Matt Davis

In the wake of a police report suggesting that African Americans were being excluded at a higher rate than Caucasians in Portland's Drug-Free Zones ["Black Exclusion Zones," News, March 8], the police bureau has released new, significantly more balanced numbers, claiming the first stats were a mistake.

According to the bureau, an error in the way drug arrests are reported led to the original report—which covered June 1, 2006 to October 31, 2006—showing more African Americans excluded than actually arrested. After weeks of scrutiny and questions about the seeming disparity, the police statistician compiled a new report, this time covering September 1, 2006 to January 31 of this year.

The new figures show a total of 994 arrests in all of the city's Drug-Free Zones—522 of them (53 percent) were African American, and 388 (39 percent) were Caucasian. African Americans made up majorities of the arrests in the downtown and north/northeast (53 percent and 82 percent), but only a small percentage of arrests (21 percent) in East Portland.

In the new report, the percentage of arrests that led to exclusions is more racially balanced, but still shows that African Americans who get arrested are more likely to be given exclusions than Caucasians. In all of the Drug-Free Zones, 65 percent of the African Americans arrested were excluded, compared to 52 percent of Caucasians. In the downtown zone, where the majority of drug arrests occurred during the five-month period, those figures jump to 70 percent and 60 percent, respectively.

Police say there is a reasonable answer for that difference—the Drug-Free Zones are designed to stop open-air drug trafficking, and the majority of open-air drug trafficking in the exclusion zones involves crack cocaine.

"I think there is a racial component to drug offenses in Portland, and that plays out on a macro level," says Central Precinct Commander Mike Reese. "Mexican cartels supply most of the coke, heroin, and methamphetamine that comes into Portland. Marijuana comes from a variety of sources—Canada, Mexican cartels, and homegrown. When you start looking at usage, meth is distributed by employees of the Mexican cartels and also Caucasians. That's just the reality of drug usage in Portland".

"When you look at the numbers," he added, "African Americans are engaged in selling crack cocaine."

The police bureau also released a report showing drug arrests in the entire city, both inside and outside of Drug-Free Zones, showing that African Americans are far more likely to be arrested for cocaine than Caucasians. Whites were far more likely to be arrested for meth, and most of the meth arrests (314 out of a total of 478) happened outside of the Drug-Free Zones. Not surprisingly, a majority of white drug offenders (56 percent) were arrested outside of the exclusion zones, and the vast majority of African Americans (76.7 percent) were arrested inside Drug-Free Zones.

Those figures set the stage for a March 20 showdown at the Senate Judiciary Committee in Salem, where Representative Chip Shields has introduced a bill that would require all exclusions to be based on convictions.

Shields and community members from North and Northeast Portland lined up to press for the conviction-based bill, with Shields asking, "How is it that you can exclude someone if they're not convicted of a crime?"

Portland Police Chief Rosie Sizer said the zones are a necessary local solution to a local problem. Still, she acknowledged that it has problems. "Minorities are overrepresented in arrests and therefore, exclusions," she said, "Due to a lack of other economic opportunities, many in minority communities turn to selling drugs."

But, Sizer argued, the policy has an oversight committee—which started a month ago.

Mayor Tom Potter has spent the last two weeks trying to get his council colleagues to oppose Shields' bill, but City Commissioners Erik Sten and Randy Leonard have held out. Instead, Sten is working on a resolution that would stop short of Shields' bill, but would require exclusions be based on previous convictions. Plus, it would also require than an oversight committee actively examine the exclusion zones as a condition of exclusion enforcement.

"The goal is to come up with a program that addresses the problems without ignoring basic civil rights," Sten says. "We all know the problems—there isn't enough room in jails for people who are blatantly selling drugs on the street. But that rationale has been used to get around basic propositions, like 'you're innocent until proven guilty.'"