When It Comes to Drug Deals, Environment Is Everything

When someone commits a crime, their environment can affect how they act, a new study finds.

Ph.D. student Nathan Connealy and Professor Eric Piza (John Jay College of Criminal Justice, The Graduate Center) authored the new research, which appears in Crime & Delinquency.

The researchers analyzed illegal drug sales in Newark, New Jersey, using CCTV footage and Google Street View images.

They found that in retail facilities, bars, and liquor stores, drug buyers and sellers were more likely to keep to the usual “script” for a transaction. But those making their transactions in corner shops, parks, and transit centers, however, were more likely to go a little off-course.

Criminologists use this framework, called a “crime script,” to identify the sequence of actions that unfolds in an illegal event. In this case—the sale of drugs in publicly accessible places—the authors identified four parts to a normal script: The buyer initiates contact with the seller, the buyer doesn’t inspect the product before buying, the two exchange money and drugs, and the seller stays where they are after the buyer leaves.

In corner shops, parks, and transit centers, things went a little differently. The buyer might’ve taken the time to check out the product before buying, or the seller might’ve relocated after a sale. The nature of these bigger, busier places, the authors postulated, gives people more mobility and that might make it easier to go “off-script.” On the other hand, in a bar or liquor store there aren’t as many places to go or to stash things; in this case, their options are more limited.