A program that appears to have lifted the public safety and quality of life of several Portland business districts over the past 15 years ought not be tossed aside without a detailed plan to replace it.

When Mayor Tom Potter decided more than two weeks ago not to renew prostitution- and drug-free exclusion zones in the city, he cited a recent analysis that suggested the zones may lead to discrimination against blacks.

We share Potter's concern about civil rights and don't dispute the possibility that discrimination occurs - both within exclusion zones and without.

But Potter and other city commissioners aren't offering a complete alternative as yet to the exclusion zones, even though most business owners believe the zones reduced criminal activity in their neighborhoods.

Exclusion zones gave police officers authority to ban from an area people who have prior arrests for drug or prostitution offenses. The goal has been to reduce nuisance crime in districts where offenders are known to congregate.

Civil libertarians long have complained about the zones, which covered much of downtown Portland, parts of the Northwest shopping district, the area around Lloyd Center, part of Southeast Portland and areas along 82nd Avenue.

Discrimination feared

Beyond constitutional concerns raised by civil-liberties groups, the mayor also commissioned a recent analysis to consider whether exclusion zones contributed to racial profiling by police. That study showed that blacks caught with drugs were more likely to be excluded from drug-free zones than were whites or Hispanics arrested for the same crimes.

Police offer explanations other than bigotry for why blacks might be overrepresented in the data. But even if we assume the worst - that some form of discrimination did occur - we have to wonder why that issue wasn't addressed in a direct fashion long before now.

Some city officials, including Potter and Commissioner Randy Leonard, express doubts about whether exclusion zones have done much to discourage criminal behavior in areas where they've been enforced.

Many longtime merchants and even police officers, however, believe that the targeted crimes did decrease as a result of the zones, and that such unsavory activities are on the rise now that the zones have expired.

Develop alternative, and quickly

The longevity of the exclusion-zone program - the first zone was established in Old Town-Chinatown in 1992 - makes it even more puzzling that Potter pulled the plug without alternatives in place.

Leonard argues that the Old Town drug problem in particular can be addressed through community policing and by filling up 57 city-financed, county-operated jail beds with low-level criminals. He advocates forcing more people into drug-treatment programs by threatening them with jail.

Leonard's ideas are valid long-term strategies, but what's missing now is an immediate tool that police officers can use to get criminals out of a specific neighborhood.

Already, officers are seeing people who have been arrested in the past move back into areas where they previously could have been excluded.

What's at risk here is Portland's livability - and its public safety. Potter and city commissioners should not be content to simply terminate the exclusion zones and move on.

They should set a time certain for putting into place an alternative program for reducing the level of drug and prostitution activity in hard-hit neighborhoods.

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