Since Portland's Drug Free Zones (DFZ) expired on September 30, drug dealers have taken up residence on the streets of Old Town and Chinatown, say numerous business owners and residents.
"In recent weeks, I'm just seeing an enormous number of drug dealers, drug users, people smoking crack in the doorways. I've run off crack smokers in the middle of the day in the doorway to my apartment house," says Larry Norton, an Old Town resident who blogs about the neighborhood at OregonLive.com.
On NW 5th, between Couch and Davis, the barista at Backspace says she's calling Clean & Safe patrol officers more often lately. "I'm tired of seeing people doing crack in front of my workplace," says the woman with red pigtails, who gave her name as Kate. Her coworker, John, reports that since the DFZs expired, drug activity—"especially in the evenings"—has definitely gone up.
Around the corner on NW 6th, Cal Skate owner Howard Weiner—who chairs the neighborhood association's public safety committee—says his phone has been "ringing off the hook" with neighborhood businesses and social service organizations who've got similar concerns.
"You can hardly walk around in Old Town and not see it go on," Norton says. Megan Doern, a spokeswoman for the Portland Business Alliance (PBA), says that business owners are reporting an uptick in drug activity downtown.
At the October 9 Downtown Public Safety Action Committee, Portland Patrol Inc's (PPI) John Hren—who oversees private security guards downtown—said that the drug situation in Old Town/Chinatown is "the worst he's seen in 3 years," according to meeting minutes. "According to John," the minutes read, "the dealers were simply counting down the days to the end of the ordinance."
At the same meeting, Bill Sinnott of Clean & Safe reported that "the increase in dealers in downtown has been the topic of conversation at all the community meetings in the last couple of weeks."
Central Precinct Commander Mike Reese is feeling the pressure. "The community is furious and angry at us, the police, and angry at the political powers. It's very frustrating for everyone concerned and we don't want to lose the ground that we've made down there," Reese told the Mercury on Monday.
The numbers, however, tell a more nuanced story.
Police records of calls for service regarding drugs, prostitution, and alcohol in the patrol districts from Old Town to Pioneer Square, where drug activity is most prevalent, show a spike beginning as early as June. That month, calls for service went from a monthly average of less than two per month, to 22. In July, the number more than doubled, to 51. August and September had 57 and 56 calls for service, respectively. And October is on track to record 60 calls for service.
October's number, however, is hardly a spike from previous months, when the DFZs were in place. Meanwhile, the police declined to provide statistics of drug-related arrests since the DFZs expired, making it difficult to quantify the impact their expiration has had on the neighborhood. (Weiner says the end of the DFZs simply "exacerbated a problem that was already getting bad.") The increase in calls for service seems more tied to a concerted community effort to report crime—after both Clean & Safe and the Portland Police asked neighbors and business owners in June to start calling about everything—than to the end of the DFZs.
"We've always told property owners to contact Clean & Safe in relation to drug activity outside their properties," says the PBA's Doern. "However, the Portland Police Bureau said in June that they wanted those drug crimes documented in their statistics, so that they can deploy their officers in the right places, at the right times. So we were asking property owners not only to call our Clean & Safe Officers for an immediate response, but also the police bureau."
Weiner, for his part, has been "reinforcing [that idea] through the community," handing out a list of official phone numbers in September and urging people to call. "We have the tools but we need the will to end the street level drug sales in our neighborhood and it will take all of our efforts in this endeavor," he wrote.
Despite neighbors' perception that drug dealing has increased since the DFZs expired, there's no campaign to reinstate them. Instead, the police have been charged by the mayor's office with forming a "group of affected stakeholders" to solve the problem.
That group, headed by Assistant Police Chief Lynnae Berg, submitted an $849,136 set of budget bump recommendations to the mayor's office last Monday, October 22—to be voted on by council by December 5.
Berg declined to discuss the recommendations with the Mercury on Tuesday, October 22. Instead, the cops' public information officer, Brian Schmautz, accused the Mercury of "trying to involve [itself] in an ongoing conversation between the police bureau and the mayor's office."
The recommendations aim to expand and enhance an existing Project 57 program developed by Officer Jeff Myers in Old Town. Offenders are selected based on a blind data run of arrests for crimes like fraud, forgery, and drug dealing, and put on a list to be targeted for drug treatment and stable housing. That list is known colloquially as "the Dirty 30" around Old Town.
The recommendations also include 30 outpatient detox beds, and six inpatient detox beds, as well as putting 65 more individuals through Central City Concern's Housing Rapid Response project over the next year, by funding more staff for the program.
A dedicated parole officer would be assigned to keep track of these offenders, and a project manager would assume responsibility for the project—at a cost of $107,000 a year. There's also $130,000 of police overtime every six months, for officers to "monitor chronic offenders for compliance with laws and treatment program placement."
"The mayor's office is fully supportive of this approach," says Chisek, adding that it is not up for further discussion before it goes to council.
Critics of the original Drug Free Zones are pleased that the new recommendations include more money for treatment beds and housing assistance, but they're still concerned that the Dirty 30 list is based only on arrests, and not on actual convictions.
"I am extremely concerned about any government putting certain people on a list without hearing or due process and then going after them with the threat of jail if they don't comply with the 'special treatment' that being on the list entails," says Chris O'Connor, a criminal defense attorney at Metropolitan Public Defenders.
"Using arrest data to classify people just tells us who the police dislike," he says. "Not who is actually guilty of a crime."