Law enforcement of illegal activities that depend on public customers.

There are certain illegal activities that depend on the public for customers. Some that I can think of are prostitutes, drug dealers, bookies, and (90 years ago) speakeasys. How do these businesses find customers (or how do the customers find the businesses) without the vice squad (or DEA or ATF) finding them as well? If (as depicted in the film, “The Last Detail”) a cab driver knows where there’s a whore house, why wouldn’t the vice squad use this to find the house as well?

A related question on speakeasys: Did all law enforcement enforce illegal drinking? The Volstead Act was a federal law. Would my state and local police be obligated to enforce those laws? After all, my state/local police do not enforce IRS code. Or were the state/local police bound to uphold the Constitution?

For the last, I don’t think the local police were involved. Bootleggers were always concerned of the “Revenooers”, which refers to the federal Revenue agents.

As for the first, yes the cops can find them as easily as the customers. A couple months ago, I congratulated somebody on the old Expos hat he was wearing and offered to sell me an ounce of hash. I assume that is why bribing the cops always seems to be part of the business.

Regarding things like house of prostitution or gambling, there are a few reasons why the public is able to find them, but the police do not: the police might be being bribed to not raid the property; the police might not have the resources to raid the facility; or maybe the facility gets raided a lot and it is still profitable enough to keep reopening. If a brothel is in a city it might be able to blend in to the background and not attract police attention.

Regarding prohibition: different communities took enforcing the ban on alchohol more seriously than others. Some communities specifically told their police not to bother enforcing prohibition (similar to states who have recently decided not to enforce the federal marijuana ban); other states took it very seriously. In some states, the KKK was deputized to enforce the alcohol ban. Read “Closing Time” for a great read on how prohibition was and was not enforced

If you believe Sudhir Vekantesh’s study of Chicago prostitutes, the cops have no trouble finding the prostitutes but they want to get free blow jobs rather than make an arrest.

My gf’s great grandparents ran a speakeasy. We have some old newspaper articles about their hijinks. Whenever a “raid” was going to happen, they got prior notification and hid their liquor and the place looked like a diner.

The newspaper articles seem almost tongue-in-cheek, as if everyone was in on it.

Yup, the prostitutes often reported that police were some of worst perpetrators of abuse in their lives. I believe that was in Freakenomics, or maybe Superfreakenomics.

Finding illegal activity is one thing. Prosecuting it such that it does not re-occur is quite another. It does a neighborhood little good to bust one crackhouse if a week later another one opens up a few doors down.

Delta’s got it right. Finding wanted criminals is fairly easy. It’s gathering the evidence to convict them that’s the hard part.

I’m not sure what the degree of obligation would be, but my understanding is that federal law officers only have power to enforce federal laws, state officers can enforce federal and state laws, and local officers can enforce federal, state, and local laws.

The internet.

Regarding illegal drugs, it varies a bit depending on where you are. In Chicago, there are large swaths of the West Side where guys will just stand on street corners. If they see a potential customer (Someone who’s making a lot of eye contact with them, or a white person in a predominantly black neighborhood) they’ll yell out “Blows!”(heroin) or “Rocks!” (crack). Because there are so many people selling drugs in these areas, dealers will occasionally have a “pass-out”, where they’ll give away small free samples of heroin. There will be a huge line of dope-fiend looking people in an alley or backyard waiting for their drugs. However, these drug dealers get caught ALL the time. You can tell when a crackdown has just happened because all the dope boys will be smaller- the younger brothers just take over while the older brothers are in jail. The street-level drug dealers are generally the lower guys on the totem pole, and in areas without a lot of jobs, it’s easy to just recruit new kids with the promise of easy money.

In New Orleans, where I live now, there are not open-air drug markets, at least not to the same extent. Even in the ghetto-est of neighborhoods, it’s pretty rare to have a stranger try to sell you hard drugs. Most people go through friends-of-friends, and drug dealers can afford to be a little more cautious about who they sell to because there is not the same amount of competition.

(Yes, I know these might be over-generalizations, but pretty much hold true in my experience.)

Kinda’-sorta’. MOUs and referrals come into play. A local cop can’t charge you with treason, and a Fed can’t charge you with murder (unless the victim is a Federal employee). Federal agencies routinely decline to prosecute (usually b/c they know that the USAO will decline prosecution); that also gives the state/local authorities an opportunity to get a “win.” I’ve been surprised on occasion - “10,000 lbs of weed? F*ck it, let the state prosecute.”

Word of mouth is up there, too.

Also, LEAs and prosecutors get to “pick their battles”. In most areas going after every numbers runner, street corner dope dealer, “underground club”, massage parlor/hooker/escort/pimp/high-class madam, “gypsy-cab”, etc. every weekend would quickly exhaust and overwhelm the system. So instead they’ll prioritize and do a raid or sweep only when they feel it’s worth the time and effort.

BTW re: Prohibition, many states and counties adopted dry laws of their own before the feds (and some still have them to this day)

Well this is it. Uniformed officers are easily recognized by the purveyors of vice. Catching them requires undercover cops collecting evidence. Police forces only have limited resources for that and they’d prefer to use them investigating higher priority cases.

Certainly. With drugs it’s usually word of mouth. Either your friend the user knows others that can get you what you want or they know where the open air drug markets are. With prostitution the Internet is widely used. I know Craigslist cut down on a lot of the sex trade on their site but there are plenty of other lesser sites.

As previously mentioned, this.

Note that “when they feel it’s worth the time and effort” often is a factor of local political wind shifts.