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Council continues Drug-, Prostitution-Free Zones


By a thin margin, the Portland City Council last month voted to continue the city’s drug- and prostitution-free zones, including ones along 82nd Avenue and upper Sandy Boulevard, but only after demonstrating that the controversy surrounding them continues.

Created in 1993, the zones are areas designated by the council, on the advice of the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office, where drug- and prostitution-related crimes are unusually frequent. When people are arrested or cited for such crimes in such a zone, the arresting officer can order them “excluded” from the zone for up to 90 days; if they are subsequently convicted of a crime, the exclusion can last for a year. If people re-appear in zones from which they have been excluded, other than for the reason that they are traveling to or from their homes, places of work, medical treatment or some other legitimate destination, they can be arrested for criminal trespass.

Over the years the boundaries of the zones have been adjusted to reflect current arrest data. Prostitution-free zones along Northeast Martin Luther King Jr. and lower Sandy boulevards have been abolished because the data indicated they were no longer needed. However, last year a zone along Northeast 82nd Avenue was expanded to include territory two blocks to the east and west, while a zone along Northeast Sandy Boulevard was extended eastward to 122nd Avenue.

The Portland Police Bureau, the Neighborhood Crime Prevention Program and, especially, neighborhood volunteers in many areas have praised the zones as an effective tool to keep chronic lawbreakers, for whom there is no jail space, out of neighborhoods. Critics, including the American Civil Liberties Union, have charged that the zones can and have been abused by police officers who harass people who have never been convicted of a crime.

Last year, after extensive public hearings, council members voted to continue the programs, largely on the strength of support from east Portland advocates. They added some changes. They called for all exclusions to be reviewed, automatically, by an independent hearings officer; previously, this sort of review occurred only if the excluded person appealed his or her exclusion. They called for the zones to be reviewed on Feb. 14 — one year later — rather than every six years as previously. They directed Mayor Tom Potter’s office to establish a citizen Oversight Committee to monitor and review the operation of the zones. They called for the committee to submit a report 90 days prior to renewal.

At a hearing on April 11, Potter asked that the zones be continued until Sept. 30. His aide, Carmen Rubio, and David Woboril of the City Attorney’s Office, said that due to a late start, they had not begun to collect data until last September, they hadn’t formed the Oversight Committee until February, and it had only had two meetings.

Critics of the zone, such as Dan Handelman of the anti-police group Cop Watch, and Chris O’Conner of the Metropolitan Public Defender’s Office, called for the zones to be suspended. O’Conner commented sarcastically, “I guess I’m a member of the Oversight Committee.” The committee was only formed after members of Portland’s state legislative delegation threatened to pass statewide rules for the zones, he said. He accused Rubio of “loading” the committee with people known to be advocates for it, and of refusing to allow the group to consider issues brought up by its members. “There’s no scope, no guidelines as to how we’re to come to these decisions,” he said. He also said that the available data showed a high incidence of exclusions being thrown out by hearings officers on review.

The composition of the committee bothered council members, even Commissioners Sam Adams and Dan Saltzman who have consistently supported it in the past. Commissioner Erik Sten, the most consistent critic of the zones on the council, said, “It appears we’ve taken two sides who have been going at each other for 10 years and put them in a room together.” He was also concerned that many of the members were public officials. The committee members “have to be people other than those doing the day-to-day work,” he said. He was especially irked at the membership of Deputy District Attorney Jim Hayden, the main architect of the program. Hayden has “been telling me for years that common sense things we’re now doing couldn’t be done legally. These are not people I’d look to for new ideas.”

Further, he said, “We gave this a year, and we need to stick to our own guidelines. If a community group told us that they’d failed to respond in time because they’d forgotten to write a report, we’d throw them out.

“I do think the zones are a valid tool. People are committing crimes, yet there are no sanctions because the preferred method of arrest is not available. The whole premise is that you’re a repeat offender who’s terrorizing a neighborhood. What galls me is that people are denied basic rights and freedoms.”

Another critic, Commissioner Randy Leonard, said, “There’s no doubt in my mind that the zones affect [the frequency of] drug-related crimes, just as there’s no doubt in my mind that we’d have a higher conviction rate if we threw out the [constitutional] prohibition against self-incrimination...I will support extending this for six months. I want to give this a chance, but I’m deeply, deeply concerned.”

On the other side, Pastor David Walmer of Foursquare Church, whose Quality Inn & Suites was once “the biggest problem in Parkrose,” said the zones were “instrumental in the process” of cleaning up the area. “I share the view that this must be done correctly, but the zones need to continue,” he told the council.

Mike Kuykendall, chair of the Portland Area Business Alliance and a member of the Oversight Committee, said the downtown area has “seen a significant reduction” in crimes since the zones were introduced. “You should consider very carefully before removing them,” he said.

He added, “There’s been a lot of misinterpretation of the data.” Many exclusions have been invalidated on technical grounds, such as the arresting officer’s failure to properly check off which zone someone was excluded from, he said.

Potter said, “We should place a high value on people’s rights and freedoms. They need to be secure — not just from the government, but from criminals. The zones have proven themselves to be valuable, but many issues need to be resolved.”

In the initial vote, Sten voted against the extension. Since this was an “emergency” ordinance to take effect immediately, a unanimous vote was needed for passage. However, Sten then moved for reconsideration of the matter, and this time voted for it, allowing it to pass four to zero. (Adams left during the deliberations.) Sten explained that the mayor could re-institute the zones within a short time with a non-emergency ordinance. “I don’t think we’d accomplish anything by putting the zone out of commission for 26 days,” he said. “It would be an administrative nightmare for everyone.” Referring to press reports between himself and Potter, Sten said, “I talked at great length about this with Mayor Potter, whom I’m not having a feud with.”
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