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Neighbors question crime-free zones’ demise

LEE PERLMAN
MID-COUNTY MEMO

As noted in last month’s Memo (October 2007, “Crime-free zones abolished”), Mayor Tom Potter has chosen not to even discuss renewing the city’s controversial drug- and prostitution-free zones, which expired on Sept. 30. The zones allowed police officers to exclude people cited for drug- or prostitution-related crimes from designated high-crime areas, and to arrest such people for criminal trespass if they spent time in these areas without a legitimate reason. Neighborhood crime prevention advocates praised the law as an effective tool to reduce rampant street crime. Critics called it a violation of civil liberties because it allowed police to impose penalties for crimes that people were never convicted for, and that it was too often used to unfairly harass people — especially the homeless and people of color.

Potter, who has charge of the Portland Police Bureau, held three public hearings in the winter of 2005 on the measure when it came up for renewal last year. At the first two, held at Immanuel Temple in inner Northeast and at City Hall, critics dominated the session. At the third session, at Vestal School, advocates, especially from Mid-county, turned out in force. Potter and the rest of City Council, with the exception of Commissioner Randy Leonard, agreed to continue a modified version of the zones for one year, with an advisory committee formed to monitor the law and report to council. Last spring Potter’s office sought and won an additional delay in the yearly review until Sept. 30.

But this yearly review never occurred. On Sept. 28 Potter announced that he had decided the charges of racism were justified and that the zones were ineffective in addressing the “root causes” of the problem. Instead, he said, 57 new jail beds would be used to keep law violators incarcerated, and money would be allocated for new treatment facilities.

With the press release, Potter’s office cited a copy of a study by Campbell DeLong Resources, Inc. as apparent justification for the action. The study concluded that African-Americans arrested for drug crimes in all zones were more likely to be excluded than people of other races. It noted that the exclusions were used most often against abusers of cocaine and that African-Americans tend to be the main sellers of this drug.

However, the report specifically refrained from recommending that the zones’ abolishment “unless it is coupled with an equally emphatic strategy to address the underlying factors that led to the disparities.” It did not discuss the drug-free zones’ effectiveness or lack of it, and it did not even mention the prostitution-free zones. Potter’s aide Jared Spencer said there had been some informal discussion between the mayor’s staff and Campbell Delong about the prostitution zones. John Campbell, a principal of Campbell DeLong, emphatically denied this.

“What we were trying to say was that the Police Bureau should examine what was working well and what needed to be changed,” Campbell said. Asked to explain Potter’s actions, he said, “You should ask the mayor about that.”

Several Mid-county community activists say that they have observed a noticeable increase in prostitution activity in the former zones, including Northeast Sandy Boulevard between 82nd and 122nd avenues. “We’ve seen an increase in prostitution,” Argay Neighborhood Association Chair Valerie Curry told the Memo. “They’re very blatant about it. The neighborhood is extremely upset and disappointed in our city’s leadership. The explanations do not wash. They say the zones are ‘just moving the problem around.’ Well, that’s the way it’s been since time began.”

City Council members “don’t live down here and don’t give a damn about us,” she said. “We’re not being represented.”

Another observer, who asked not to be quoted by name, commented that even when the promised jail beds do come on line, they are unlikely to be used for the incarceration of street drug dealers or prostitutes, since these are considered to be relatively low-impact crimes.

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