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Law Enforcement and Prevention of Problem Behaviors

An Important Connection to Improve the Health and Safety of Our Communities[1]

Why is the connection between law enforcement and prevention of problem behaviors such as substance use important? Perhaps it is Safety within our communities.

While law enforcement is responsible for enforcing laws and maintaining public order and public safety; prevention addresses the health and safety of individuals[2]. However together they aim to enhance self-realization and participation in society.

Law Enforcement is informed by police science to prevent, detect, and investigate crime for the apprehension and detention of individuals suspected of law violation. Police Science, that informs law enforcement, is multidisciplinary drawing from the fields of criminology, forensic science, psychiatry, psychology, jurisprudence, community policing, criminal justice, correctional administration and penology.

Prevention is informed by prevention science to address determinants of behaviors that protect or put at risk the social, emotional, and physical health of individuals, families, communities; specify processes as to how these determinants operate; and determine the strategies that effectively intervene when trajectories are negative and reinforce those trajectories that are positive. Prevention science is also multidisciplinary drawing on epidemiology, sociology, psychology, behavioral science, medicine, statistics, and the neurobiological sciences.

The challenge for both groups relates to the practices that are used to achieve the objectives of each profession. Prevention uses socialization processes to engage individuals in order to enhance resilience by providing the skills necessary to make informed decisions about engaging in healthy behaviors while avoiding behaviors that may be harmful and to lead healthy lives. Law enforcement uses mostly social control measures to enforce laws.

Vulnerability, Etiology Model, Points of Prevention Intervention

A good place to start in this discussion of how law enforcement and prevention professionals can work together is to fully understand the potential benefits of integrating law enforcement into prevention programming planning and implementation is with a review of the etiology of substance use and other behavioral problems (to access a fuller version please see Prevention Nugget, What is the Etiology Model and how does it explain why people get involved in substance use?). The model depicts the sources of influence on how we see and interact with the world around us. The process through which these influences take place is called socialization[3]. This includes our micro-level environments (such as our parents, family, teachers, faith-based leaders, and peers) and our macro-level environments (such as our neighborhood or community, laws and regulations, our physical surroundings, and even climate). How we interact with these environments depends on our own characteristics (for example, our physical, emotional, and intellectual development). It is also important to note that our micro- and macro-level environments also influence each other. Think about the effects of COVID on workplaces and schools and the associated stresses on parents, school staff, and children. Another important aspect of the etiology model is the Time dimension added to indicate that the process of socialization is dynamic and takes place across the life-span.

Understanding this complex process also suggests that one prevention intervention alone will not be sufficient to impact a community in which these processes will vary across the population. We can then identify points for intervention shown in stars in the etiology model above. We have discussed how to build infrastructures within the community to support multiple EVIDENCE-BASED prevention programming to meet community residents’ needs (See the Prevention Nugget series on Building Prevention Systems).

Given this background, what role can law enforcement have within a comprehensive prevention service delivery system? One obvious role is within the macro-level environment by enforcing regulations regarding the availability of and accessibility to psychoactive substances that are legal within a community. These not only include alcohol and nicotine products but also marijuana/cannabis. Enforcing the change in the minimum drinking age across the States has had a significant impact on alcohol-related traffic fatalities as seen in the graph. The enforcement of these regulations and laws not only make behavioral changes but it also makes a statement to the community that underage use of these substances is not acceptable.

Another role for law enforcement is in schools, in the United States, most often as School Resource Officers ( However, in many countries law enforcement officers are also involved in schools in various capacities (El-Khatib et al., 2021). The primary role of law enforcement officers in schools is to maintain a safe environment. There is strong evidence that when children feel safe and secure in the school setting they will fare well and are more likely to bond with the school. Indeed, many groups play significant roles in enhancing the school experience and can work together to achieve that goal. The role of law enforcement officers working with these other significant groups in summarized in the chart below from a draft document from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime entitled, Development of a Guiding Document on the Role of Law Enforcement Officers in Drug Prevention within School Settings (

Target Groups in the Partnership Between Schools and Law Enforcement Officers

In all cases, we emphasize the use of EVIDENCE-BASED PRACTICES and TRAINING!


[1] Based on a presentation of the same title made on May 17 at the 2023 Youth Substance Use Prevention Institute held in Denver Colorado [2] [3] “Socialization is the process by which individuals acquire social skills, beliefs, values, and behaviors necessary to function effectively in society or in a particular group.”


El-Khatib, Z., Herrera, C., Campello, G., Mattfeld, E., & Maalouf, W. (2021). The Role of Law Enforcement Officers/Police in Drug Prevention within Educational Settings-Study Protocol for the Development of a Guiding Document Based on Experts' Opinions. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 18(5):2613. doi: 10.3390/ijerph18052613. PMID: 33807797; PMCID: PMC7967531.

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