For weeks, the mayor's office and Police Chief Rosie Sizer have defended the city's controversial Drug-Free Zones in large part by touting an "oversight committee," designed to keep an eye on the policy. Unfortunately, that committee has gotten off to a slow start.
As part of the DFZ renewal last spring, an oversight committee was supposed to be created to ease concerns that the policy was treading close to the boundaries of the Constitution, and possibly being used to target minority groups. It was referred back to Mayor Tom Potter's office, with the assumption that he would put the group together.
Almost a year passed with nothing in sight, yet the Drug-Free Zones were still being used to exclude certain people from areas of the city.
Last Thursday, March 22, the newly formed oversight committee met for only the second time, and ran into a major obstacle. Because the committee wasn't created by city council, no one is exactly sure what it's supposed to accomplish—or even what information they should look at.
The ambiguity led to multiple heated exchanges, pushed by critics of the zones.
David Rogers, executive director of Partnership for Safety and Justice, argued that the committee needs to examine whether "probable cause" of drug use or dealing is enough to get someone excluded.
"Because there's a racial disproportion in the exclusions, there needs to be more than probable cause," he said.
But that idea met resistance from others, who called it a "political question" that the committee shouldn't even consider.
Tempers again flared over the need to find a "baseline"—a figure that would allegedly show the percentage by which African Americans commit more crimes, or in the words of City Attorney David Woboril, "who expose themselves to exclusions more."
"Baseline" is a loaded word—and an idea that many people feel is inherently prejudicial.
But Woboril put it this way: "You're spending a lot of energy to kill these zones," he told Public Defender Chris O'Connor. "If you help us come up with a baseline, you'll have a chance to kill it."
Whatever difficulties the committee is having (compounded by the fact that it was only recently created) will have to be overcome quickly—the Drug-Free Zones expire in mid-April.