The Policy that Wasn’t There

From the Portland Mercury, May 21, 2008

City’s Hazy Drug-Free Zone Replacement Program

Portland Police officer Jeff Myers

Portland Police officer Jeff Myers

After several weeks researching the city’s $1.3 million per year replacement program for the now defunct Drug-Free Zones (DFZs), the [Portland] Mercury has been unable to find a clear and consistent written policy on the new program anywhere in Portland.

The DFZs sunset last September, after independent statistical analysis showed African Americans were more likely to be excluded from the zones than white people when they were arrested for drug offenses. To fill a perceived gap left by the DFZs, City Commissioner Randy Leonard secured $840,709 in the fall to expand the city’s five-year-old Service Coordination Team (SCT). Plans are afoot to top that with an additional $1.3 million of taxpayers’ money next year, if the proposed budget is approved.

The SCT relies on a list of offenders—known as the Neighborhood Livability Crime Enforcement Program (NLCEP) list—who are then targeted for housing and drug treatment. The NLCEP list first came to this newspaper’s attention in April, when an analysis by local attorney Chris O’Connor showed that 214 of the 408 people on the list at the time, or 52 percent, were African American [“Blacklisted,” News, April 24]. Following the publication of that story, Portland Police Officer Jeff Myers, along with the NLCEP’s new manager at the police bureau, Bill Sinnott, explained the program in detail to the Mercury in an interview on May 6.

Myers and Sinnott said the list is assembled by conducting blind data runs to find the top 30 arrestees in downtown, inner Northeast, and inner Southeast Portland for the past three months, for crimes typically associated with drug addiction: larcenies, motor vehicle thefts, frauds and forgeries, drugs, disorderly conduct, and probation violations. Those people are then discussed in private Monday meetings at Central Precinct between SCT members, including the cops, probation and parole officers, and service and treatment providers like Central City Concern and Volunteers of America, all of whom have to sign confidentiality agreements. People in the program also typically sign a release saying their information can be exchanged between the SCT parties, according to Central City Concern’s Ed Blackburn.

“We all work together and basically come up with get-well plans for each of the people on our list,” says Sinnott. “And we meet every Monday and discuss what’s been going on with our top offenders each week. If they’ve been showing up for treatment, if they’ve been staying in their room, if they’ve been behaving themselves, if someone’s seen them out using drugs again. And based on what we find out there, the group roundtables, ‘what are we going to do about them this week?'”

Yet despite the effort and considerable amount of money invested in the program, the criteria for getting on and off the NLCEP list doesn’t appear to be written down anywhere—nor is the program’s policy to be found anywhere on the city’s website or in city council legislative files. When asked for a written policy, Myers and Sinnott referred the Mercury to Deputy District Attorney David Hannon, who referred us in turn to Deputy City Attorney David Woboril, who in turn referred us back to Myers and Sinnott. Woboril, however, resisted a characterization of the program as “hazy.”

“Because people are not perhaps cooperating with you or giving you information in the form you want, don’t characterize it as they don’t have any good thinking on the subject,” Woboril said last Friday, May 16. “It’s a complex program. People see it differently. And yet there’s been a lot of thought put into it, a lot of good-hearted, smart thinking has gone into the program.”

Sinnott eventually admitted on Monday, May 19, that the policy isn’t written down in any official document.

“This program has been officially in effect for about five months,” he said. “And we do know what the policy is, it’s very clear to everyone, but we don’t have it written in a directive or in [standard operating procedure] format because we’re currently in the process of doing that. One of the reasons it’s taking a while is we’re not only trying to get consensus, but we’ve just been so busy that we’ve not had a chance to put it in an official form like that yet. But it is something that we’re working on.”

Sinnott set a target date to have a written policy by July 1. It’s a step in the right direction, to increase the program’s transparency and accountability.

“It’s sort of a smaller version of the larger issue our society is facing, which is what happens when you have secret laws made up by people who aren’t responsible to any public oversight,” says attorney O’Connor, with Metropolitan Public Defenders, who has been an outspoken critic of the new program from its inception.

“What’s important for the city is transparency, and having the procedures, the practices, and the scope of the program written down so that everyone can understand it is a really important thing for the government to do,” says Andrea Meyer, legislative director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon. “And to the degree that the city is moving forward on that quickly, we are pleased.”

Meyer adds that she would like individuals who are on the list to be given notice about the fact and its implications, and said ongoing training is important to ensure confidential information isn’t exposed.

The SCT has also appointed a six-member advisory board to oversee the enforcement of the policy. The board had an introductory meeting on Wednesday, May 7, and will be meeting twice a year, Sinnott says. (It’s unclear if the meeting will be open.) Sinnott also plans to invite Jo Ann Bowman of Oregon Action to join the committee, after she expressed concern to the Mercury last week that the oversight board did not have anyone from the mayor’s racial profiling committee on it.

The SCT will also employ an independent consultant to look at why the numbers on the list appear weighted toward African Americans, Sinnott says.

O’Connor describes the new advisory board as a “rubber stamp,” and says true oversight needs to be public and established by city council, independently of the police bureau, to be truly effective. “But then, if you’re overseeing a policy that doesn’t actually exist,” he adds, “I guess it’s debatable whether it’s even worth doing in the first place.”