Washington, D.C. Police Chief Cathy Lanier. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

D.C. Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier has disbanded a decade-old street-level drug unit, transferring nearly 30 officers back to patrol districts in a move that signals a shift in focus from open-air drug trafficking toward neighborhood crime.

Lanier’s decision, made earlier this month, eliminated the Narcotics and Special Investigations Division’s “Strike Force,” decentralizing tactical operations against street-level drug activity across the city.

The move comes amid a dramatic decline in open-air drug markets in the District — and also the department’s increased efforts to combat robbers who snatch smartphones and hold up stores.

“My biggest bang for the buck is having those [officers] back in the districts,” Lanier said in a recent interview. “My single biggest problem right now is not drugs. It’s gangs focusing around other criminal enterprises.”

Open-air drug markets were a scourge in the District for more than two decades — not just because dealers used them to sell drugs but because of the crime those sales engendered. Addicts robbed and stole to fund their habits; rival dealers exchanged shots as they battled for lucrative corners. The violence was a large reason why the city recorded hundreds of homicides each year.

Now, the District is on the verge of a year with fewer than 100 killings, a level not seen since the early 1960s. Of the homicides committed this year, police think only a handful are related to drugs.

In addition, technology has changed the way drug dealers do business. Where markets once swarmed with men serving customers through 24-hour hand-to-hand or drive-up service, more deals now take place indoors, arranged surreptitiously with the help of mobile phones or social media, Lanier and other police officials say.

Meanwhile, crack cocaine — once a major driver of District drug sales — is less popular now, and people who sold it for quick cash have moved to other enterprises.

Dealers usually “sold drugs for fast money and flashy clothes,” Lanier said. “They’re doing the same thing for the same reasons, but they’re doing it through other criminal means.

“The open-air market is just too risky,” Lanier said.

The Strike Force was a creation of former police chief Charles H. Ramsey, who deployed it a decade ago at a time when dozens of markets operated citywide. Police used the team to try to clear corners quickly. Its officers often ran “buy-bust” operations, in which dozens of undercover officers would buy drugs and then quickly arrest the sellers.

The unit netted thousands of arrests, from small-time marijuana dealers to cocaine traffickers. Its investigations also led police to gun sellers and garnered tips for homicide investigations.

Now, Lanier says, the days of open-air markets in the District are nearly gone.

“Compared to that time, we have 75 to 80 percent fewer open-air drug markets,” she said.

Still, officials hear of stubborn spots — among them, the Kennedy Street corridor in the area of Brightwood in Northwest.

Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Monica Green said police have eliminated much of the drug dealing in Brightwood in recent years.

Just two years ago, she said, crack abusers passed out in apartment hallways and prostitutes strolled neighborhood streets. Now, where dozens of drug dealers once worked, relatively few remain.

“They don’t own the neighborhood like they used to, but they’re still a fixture,” Green said. “Can I complain and say the police haven’t done a good job? No. Do I wish they could do more? Yes.”

In Ward 1, D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D) says parts of the area he represents still struggle with gang activity and open-air drug dealing. He welcomes Lanier’s plan, he says, because it means five officers will be added to the 3rd District force that patrols the ward.

“We have no magic wand, but over time we have fought them to a considerable degree,” Graham said. “We still have open-air drug markets. And we need all the police we can get on the streets.”

Lanier says the change does not signal a reduced commitment to fighting drugs and drug-
related crime. Instead, she says, it will move more officers to localized commands and reinforce several vice units.