In exactly one month, the city's controversial Drug- and Prostitution-Free Zones will expire, forcing city council to decide whether or not to renew them. And for the second time in two years, Mayor Tom Potter's office has broken a key promise—the creation of an oversight committee to examine the law's fairness.
Under the Drug Free Zone (DFZ) law, people arrested for possessing or selling drugs—or for prostitution—in certain public areas (downtown, North/Northeast Portland, and 82nd Avenue) can be banned, or "excluded," from that entire zone for 90 days. If they violate that exclusion, they can be charged with criminal trespass and fined $500 or imprisoned for 30 days.
But here's where the law gets problematic: The exclusions aren't dependent on convictions, so a person can be excluded from their neighborhood without ever being convicted of a crime. Worse, there's compelling evidence that the DFZ law disproportionately targets minority communities. According to figures released earlier this year by the police bureau, African Americans who are arrested for drugs are more likely to be given exclusions than Caucasians, at a rate of 65 percent to 52 percent citywide. And African Americans make up a sizable majority of the drug arrests in those zones, despite representing only six to seven percent of the population ["Kinder, Gentler Zones," News, March 22].
Because of those numbers, and because of the possibility that the law could sidestep constitutional protections of due process, city council has twice called for an oversight committee to be formed to look at the policy. In March 2006, council agreed to renew the zones for another year, but only if Potter created such a committee.
Despite that clear direction, the committee wasn't formed until just weeks before the zones expired last April. They had a total of three meetings, which, by all accounts, were disastrous and unproductive. (The group included Jim Hayden from the district attorney's office, and Public Defender Chris O'Connor—natural and professional adversaries who are hardly capable of finding a middle ground.) When the mayor's office asked for another six-month extension on April 11, a unanimous city council agreed, but only if the committee was restructured and finally got to work.
On May 24, Maria Rubio, Potter's public safety advisor, emailed the committee members letting them know that the committee was going to be reformed—yet, instead of forming a new committee, it was disbanded completely, and the work of analyzing the exclusion data was given to one person: private consultant John Campbell. In other words, instead of a broad committee of community members examining the law, Campbell alone would be analyzing the data and then giving it to city council.
That has more than one city commissioner frustrated, including Sam Adams, who based his yes vote for the zones on the creation of the oversight committee.
"There's a point at which analysis stops and the conversation needs to begin, which is why I think we need the oversight committee," Adams says. "Who's going to fill that role now? It'll be city council, but we're not an adequate substitute for an oversight committee, which would know the historical context and be solely focused on it."
"I thought it was pretty clear what we wanted from the committee at the last hearing," Adams added. "I'm disappointed that that hasn't happened."
Commissioner Erik Sten, a longtime opponent of the DFZs, is equally frustrated.
"It would take an extraordinary response from the mayor's office for me to be comfortable [voting to renew the zones]," he says. "They aren't worth keeping unless we get everything right, and we're obviously a long way off from that standard."
And Commissioner Randy Leonard plans to vote to end the Drug-Free Zones until city council can be certain that they are being used fairly and are effective. Not surprisingly, he's blasted Potter's lack of process.
"Tom Potter has not done what he promised to do in preparing for the reauthorization of the DFZ," he says. "I don't see how any council member can get themselves to vote to reauthorize the Drug and Prostitution Free Zone ordinance given the council's clear directive, Mayor Potter's clear agreement, and then his completely ignoring the council—but stranger things have happened."
Doing the simple math, a majority of city council is less than prepared to vote to renew the Drug-Free Zones.
But even if Potter was in the majority, and not the minority, he's got another obstacle: Campbell didn't receive the contract from the mayor's office to do the DFZ work until July 30—a mere two months before the zones expire. The mayor's office is expecting him to deliver a report by mid-September (as early as September 12), but he's unsure if he'll be done in time.
"We received the contract to do the analysis at the end of July," he told the Mercury, "and I'm doing my best to be able to tell them something, but I doubt very much that there'll be any kind of full report by September 12."
Given the DFZ policy's long, embattled history, and the increasing controversy surrounding it in the past two years, the question for many in city hall is why the mayor's office would consistently fail to fulfill the promises it made in order to get the zones renewed.
In a sit-down conversation with the Mercury on Tuesday, August 28, Rubio didn't discuss the reasons for the contract delay.
"We want to do things right, and I feel pretty confident that that is indeed what we are doing," she says.
Asked what will happen if Campbell's statistical analysis is not ready by September 12, the currently planned date for city council both to see the analysis and vote on renewal, Rubio responded, "We'll have to determine the next steps." And if the analysis isn't ready by September 30th, when the ordinance is due to expire? "Then we'll just have to look at the alternatives."
Leonard, for one, is out of patience.
"I have always suspected the DFZs were more show than substance," Leonard says. "With the clear disregard of the council's directive by Mayor Potter to set up a citizen review committee, that makes the point better than I ever could.
"Even if Campbell is done in time," Leonard added, "it's beside the point."