Old Town feels effects of new drug-free exclusion zones

Offenders told to stay out of Old Town and Lloyd Center neighborhoods
by: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT Jake Hammer, owner of Everett Street Autoworks, says drug users in Old Town have yelled at his customers and lately, have defiantly smoked crack in full view of his shop.

In April, Portland Mayor Sam Adams responded to calls from Old Town businesses for new measures to fight an increasingly aggressive drug trade in that neighborhood, and this week neighborhood activists got their first look at how those measures are working.

Multnomah County Deputy District Attorney Billy Prince told a neighborhood gathering Wednesday that since the first impact area exclusions were issued June 16, 45 notices have been handed out to people who were also placed on probation by judges after convictions for drug offenses.

A number of Old Town residents and shop owners had asked the city to reinstate a drug-free zone, which was allowed to expire in 2007 under then-Mayor Tom Potter. Adams agreed to a modification of the drug-free zone idea called 'drug impact' areas.

The old drug-free zone allowed police officers to issue exclusion notices after arresting people for drug offenses. An exclusion notice meant that an offender faced immediate arrest if he or she returned to the drug-free zone. The new exclusions can only be issued by judges at the same time they sentence offenders to probation, which is the most common penalty for drug offenses.

Prince said that one person issued an exclusion notice by a judge after a cocaine conviction had been arrested again in the Old Town/downtown zone, and that he was held in jail 15 days after being sanctioned by his probation officer.

Lenient view of policy

Prince's work is part of the new Old Town anti-drug initiative. After 2010 cutbacks in the district attorney's office, police were instructed to treat arrests for the smallest amounts of drugs as violations, similar to traffic offenses. Adams' initiative includes funding Prince's position.

Prince will focus on prosecuting drug-related offenses. Even the smallest drug residue cases will be taken to court, he says.

Offenders on probation will be allowed back in the drug-free areas only if they can show that they have a compelling reason to return, such as a job or a social service provider in the area.

Apparently, some judges are taking a lenient view of that aspect of the new policy. Prince said Wednesday that one offender was given an exemption from the Old Town/downtown exclusion zone after demonstrating that his 'work' as a street musician bucket drummer required him to play at familiar downtown street corners.

Criminals don't always move

News of the exclusion zones comes as a number of neighborhood store owners have insisted in recent weeks that drug dealers and users have been confronting customers and employees and are continuing to cost them business.

Critics say exclusion zones merely force drug dealers to move from one neighborhood to another, but David Weisburd, one of the world's leading experts on the policy, told the Tribune that the zones consistently help reduce overall drug crimes.

Weisburd is director of the department of criminology, law and society at George Mason University's Center for Evidence-Based Criminal Policy. He said that specific street corners and neighborhoods matter to criminals, enough, sometimes, that they won't continue their old criminal habits if taken away.

Weisburd co-authored a study looking at about 10 city blocks in Jersey City, N.J., as police enacted a 'hot spot' policy to drive drug dealers and prostitutes from their traditional neighborhood locations.

The hot spot policies reduced crime in the targeted neighborhoods and in surrounding neighborhoods, Weisburd said. One lesson, he said, was that some criminals can't easily move. Drug dealers and prostitutes forced from one area sometimes find other dealers and prostitutes already established when they try to move somewhere new, Weisburd said. Dealers new to an area don't know who can be counted on and who might call police, he said.

In Jersey City, according to Weisburd, nine of 49 prostitutes interviewed after being forced from their traditional territory stopped working as street prostitutes. Many changed the way they work, from street prostitution to working for dating services or as call girls. But that, Weisburd said, was a net gain for the neighborhood street life.

'It's not that crime can never move. It's not that over time a certain percentage of offenders won't decide to move. But overall, areas nearby are going to get better and there will be lower criminal activity overall,' Weisburd said. 'The assumption that somehow if you press down on one place crime is going to move around the corner is just wrong.'

Four impact zones

Portland has drawn four drug impact zones focused on areas with the greatest number of arrests. Old Town has long been the focus of cocaine dealers, and the boundaries of the Old Town drug impact area are Northwest Lovejoy Street at the north end, west to Interstate 405, south to Southwest Alder Street and east to the Willamette River.

A second cocaine exclusion zone has been drawn around the Lloyd Center area, encompassing, Northeast Schuyler Street, Northeast 21st Avenue, Interstate 5 and Interstate 84. Those two areas also serve as heroin exclusion zones.

In addition, the city has established a marijuana impact area which differs slightly from the Old Town/downtown cocaine zone. Its southern boundary extends to Southwest Market Street.

On June 8, Portland police began a new walking beat in Old Town as another part of Adams' initiative, but Prince cautioned that funding for his position and the new beat would be on a year-to-year basis.

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