Drug dealers are a moving target
• Drugs drift through the city; police try to catch up • With limited resources, cops try to stem illegal activity
Drug trafficking in Portland is like a long balloon, some say: Squeeze it at one end, and watch the problem swell at the other end.
That was the case last fall, when officers on both sides of the Willamette River ran a series of successful drug 'missions' Ñ but not at the same time.
As a result, many citizens noticed that the groups of drug users and dealers floated back and forth across town, simply moving to areas police weren't focusing on.
'When they do the missions, (drug trafficking) decreases,' said Paul Verhoeven, chairman of the Old Town/Chinatown Neighborhood Association and executive director of the Saturday Market, which begins this weekend.
'Instead of having a half-dozen dealers out on the streets, they just disappear. I wish (police) could keep a constant presence and push it out of the city completely.'
Police are well aware of the ebb and flow of the drug trade and are constantly addressing it by putting uniformed officers on the street to talk with people and running undercover missions when necessary.
Yet, police say, they can't run coordinated efforts on both sides of the bridge as often as business owners would like.
Police officials say it takes a tremendous amount of resources to run missions Ñ up to 10 officers at any one time, spending weeks and many overtime hours both on the street and doing follow-up investigative work Ñ that keep them away from their normal duties.
It's also difficult to coordinate crackdowns with other precincts, and there may even be an unwillingness to dedicate the time required to focus on one problem, they say.
'There's enormous competition for police resources,' said Central Precinct Cmdr. Rosie Sizer. 'All the time you're trying to identify problems and identify solutions and prioritize among the many tasks about what to do at what time. É Even with a crime rate falling in recent years, there's a lot of quality-of-life issues to deal with, and drugs are one of them.'
Police say officers may take a territorial view sometimes, concentrating on the problems in their own precincts. Poor communication also can hamper their efforts.
'Transit officers deal with problems on the system,' said Capt. Mike Garvey of the bureau's transit unit. 'Precinct officers deal with problems in surrounding areas. We may not necessarily be communicating as we should. But hopefully we've remedied that.'
Problems in Lloyd
A sudden surge of drug trafficking hit the Lloyd business district hard last fall, when business owners started seeing a spate of problems: drug overdoses in their restrooms, increased numbers of panhandlers cited for trespassing in restaurants and parking lots, and a spike in what police call 'smash and grabs,' breaking car windows to steal personal items.
They found themselves dealing with drug addicts who repeatedly came into their establishments to use the restrooms to shoot up Ñ leaving behind syringes, plastic bags, blood, tin cans and other paraphernalia.
At Holladay Park, commuters saw the handshakes, the people who seemed to linger a bit too long, the uneasy eye contact with people who stepped off the train in the dim hours of the day.
'You know what's going on,' said Northeast resident Josh Plager, who was put off by the activity as he walked through the park on his commute to work. 'They're not there to enjoy the park at 6 o'clock when it's dark.'
Business owners and other citizens began complaining to police and local district attorneys that something needed to be done.
Police were able to run three missions Ñ with about nine or 10 undercover officers and informants Ñ and by mid-January uncovered a ring of sophisticated traffickers who'd ride the light-rail line to Holladay Park and dole out the day's supplies to dealers.
The dealers used 'hooks,' or addicts, to bring in their customers, and 'eyes' to watch for police so that the sellers could hop on the MAX to escape arrest.
Police arrested 48 buyers and sellers of cocaine and heroin Ñ primarily illegal Mexican and Honduran immigrants Ñ including the suppliers at the head of the chain. Most will face deportation, police said.
Central Precinct's Sizer said these groups were not the same as those operating downtown. She said missions in downtown and Old Town in December and January netted a group of dealers of crack cocaine, meth and marijuana.
But while these groups may be off the streets temporarily, it doesn't mean they won't come back.
'I suspect we'll see them all back,' said Traynor, noting that many of the Hondurans and Mexicans had prior arrests downtown. 'They're not violent offenders; they tend not to be in jail for more than a couple hours.'
Police said they were on somewhat of a hiatus from street missions after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, with their resources focused on systemwide security and threats of anthrax. The spate of concentrated trafficking caught them by surprise.
Finding a blind spot
Northeast neighborhood response team officer Chris Traynor said the surge in activity might have come because dealers figured that the area was somewhat of a blind spot.
The park is adjacent to Lloyd Center, but the officers who routinely patrolled the shopping center in the daytime did not patrol it at night when the mall is closed, he said.
After receiving dozens of complaints from citizens and business owners, officers positioned themselves at the park to gauge the activity and found that the park was 'basically occupied,' he said. 'At any one time you'd see 25 to 30 people actively involved in selling heroin and cocaine at the park. They'd literally taken over the park.'
After the missions, Northeast business owners are appreciative and satisfied.
'We're safer,' said Alan Peters, general manager of the Portland Conference Center and vice president of the Lloyd District Community Association. 'We couldn't be any happier.'
Peters said that at the height of the activity he was filing police reports on a weekly basis and finally installed three cameras on nearby MAX platforms with hopes that that would deter some activity. He hasn't filed a police report in at least a month, he said.
But authorities don't have any solutions for eliminating drug trafficking in Portland.
It'll continue to be a major community issue as long as there is supply and demand, they said, and all police can do is to try and anticipate the flow of problems and adjust their resources accordingly.
Referring to the balloon analogy, the police transit unit's Garvey said: 'You have your tentacles set up, so if it does pop up somewhere else you're ready for it. I think as long as you maintain a consistent presence, you can deal with the issue.'