Its time to shut down Crack Alley

Our Opinion

Portland Mayor Sam Adams this week demonstrated two important leadership qualities that aren't always apparent at City Hall as he responded to significant concerns about drug problems in Old Town/Chinatown:

He listened well.

Adams didn't simply say no to ideas that he initially disagreed with - but instead looked for creative ways to achieve desired public safety and livability outcomes.

As first reported in the Tribune in February, Old Town/Chinatown residents and businesses have become increasingly frustrated by the rampant drug trade occurring in their neighborhood. In the area known as Crack Alley in Old Town, drug dealers and users had become more brazen and confrontational. These problems led to calls to reinstate the controversial Drug and Prostitution Free Exclusion Zone that was allowed to expire three years ago.

Adams at first was opposed to reinstatement of the zone - an enforcement tool that gave police officers a means to keep known drug dealers out of the neighborhood. But after receiving letters from the Old Town/Chinatown Neighborhood Association and other neighborhood organizations - and after actually meeting and talking with the neighbors - Adams is proposing several meaty ideas that have great potential to slow the overt Old Town crack trade.

A different kind of zone

Chief among Adams' ideas is his plan to create modified exclusion zones - in the form of 'illegal drug dealing hot spots' - that will give police back a needed tool, but also answer some of the civil-rights concerns that had plagued the zones before. With the hot-spots concept, drug offenders still can be barred from entering a neighborhood, but only if they have been convicted of a drug crime and ordered excluded by a judge.

Previously, police officers were allowed to issue exclusions to people who had been arrested, but not yet convicted.

This change in practice for exclusion zones addresses the criticism that people were being unduly punished before their guilt was proven in court. We believe Adams' approach is a fair one, and we also fully support his other ideas for beefing up both police patrols and prosecution of drug dealers in the Old Town and downtown areas.

Council should approve funding

These latter two proposals have obvious budgetary impacts. Multnomah County commissioners last year decided - unwisely, we believe - to cut positions in the district attorney's office that previously had prosecuted minor crimes, including some drug offenses. But rather than simply point a finger at the county, which arguably has more severe budget problems than the city, Adams will ask the City Council to step up with funding for an additional deputy district attorney to focus on drug crimes.

The council should approve that request and also support Adams' proposal to increase police foot patrols in Old Town. The combination of more patrols, greater prosecution and implementation of a new exclusion zone will have the effect of driving many drug dealers out of Old Town.

The unfortunate truth is that those dealers and their customers likely will be dispersed to other areas to conduct their illegal business - which means the city will have to be diligent in applying similar pressure anyplace that drug offenders begin to congregate. Old Town has been bearing the Crack Alley burden for too long already, and Adams is correct to take aggressive steps to help a neighborhood that's been begging for just such assistance.