The city's effective replacement for the now-defunct Drug-Free Zones (DFZs) appears to be targeting black people for harsher treatment by the judicial system—just as the DFZs did.
Of the 408 people now on the city's Neighborhood Livability Crime Enforcement Offender List (NLCEOL)—a list used to determine who is diverted into a city program that couples felony charges with drug treatment—214 are black, 177 are white, eight are Native American, and eight are Hispanic. That racial breakdown comes from attorney Chris O'Connor of Metropolitan Public Defenders, who cross-referenced the city's list of names with data showing suspects' race.
Those statistics mean black people make up 52 percent of the list while they comprise just six percent of Portland's population.
Mayor Tom Potter sunset the DFZs 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 funding last December to expand the city's five-year-old Service Coordination Team (SCT) effort. On April 15, the mayor also proposed funding the plan with an additional $1.3 million next year.
The SCT, which is the brainchild of central precinct cop Jeff Myers, targets the top 35 offenders in downtown Portland, inner Northeast, and inner Southeast Portland, on a monthly basis based on arrest statistics (not convictions). Those people are known colloquially downtown as the "dirty 30," even though there are, in fact, 35 of them. Each month, the names of the top 35 offenders, or "dirty 30," are transferred to the city's master list, the NLCEOL, and those people are targeted for special treatment by the district attorney's office.
Once a person's name is on the list, it never disappears, according to sources familiar with the process. People on the list are automatically charged by the DA with felonies, even for minor drug arrests that would otherwise be charged as misdemeanors. After being charged with a felony, listed defendants are offered drug treatment in exchange for pleading guilty straight away through what's known as an "expedited plea."
But those who go into the drug treatment program must live in a Central City Concern housing center and go to an intensive outpatient drug treatment program—according to those familiar with the program, participants aren't allowed to go anywhere else during treatment—or be faced with a probation violation and the prospect of six months in jail.
At least, that's what the Mercury has been able to piece together about the program, based on conversations with several sources.
"There also continues to be a problem with a lack of specificity and written procedures around this program," says O'Connor. "And it's hard to find out who the actual decision-makers actually are. It's not in the police procedure manual or in the city's code and charter, that's for sure."
By contrast, people who are not on the list and who are arrested for drug possession crimes are released immediately and either go to community court, where they can do community service and get their record expunged after a first conviction, or they're diverted into the county's drug court program—where they can avoid a felony conviction by staying clean for 18 months.
For some, that disparate treatment raises the same concerns about racial profiling that originally led to the DFZs' demise.
"I think the city needs to decide," says O'Connor. "If they don't think there's racial profiling going on, then they need to seriously address why over half the people on their livability list are African Americans. If it's not racial profiling, then what underlying social issues are we looking at? Why doesn't the city want to look into this?"
But Bill Sinnott, former director of the Portland Business Alliance's Clean and Safe program, and the current SCT coordinator at the Portland Police Bureau, says the list is generated via "blind data runs based on property crimes."
"It's totally blind and we don't look at anybody's race to determine whether or not they get on the list," he says. "The program has been assessed by the district attorney's office and judges, and everybody agrees that there is no racial profiling going on."
O'Connor responds that since the city is concentrating its attention on downtown Portland, inner Northeast, and inner Southeast for particular kinds of crime, and basing the list on arrests that are made with an officer's discretion, there is still a question over who is being targeted.
"You can't say it's completely arbitrary when the police bureau makes the list," he says.
O'Connor says he plans to challenge the SCT plan in court as soon as his office receives the right case.
"For me, the higher goal has always been about getting people into treatment," says Leonard, who says the list has nothing to do with his efforts to secure more funding for drug treatment. "I think O'Connor is confusing the issue intentionally in order to further the interests of his clients."