribution centers to increase network disruption.
  5. Provide recommendations for improving intelligence gathering activities related to documenting opiate distribution.
  6. Create stronger community and law enforcement connections.
  7. Disseminate information for opiate treatment and reporting of illicit activity at study sites.


Looking more broadly at the value and impact of a geo-spatial approach to understanding opiate markets and avenues for their disruption, opiate abuse has tremendous consequences for the welfare of drug users, affecting their long term involvement in the criminal justice system, as well as their health, employment and employability, family relations, and other outcomes. Drug use and the criminal justice system involvement that often follows have consequences for the wellbeing not only of addicts and dealers themselves, but also for their families and more broadly their communities. Improved interdiction approaches that can result from our proposed study has benefits not only for the criminal justice and public health systems that are responding to the opiate crisis, but also for the communities that are harmed by widespread use of these substances, where such harm includes public health impacts, violence and social disorder. Our project will also encourage broader collaboration between researchers and law enforcement, especially in rural communities, and will set the stage for further applications of research and analysis to the study of opiate and other drug abuse in other communities beyond PA, demonstrating the importance of this approach and testing methods and innovations that can be diffused across many law enforcement settings nationally. We have an extensive plan to disseminate this information to a broad audience, including local and state criminal justice organizations, local, state, and national government officials, academic organizations, non-profit organizations, treatment and addiction centers, and task forces.

Although this study is limited to six counties in PA, the analyses and results from this study will have the ability to inform policy and practice across the Commonwealth and the United States. First, our innovative approach to data fusion will be of interest to law enforcement agencies to use as a model for addressing complex criminal justice issues. We are utilizing datasets from multiple units within the PA State Police to develop understandings of drug distributions. Similarly, we are utilizing community-based data gathering and existing data to gain clearer understandings of drug sales in neighborhoods. By tackling this issue from multiple perspectives, we are able to provide recommendations for police enforcement policy and practice to ensure efforts are maximized to disrupt the distribution of opiates. Integration across inter-departmental agencies and across jurisdictions is a model that could be applied to the opiate epidemic and other criminal justice concerns. Second, by identifying the common characteristics of communities where significant distribution occurs, we can inform criminal justice agencies on potential areas for concentrating officer targeting.

Project Partners

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