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Drug-free zones not working as billed

Funding dries up; cops say program too difficult to enforce


Portland Police bike officer David Sanders knows that every day he patrols downtown and Old Town there are people walking about who aren’t supposed to be there. As probation conditions, these offenders have exclusion orders that say they’re not allowed into the downtown/Old Town drug-free impact area.

Sanders knows the drill when he confronts such a suspect. He stops the probationer and handcuffs them if he learns they are excluded. Then he calls the suspect’s probation or parole officer and asks that officer to start the paperwork and contact the county jail to be ready for a drop off. Violation of a drug impact-area exclusion order nets an offender jail time, sometimes a week or more.

But that scenario isn’t happening frequently of late. Portland police say they aren’t enforcing drug impact-area exclusion violations as assiduously as they once did. Multnomah County probation officials are aware that police are ignoring many of the violations. And the county district attorney acknowledges the drug impact-area program isn’t working as intended.

When the drug impact areas were instituted in 2011, they were seen as an important tool in the fight against a burgeoning and increasingly aggressive drug trade in Old Town. Business owners and residents petitioned then-mayor Sam Adams, and Adams responded with the impact area and $250,000 to fund a walking beat police officer to enforce the exclusions in downtown and Old Town. The $250,000 also funded a deputy district attorney dedicated to the program who would prosecute low-level drug crimes that previously had been dealt with as violations.

But when he submitted his city budget in 2013, Mayor Charlie Hales did not include another $250,000 to administer the impact areas. That has left criminal justice players scrambling to maintain the program without critical funding.

Today, there are about 800 Portland parolees and probationers who aren’t allowed in the downtown, Old Town or Holladay Park impact areas. Nearly everyone convicted of a drug crime, no matter where in Multnomah County it took place, is excluded. Portland police records show that only about seven times a month, maybe less, an officer takes action against a probationer in violation of an exclusion order.

Howard Weiner, chairman of the Old Town/Chinatown Community Association, says he wasn’t aware of the diminished enforcement of the impact area, but he is certain that in one year impact-area enforcement helped turn the tide of crack cocaine dealing that historically took place near his skateboard shop on Northwest Sixth Avenue.

“The drug impact-area exclusions have been one of the tools that have helped this community in fighting the chronic street-level drug dealing and the violence that comes along with that,” Weiner says. “It would be a shame if this tool is not being utilized to its full extent.”

Without a dedicated walking beat officer in Old Town, it’s mostly up to patrol officers in cars to spot and stop drug impact-area offenders, says Central Precinct Cmdr. Bob Day. Those officers, Day says, are usually responding to calls.

Beyond that, Day says, it is often difficult for officers to even know if a suspect they encounter has a drug impact-area exclusion. Probation conditions are fluid, and may change each time an offender has a court date. There is no seamless administrative process to provide officers on the street the latest probation information for people they encounter.

Even when an officer knows a suspect is in violation of an exclusion order, the officer’s role can be confusing, Day says. Sometimes, according to Day, officers are arresting suspects in Old Town or downtown on other charges when they discover the suspect also has an exclusion order. If the suspect was excluded on a misdemeanor violation, which is common, there won’t even be a supervising probation officer. If the original violation was a felony, the police officer calls the suspect’s probation officer, who sometimes declines to write up the violation.

That leaves the police officer with a difficult judgment call, according to Day. If the police officer chooses to write up the exclusion violation, he or she commits a few hours of the workday to taking the suspect to jail and filling out extensive paperwork. And, Day says, if the police officer writes up the violation, the suspect gets more jail time than if the violation is written by the probation officer. A few days for the latter, as long as 10 days for the former, because probation officers have discretion over probation violations that police do not. When police make the arrest, the suspect stays in jail awaiting a court date.

Arrest not always best response

Officers know that the community justice emphasis in Multnomah County is less jail time for nonviolent offenders, not more. So, given that the probation officer declined to write up the violation, the extra work, and the fact that more jail time will result, Day says, it’s easy to understand police officers’ reluctance to write up the violations.

Day’s take on the current iteration of drug-free impact area? “I think we’re not using it effectively.”

Senior Deputy District Attorney Jim Hayden says he understands why police may be frustrated. “From what I’m hearing, the process in place is very cumbersome and time-consuming, and they’re determining it’s not worth their time to enforce the drug impact area,” he says.

Judges continue to apply the exclusions to probation terms, Hayden says. Over the past two years, 524 Multnomah County offenders were issued exclusions. Hayden says the only way police can get an updated list of exclusions is if someone looks daily at each excluded probationer in the county to see if his or her probation has been revoked or amended.

“Someone has to devote a human resource to doing this, and it’s expensive,” Hayden says.

That human resource was the deputy district attorney funded in the original $250,000, according to Hayden. Without the dedicated money, the DA can’t afford to assign someone the task, and that leaves it up to the police to update the list on their own.

But arresting and jailing a probationer defying an exclusion order isn’t always the best response, says Scott Taylor, Director of Multnomah County’s Department of Community Justice. A probationer might just be passing through Old Town on the way to a job or a social service agency, he says. A probation officer might decide that a better choice would be to order the offender to come in immediately for a drug test and an interview for a reassessment.

“On occasion, arrest at that moment will not achieve the desired end, and that is our call,” Taylor says. “If police feel strongly enough about it, they have the authority to arrest him.”

Police, probation officers at odds

The tension between police and probation officers on these types of issues is common, according to Taylor. Probation officers are looking for swift and certain consequences for offenders and generally have more discretionary authority than police.

“There is always this frustration that something should happen, and we see it all the time in this work,” he says. “On occasion we have different expectations of what the result should be.”

Taylor says he is aware that police are not enforcing the drug impact area as they did in the program’s first year. “I can see their frustration,” he says.

He points out that all three criminal justice entities involved — police, the district attorney, and community justice (which oversees probation and parole), have had their budgets cut in recent years. Given that, a new assessment of the drug free impact-area program might be warranted, he says.

“We have to look at it and review it and see, is this something that should be a priority?” Taylor says. “Some of the things we think make a difference don’t really make a difference, and we have to have that conversation.”

And that is what the mayor intends to do, says Deanna Wesson-Mitchell, police policy director for Hales. Wesson-Mitchell says she is aware that the impact-area program may not be working as intended.

But even if money were available for the program, Day says there would be better ways to spend it than on the impact areas, if the goal is improving the street scene in downtown and Old Town.

“I think we’d get more bang for our buck by having more officers on the street than having a zone that says you can’t be in it,” Day says. “There’s a need for a broader discussion where we’re all at the table. Do we really want to stay with this?”

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