tim hanlon

A year ago, one of the hottest debates in recent city council history began. The mayor and city commissioners were asked to cancel their agreement with federal agents and withdraw local police officers from the Joint Terrorism Task Force. At that time, civil rights advocates were concerned that not even the mayor had sufficient access to the files that police and FBI agents were keeping on local citizens.

When the FBI refused to relinquish and allow the mayor adequate security clearances, city council voted 4-1 to withdraw. It was the first city in the nation to do so, casting an important post-9/11 vote. In an era that has sacrificed individual liberties and basic due process protections for the sake of law and order, the vote to remove Portland from the Task Force was an important signal that there were limits to police actions.

But now, city hall is facing another critical and soul-searching test: Should they reauthorize the city's notorious Drug-Free Zones (DFZ)? And while they may have previously gone to bat for civil liberties, this time it is wholly uncertain whether the mayor and city commissioners will place basic constitutional protections in front of questionable police tactics.

Under the DFZ rules, police officers can banish a suspected drug user or pusher (or prostitute) for 90 days from large areas of Old Town and North Portland. Officers do not even need any hard evidence, just the belief that the person is engaging in some sort of illicit behavior.

Unlike the Task Force vote, during which dozens of concerned residents were lobbying council members, very little attention has been devoted the DFZ's upcoming reauthorization vote. Even Council Member Erik Sten's office told the Mercury they were unaware that the vote was quickly approaching.

"It wasn't on the radar," admitted Bob Durston, Sten's chief of staff.

Opponents to the DFZ believe this widespread apathy is because enforcement happens far from the lives of "engaged citizens"—mainly impacting the city's homeless.

Civil rights attorneys and public defenders have repeatedly squawked that these rules blatantly violate basic constitutional protections and are used unfairly to chase away "undesirables"—like panhandlers, street kids, and African Americans.

"Innocent people are being swept up in this," explained Andrea Meyer with the ACLU. Meyer said she is most concerned about the DFZ because there are no safeguards on how the police will decide whom to kick out of the neighborhoods.

"We have consistently asked for a report on 'who, what, and how' the DFZ is really applied," said Meyer. But, she lamented, "it is done in a shroud of secrecy."

While Portland may have been a national leader when it stepped away from the Task Force, city hall also continues to be a national leader when it comes to the DFZ: Portland is the only big city that continues to allow such drug-free zones. Even Cincinnati, a conservative stronghold, did away with the zones a few years ago when their courts declared they violate basic constitutional protections.

However, two years ago, when Portland faced similar challenges, city council sidestepped those concerns. In November 2003, a court judge struck down the DFZ, saying they unfairly made the officers judge and jury. In response, then-Mayor Vera Katz convened city council and tweaked the DFZ rules to read that a police officer would need a "preponderance of evidence"—as opposed to "mere suspicion"—before kicking a person out of the DFZ. That alteration was enough for the DFZ to squeeze past constitutional concerns and be reinstated.

Since then, the DFZ have continued to flirt with unconstitutional behavior. This April, the public defender again leveled a lawsuit against the DFZ, saying that police were using it to harass African American men in Old Town. At trial, an attorney for the public defender's office stated that the number of African American men excluded from DFZ was twice the neighborhood's population of black men. Ultimately, the judge, although expressing sympathy, said such evidence was inconclusive.

Just like the vote earlier this year over the Terrorism Task Force, which was an opportunity to re-examine police tactics—the upcoming DFZ vote is an important opportunity for the city to move away from some of its more unsavory methods.