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Drug zone fight gives Old Town a big lift

Exclusions seem to be working as residents battle Crack Alley
by: Christopher Onstott Increased foot patrols in Old Town have led to police detaining 65 people for violating exclusions and reappearing in the Old Town and downtown Drug Free Impact areas in the last seven months.

Waitresses at Jamie Dunn's Gilt Club on Northwest Broadway no longer need escorts to their cars after closing every night. That, Dunn says, signals improvement.

Last spring, Dunn was among the community voices in Old Town who petitioned Mayor Sam Adams, asking for relief from what had become, they said, an intolerable problem with aggressive drug dealers and users in their neighborhood. Crack Alley, the area around Northwest Flanders Street and Sixth Avenue, had become an open air drug market, and its spillover had residents and business owners demanding a city response.

That came in May, when Adams found $250,000 in one-time, discretionary income to pay for a police officer to walk a beat in Old Town and downtown, and a deputy district attorney to prosecute low-level drug crimes that previously had been dealt with as violations, similar to traffic tickets.

Finally, Adams agreed to a modification of the old Drug Free Zones, which had been allowed to expire three years ago. He established Drug Free Impact Areas, with the most notable one in Old Town.

Under rules of the new impact areas, people convicted of drug crimes anywhere in Multnomah County can be excluded by judges. That means if they're found in Old Town, downtown or Holladay Park, police can detain them for probation violations.

The new policies have made a difference in Old Town, according to representatives of the police bureau and district attorney's office. Dunn and others in Old Town agree.

'The level of crime, the drug dealers that are wandering around on the streets, all feels very much like it felt before it got bad,' Dunn says. 'It feels like the days of the Drug Free Zone again. It's there, but it's not overwhelming.'

As of last week, police records show that 350 people had been given drug impact area exclusions. Sixty-five had been detained for showing up in either Old Town or downtown impact areas after being given an exclusion.

For felons, the re-arrests are handled by community justice officers as violations of probation or parole. For those whose exclusions followed misdemeanor arrests, the re-arrests generally mean five or six days in jail before a hearing in front of a judge.

Not everybody is thrilled with the new impact areas. Chris O'Connor, staff attorney at Metropolitan Public Defender, says the data from police and the district attorney is incomplete. He'd like to see a breakdown of the 65 who were picked up in the impact area after having been issued exclusion notices.

Specifically, O'Connor would like to know what percent of the 65 were black or Hispanic, and how many were excluded for crimes that initially occurred in the impact areas. The initial Drug Free Zones didn't last because of data showing that police were using the exclusions mostly to stop blacks in Old Town.

'If the purpose of these rules is to avoid a selection bias in who they are stopping, then you need to know the numbers,' O'Connor says.

Monica Beemer, executive director of Old Town nonprofit Sisters of the Road, also says it's premature to label the new drug impact zones successful.

'I feel like we have a responsibility to be diligent to dismantle racism and classism as it has been practiced,' Beemer says. 'It makes me very concerned if people are saying it's so much better if that hasn't been studied and we have a history of these laws targeting people of color and people experiencing homelessness.'

Significant reduction

Heath Kula, in charge of training the officers who work the Old Town walking beat and are mostly responsible for enforcing the drug impact areas, says the program is working. Nearly everyone found guilty of a drug crime, no matter where in the county it took place, is being given an exclusion notice as part of his sentence.

Kula says the 65 who were found in Old Town or downtown despite their exclusions is 'a low number.'

'When a judge tells somebody not to go back to that area, it has a lot of force,' Kula says. 'That number is going to shrink and shrink and shrink.'

Kula is among those who think that eliminating blatant, open-air drug markets such as Crack Alley have an effect on both neighborhood livability and the overall level of drug dealing. Not every dealer is able to easily relocate somewhere else, he says.

'If you don't let them go to where they know the client base is, even if they go somewhere else to deal, I don't think they're going to be able to find clients or the amount of clients as quickly as they can in that Old Town area,' Kula says. 'It definitely hurts their business.'

Howard Weiner, owner of Cal Skate Skateboards on Northwest Sixth Avenue and a longtime Old Town activist, says he can see the difference in the past seven months.

'Conditions were intolerable, it was just 24/7 down here on the street,' Weiner says. 'We've seen a significant reduction of the activity in front of my storefront. Has it eliminated the drug dealing? No. But it has reduced the number of folks dealing and using on the street.'

Carl Roberts says there also has been a change in the makeup of the Old Town dealers, and he should know as well as anyone. Roberts lives at the Sally McCracken building on Northwest Sixth Avenue, which houses people in recovery. It also sits a block from Crack Alley.

Six mornings a week, Roberts stands sentinel at the corner of Sixth and Everett, attempting to keep the crack dealers away from the McCracken, and its residents. He says since the changes the early morning dealers have moved a block further away, to Northwest Glisan Street, and there aren't as many gang-affiliated dealers. Roberts says he can tell by the colors they wear.

Hard-core dealers

A six-month report by the district attorney's office provides some insight into both the drug impact areas and Portland's overall drug scene. According to the report, nearly one in four Multnomah County drug arrests involving heroin, cocaine or marijuana occurred within the drug impact areas. Eight of 10 people arrested for dealing within the impact areas lived outside the areas, having come in to sell drugs.

The original Drug Free Zones had disappeared after records showed that blacks were being given exclusions in overwhelming numbers. The district attorney's officer reports that minorities comprised 42 percent of those arrested for drug offenses in the new impact areas. Outside the impact areas, 35 percent of people arrested for drug offenses were minorities.

Deputy District Attorney Billy Prince says 90 of the people who had been given exclusions had among them a total of 447 felony convictions and 434 misdemeanor convictions. Thirty-two, Prince says, had a prior conviction for a violent felony.

'They're not getting inadvertently caught up in this,' says Senior Deputy District Attorney Mark McDonald. 'Many of them are hard-core drug dealers. That's how they support themselves.'

At least a dozen of those dealers aren't dealing anymore because they have agreed to enter treatment. Forty-three of the people given exclusions met the criteria for the police bureau's Service Coordination Team, a program that offers housing and addiction to the city's most frequently arrested. Those 43 had at least three drug or property-related crime arrests in the past year and were either homeless or getting out of jail or prison.

Twelve of the 43 are still housed and in treatment, according to Austin Raglione, Service Coordination Team program manager.

Kula says he expects better results from the impact zone program in the months ahead, as police officers and prosecutors become more familiar with what has become a new enforcement tool. The program provides police with a legal basis for stopping any dealers they see in Old Town who have been given exclusion notices. Without the impact area rules, they often would be aware of dealers, but would not have probable cause to detain and search them unless they saw a drug deal.

But the future gains Kula envisions depend on the program receiving funding beyond June 1. The police bureau is in the process of dealing with $6.1 million in budget cuts for next year, and the $250,000 for Prince's position and the walking beat in Old Town are not in the proposed police budget.

Mike Kuykendall, who oversees finances as the police bureau's director of services, says the bureau has recommended that the program continue to be paid out of one-time funds.