Drug-free zones flawed but useful
Drug-free exclusion zones allow police officers to deliver timely consequences to people who break the law. And in some Gresham neighborhoods, that type of immediate police action is needed to maintain an ongoing sense of security.
It's not that drug-free zones are without problems - they do have potential drawbacks. But the exclusion zones can be a valuable tool for police as they try to get the upperhand in those neighborhoods where nuisance crime has become a daily - and highly visible - occurrence.
The Gresham Police Department is seeking to expand the territory now covered by an exclusion-zone ordinance. We believe the City Council ought to allow that expansion, but also continue to require regular reporting on the effectiveness of the zones and on any unintended consequences that arise from their use.
First zone starting to work
Gresham police were granted a drug-free exclusion zone in Rockwood in October 2006, but they made poor use of the tool for the first year of its existence. The purpose of an exclusion zone is to clean up crime-saturated neighborhoods by allowing police to kick alleged drug offenders out of an area and keep those people away for at least 90 days.
This approach only works, however, if police actually issue the exclusions as they make arrests - and that's what Gresham police failed to do between October 2006 and September 2007. During that period of time, police issued only seven exclusion orders, even though the neighborhood - roughly bounded by 181st and 193rd avenues and Glisan and Yamhill streets - has a history of frequent drug arrests.
But when police officials realized last fall that they weren't taking full advantage of the exclusion zones, they began to assert themselves. In the final three months of the year, they initiated new training for officers and excluded 28 people from the drug-free zone.
Now, police administrators are asking the City Council to designate two more areas as drug-free zones. One of the proposed expansions would extend the existing zone to 162nd Avenue in Rockwood, and the other would surround the Gresham Central MAX station at Northeast Eighth Street and Kelly Avenue.
Those two neighborhoods certainly could use the extra protection that comes with a drug-free zone. Armed with the power to exclude alleged drug offenders, Gresham police officers could help restore quality of life in areas where law-abiding citizens feel they have lost control to the criminal element.
Close monitoring required
But some cautionary notes are in order before the council gives the go-ahead. One concern is that exclusion zones can push crime into other neighborhoods. Police must monitor crime trends to ensure that this isn't happening in Gresham.
Exclusion zones also have been criticized as potentially discriminatory. Portland terminated its drug- and prostitution-free zones last year because police statistics showed a disproportionate number of African-Americans were being excluded. Up until now, Gresham's zone hasn't led to similar racial profiling.
Most people who've been arrested on drug charges or excluded from the Rockwood zone have been Caucasian. That's to be expected, considering the demographic profile of methamphetamine users - and considering that meth is still the most common illegal substance in Gresham.
A final consideration is whether exclusion zones do something more than temporarily disrupt crime in a neighborhood. For more lasting results, police must be able to connect abusers - the people who are excluded - with treatment programs that can help them break free of their addictions.
This requires coordination between the police, the corrections system and other agencies that deal with substance abuse. It also requires the Gresham City Council to stay involved with the drug-free zones and be aware of their impacts. Tossing troublemakers out of a neighborhood has some beneficial and immediate effects, but city officials also must be concerned about where those offenders land.