NEARLY A YEAR after the Mercury first sought statistics showing how police are enforcing Portland's controversial Drug Impact Areas (DIA)—billed as a more compassionate, less racially fraught version of the city's old Drug-Free Zones—that detailed arrest data has finally been released.
And the numbers (PDF) reveal another set of stark racial disparities for a police bureau that's already acknowledged, publicly, the role racial bias might play in its frayed relationship with Portland's African American community ["Playing a New Race Card," News, June 28, 2012].
Of 99 people arrested for ignoring a judge's order to keep out of a "drug zone"—distinct areas downtown, in Old Town and in the Lloyd Center—58 are black. Most of those arrests were in or around Old Town, notorious for its open-air crack-cocaine sales. That number, first reported on the Mercury's Blogtown, significantly outpaces the number of black Portlanders given exclusions in the first place, about 40 percent. And both percentages far outstrip the city's African American population, which is 6 percent.
Advocates and community leaders, already skeptical of the DIAs, worry the figures fit a familiar pattern. Recent reports show wide disparities in traffic and pedestrian stops, exclusions issued inside Portland's gun-crime zones, and arrests made this summer as part of a targeted crackdown around North Killingsworth. The city's old Drug-Free Zones were left to die in 2007 amid concerns they targeted black Portlanders.
"It's not a surprise that Portland police are once again targeting African Americans for enhanced enforcement," says JoAnn Hardesty, a former state lawmaker who sits on the steering committee of the Albina Ministerial Alliance Coalition for Justice and Police Reform. "The 'improved' enforcement zones are having the same effect the old zones had."
When then-Mayor Sam Adams first pitched the DIAs, bowing especially to outcry over crack sales among Old Town businesses and neighbors, he worked hard to inoculate the zones against racial profiling. While exclusions from the old zones were issued at a cop's discretion, the new zones, which took effect in 2011, would see exclusions handed out by judges, as a condition of probation ["New and Improved?" News, Jan 26, 2012].
Among other changes, the DIA program also pays the Multnomah County District Attorney's Office, beset by budget woes, enough money to devote a prosecutor to low-level drug crimes it otherwise might not prosecute, pays for extra police foot patrols, and it enrolls eligible drug convicts in a city treatment and housing program, the Service Coordination Team.
Further, Adams had prosecutors, not cops, draw up the city's three DIAs—targeting heroin, cocaine, and marijuana—using arrest data. The city council, in a vote on December 19, committed to funding the special prosecutor's post for another year.
"The racial aspects of this issue had been a focus of mine and should continue to be a focus of the city council," Adams said late last month, taking pains to separate "issues that are racial in nature" from "overt racism." Adams also said he brought in the district attorney's office "so Portland police officers are not policing themselves."
Adams' changes made a difference. Neighbors reported crime easing. And police accountability advocates noted some improvement over the old zones. But they never overlooked the lack of data on arrests.
"It's disappointing that the so-called 'fix' to racial profiling seems to be producing similar results," says Dan Handelman of Portland Copwatch. "The majority of those being cited for trespassing have one easily identifiable characteristic: the color of their skin."
As for why there's a disparity, cops and prosecutors have some ideas.
Billy Prince, the deputy district attorney who ran the DIA program until December, cast the overall arrest numbers as "positive." "The majority of people are obeying a judge's order to stay away," he says. "I'm not aware of any judge ruling that someone arrested [for trespassing in a DIA] was in the zone properly."
He contends the DIAs are doing what they're supposed to do: cleaning up drug markets by keeping out dealers, while making sure users have a big stick prodding them into treatment.
Prince explains that most of the arrests fell in the crack-cocaine DIA, a smaller area focused on Old Town—making it easier for patrolling cops to find dealers and buyers. Prince says the crack markets in Old Town are a powerful draw. For example, he notes, nearly the same number of people have been excluded from the city's heroin and cocaine zones, but the cocaine zone has seen twice as many arrests.
He also says cops, once they find someone trespassing, aren't allowed to give that person a pass. For further illustration, he points out the 99 arrestees have a combined total of 684 previous felony convictions.
"The types who come back to be arrested," he says, "they have significant criminal histories."
That all roughly jibes with what police say. Spokesman Sergeant Pete Simpson tells the Mercury more minorities are arrested in Old Town because "more of them are coming back to the area. The base percentages are higher."
One hole in the data, of course, is what led to each of the 99 arrests. Only arrest reports will reveal that. Generally, Simpson says, cops recognize familiar faces. Or, in an area with foot patrols and surveillance cameras, they might figure out someone's trespassing while investigating another crime. Sometimes, he allows, arrests come from traffic and pedestrian stops—in which, citywide, blacks and Latinos are stopped and searched twice as often as whites.
The racial breakdown of arrests sought by the Mercury will now be included in all future DIA reports, says Prince, who passed the DIA job to Deputy District Attorney Adam Gibbs.
That's a shift for the city. Up until the Mercury's third request for data, lodged in August after requests in January and May of 2012, the police say they had not been tracking it.
Even then, when the bureau produced the numbers in late September, it took nearly three more months before their release. Adams' office held them back, commissioning Prince to add even more data. Adams, when interviewed before leaving office, also blamed the delay on his time-consuming negotiations with the US Department of Justice over police reform.
Prince assembled all the data into the DIA program's 15-month progress report, sent to the city council on December 12 and obtained by the Mercury on December 19.
Handelman, of Copwatch, was stinging with his assessment of the timeline.
"It's disappointing," says Handelman, "The city and the DA's office sat on these numbers for so long—because they knew the numbers would look bad."