Hall Monitor  

A Zone by Any Other Name

IT'S OFFICIAL. I was right. And now they're back. Except this time—kind of like when a cable company known for shitty service embarks on a little rebranding—we're supposed to call them something else.

Because, it turns out, Mayor Sam Adams hasn't revivified the city's controversial drug- and prostitution-free zones—dumped in 2007 because they disproportionately targeted black Portlanders—as part of a sweeping new plan to choke the vibrant crack-cocaine trade in Old Town.

Rather, he's found a way better name for a slightly improved exclusion policy that critics worry will be just as racially fraught and unconstitutional: "Illegal Drug Impact Areas." Now with less baggage!

The headline writers at the Oregonian and other outlets apparently overlooked that fine point last week when they used the three dreaded words—drug-free zone, as if it were still 2006—much to the vexation of Adams' staff and others in city hall who really, really want the new name for the zones to catch on.

Why is the name change such a big deal? In a word: politics. The mayor, as he's done with most of his initiatives over the past few months, is keeping one eye on policy and the other on reelection.

To win the support of the city's commercial and industrial set—and hopefully cash in with funding commitments starting as soon as this summer—he's got to appear tough on crime. And so he's charged forward with his revamped drug exclusion policy, adding a new focus on convictions (like with his gun zones) instead of arrests, demanding the zones be based on maps showing drug-crime "hotspots," and adding provisions for treatment.

But he also risks stepping into another civil rights minefield (like with his gun zones), and further alienating the progressive voices that hoisted him into office in 2008, many of them already worried he's been fading on other priorities like the city's bike plan and police accountability.

Hence the rebranding of the drug-free zones, er... impact areas. Putting a little more distance between the old system, at least symbolically, he's also asked the Multnomah County criminal justice system, not the police bureau, to both draw up the drug-crime hotspots (Old Town will be the inaugural zone) and decide who should be banned.

It's an impossibly fine line to walk. And it might not even be necessary. Adams admits that budget cuts have hurt the police bureau's ability to patrol Old Town. Yet he's also found cash—some $200,000—to help the county fund a drug-crimes prosecutor. Sliced differently, that could pay for three cops... who could enforce the laws we already have on the books.

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