Overwhelmed by crack, Old Town asks for help

From the Portland Tribune, February 10, 2011

Five a.m. on Friday is prime time for the dealers on Crack Alley. Crack Alley, as it is not so affectionately known among Portland police, is a stretch of Northwest Flanders Street in Old Town. On this Friday morning, our pre-sunrise guided tour by officer Daryl Turner reveals that business is brisk.

The early hours around sunrise are when drug dealing and use reach their peak in the section of Old Town known as Crack Alley.

The early hours around sunrise are when drug dealing and use reach their peak in the section of Old Town known as Crack Alley.

Five to 6 a.m. is prime time, Turner says, because that’s the shift-change hour for police, and crack dealers in Old Town know it. So they know the officer on duty will likely be writing up his or her reports rather than patrolling.

Drug dealing in Old Town is nothing new, Turner explains, as we cruise by a group of 10 to 15 dealers and users on Northwest Sixth Street. The neighborhood just across Burnside Street from downtown has been the center of the city’s coke and crack trade for years. But what is different, according to neighborhood residents and shop owners, is an aggressiveness among the dealers and addicts that has many of the residents and employees afraid to walk alone at night.

The dealers have become more brazen and confrontational, Old Town residents say. In response, the Old Town Chinatown Neighborhood Association – composed of residents and business owners – is drafting a letter that should arrive next week at the office of Mayor Sam Adams, asking Adams and the City Council to reinstate the controversial Drug and Prostitution Free Exclusion Zone for this section of the city.

In addition, the Pearl District Business Association will likely put together a letter supporting the Old Town request, and also asking that the Pearl District be included in the Drug Free Zone, says Adele Nofield, president of the association.

All of which is likely to revive a longstanding Portland controversy. On one side are Old Town residents and shop owners and many police officers, who believe that the Drug Free Zone designation was an important tool in helping them clean up Old Town, until the zone was allowed to expire three years ago. On the other side are those who prevailed three years ago by arguing that, because the majority of the people who ended up being excluded from Old Town for drugs or prostitution were black, the police were using the zone as a racial profiling tool.

Waiting for cover

Prime time on Crack Alley makes it easy to see how the dispute originated – virtually every dealer in sight is black. There are plenty of white and Latino drug dealers in Portland, police say, but they’re mostly dealing meth and heroin, and mostly on the east side of the city. In Portland, crack cocaine is predominantly the domain of black gangs, and the crack trade happens to be centered in Old Town.

Opponents of a Drug Free Zone cite a 2007 study, which showed the zone was being used to discriminate against blacks picked up on drug charges. The corner of Northwest Sixth Avenue and Flanders Street is considered the center of Crack Alley.

Opponents of a Drug Free Zone cite a 2007 study, which showed the zone was being used to discriminate against blacks picked up on drug charges. The corner of Northwest Sixth Avenue and Flanders Street is considered the center of Crack Alley.

“This is Crack Alley, and that’s Randy Leonard’s crack house right there,” Turner says, pointing to the public restroom designed and championed by City Commissioner Leonard on Glisan Street near Sixth Avenue. Turner, who patrolled Old Town for four years until becoming president of the Portland Police Association labor union last summer, says that Leonard’s Portland Loo is a favorite nighttime destination for drug dealers and prostitutes, who conduct their business behind its closed door.

A few feet from the Loo, two men are firing up a crack pipe. Around the corner on Sixth Avenue, more negotiations for possible drug deals are under way. Turner says when TriMet’s new MAX line began operation in 2009, the drug trade became worse. The trains, he says, provide quick transportation in and out of the neighborhood and an inconspicuous place to make deals.

Turner says to make a dent in the drug trade in Old Town would require a police car with two officers dedicated to the area. But that level of enforcement hasn’t been available for years. Portland’s police force is down to 445 patrol officers, which means there’s a patrol car in this part of the city sometimes, and that car generally has only one officer.

Tonight, David Bryant is that officer, and he says being alone makes a difference when he’s in Crack Alley. Bryant says if there’s provocation – a fight for instance – he’s out of his car in a moment. But he thinks twice about approaching a large group of dealers without a partner.

“By myself, if something goes wrong, I’m waiting for cover,” he says.

Turner says a neighborhood resident walking on this stretch of Sixth Avenue sidewalk right now would certainly get mugged. These low-level dealers are desperate for cash, he says.

Looking at the lineup of dealers Turner says, “This pisses me off. I want to get out right now.” But he’s off duty and he knows that wouldn’t be a good idea.

“There’s at least one or two guns out there,” Turner says. “If there’s a fight, somebody’s going to get hurt.”

Turner insists this scene would look different if the Drug Free Zone laws were in effect.
Zone discrimination?

The zone, in use for 15 years, gave police the ability to issue a neighborhood exclusion notice to anyone arrested in Old Town for a drug offense or prostitution. If someone with an exclusion notice was found walking around Old Town he or she could be arrested on sight and taken to jail for a few hours – enough of an inconvenience for dealers to take their business elsewhere, Turner says.

“It worked great,” Turner says. “It gave us probable cause to get the frequent flyers and if you don’t have frequent flyers you don’t have issues we have now – the amount of crime and theft. They’d be in and out (of jail), but that’s two hours they can’t be out there.”

Turner, who is black, is aware of why the exclusion zone was allowed to expire back in 2007. But his focus is on the street.

“All the people that were hollering that it was racial, are they down here keeping the street corners clean?” he asks.

Carl Leonard Roberts stands guard in front of the Sally McCracken apartments each morning, hoping to at least keep the Crack Alley action a block away. The Sally McCracken is home to people in recovery.

Carl Leonard Roberts stands guard in front of the Sally McCracken apartments each morning, hoping to at least keep the Crack Alley action a block away. The Sally McCracken is home to people in recovery.

Chani Geigle-Teller, community organizer for Sisters of the Road Café, says the scene on Sixth Street doesn’t justify reviving the Drug and Prostitution Free zones. Sisters serves the homeless community in Old Town, and Geigle-Teller has attended some of the many neighborhood meetings held in recent months about the issue. Bottom line, she says, is that when the zone was in place before, it was used to discriminate on the basis of race.

Mayor Tom Potter favored letting the zone ordinances expire after an independent analysis produced some eye-opening data. It wasn’t just that blacks were dominating the exclusion lists, Geigle-Teller says, but that blacks arrested in Old Town for drug offenses were put on exclusion lists at a much greater rate than whites.

Secondly, Geigle-Teller says, the exclusion lists were hard on people who needed to be in Old Town to see their parole officers or to access social services. Old Town is home to most of the social services supporting the homeless and addicts.

Geigle-Teller recognizes that the letter being drafted specifically seeks to make changes in the old exclusion zone law so that drug offenders who need to be in Old Town can still be there. But, she says, inevitably the racial biases of a few, and the confusion as to which drug offenders could still enter the exclusion zone, would lead to curtailing important civil rights.

“It’s another opportunity for cops to stop people (who are) experiencing homelessness and poverty,” Geigle-Teller says. “Folks experiencing homelessness already get stopped a lot. That’s harassment and targeting. We feel like there are other solutions to safety issues in our community.”

Geigle-Teller adds that she hasn’t noticed the stepped-up aggressiveness among the drug crowd being reported by others in the neighborhood.

‘Off my block’

Back in Crack Alley, the crack dealers are starting to disperse as the morning sun begins to hit the street. Carl Leonard Roberts says he’ll soon head off to breakfast. Roberts, a 56-year-old veteran, has been standing on the corner of Sixth and Everett, outside the Sally McCracken Building, where he lives. He stands here six days a week during the 5-to-6 a.m. prime time for drug dealing.

“I try to protect this block,” Roberts says, looking down Sixth toward the remaining crack dealers. “They don’t like to be watched.”

But neither do the dealers seem to pay Roberts any mind. They continue to conduct their business a block away from the Sally McCracken, a Central City Concern apartment building for people in recovery.

“Yes, but it ain’t here,” Roberts says. “They’re giving me respect by staying off my block.”

That speaks to a critical part of the mostly unspoken debate over the exclusion laws. Nobody thinks they eliminate drug dealing; they just push it into other neighborhoods.

For now, that would satisfy Jake Hammer, owner of Everett Street Autoworks in Old Town. Hammer says in recent months he’s seen drug users displaying a new aggressiveness with passersby. He’s says he’s had them walk into his shop screaming at customers, and lighting up to smoke crack when they know he’s watching.

Stephanie Doty, barista at nearby Pints coffee shop and bar on Northwest Fifth Avenue, says she looked out her front window recently and saw a woman on her hands and knees licking a sidewalk bench – scene of regular drug deals – in hopes of tasting some drug residue. One morning a man with his pants down around his ankles was standing up smoking crack right at the same spot – seemingly oblivious to the fact that he was visible to Doty and customers.

Back out again

Jamie Dunn, owner of the Gilt Club on Northwest Broadway, says he’s seeing a new brazenness among Old Town drug addicts in the past six months. They don’t seem to care if he watches them light up; they used to walk around the corner.

Dunn wonders if what has emboldened the drug users is a change in policy announced by the Multnomah County district attorney in late summer. Possession of less than a tenth of a gram of methamphetamine, heroin and cocaine are no longer prosecuted, but instead are being handled as violations, much like traffic tickets.

Whatever the reason, something has changed, Dunn says.

“We’re picking up the phone and calling (police) every day,” says Dunn, who has organized Old Town shop owners in support of the neighborhood association letter.

“When you talk to the cops they say, ‘Look, we arrest them, they’re back out again and we can’t make them go away,’ ” Dunn says. “If they say this is a tool that we need in order to make your neighborhood safer, that’s a tool I want to give them.”

Mayor Sam Adams shares Dunn’s concern about the relaxed prosecution of drug crimes. Adams told the Tribune Tuesday that he had not yet received the letter from the Old Town Chinatown Neighborhood Association but that he did not think reinstituting the Drug and Prostitution Free Zones was the best way to address the problem.

Adams said he was concerned about the drug problem in Old Town. But his attempt at a solution starts with finding funding so that the Multnomah County district attorney can prosecute even low-level drug-related crimes instead of treating them as violations.

“The district attorney needs resources to prosecute these crimes,” Adams said. “That is the root cause of the uptick in these kinds of crimes.”

Adams also said he would put a priority on finding funding for more addiction treatment as a means of combating the Old Town drug problem.