matt bors

On Thursday night, December 1, Mayor Tom Potter got another dose of community opposition to Portland's controversial Drug-Free and Prostitution-Free Zones (DFZ). Dozens of citizens jammed into city council chambers for an emotionally charged two-hour public hearing on the zones, which allow cops to give suspected drug dealers or prostitutes a "notice of exclusion," barring them from sections of downtown or North Portland. The zone ordinance is up for renewal by the city council.

Instead of rubber-stamping the zones, Potter suggested the council take a closer look at them. The mayor has also proposed tying exclusions to actual criminal charges, rather than basing exclusion simply on the suspicion of a crime. "We want to make sure we protect the public, as well as individual rights," Mayor Potter told the crowd assembled at City Hall.

Currently, according to the ACLU's Andrea Meyer, 30 percent of people who receive an exclusion are never charged with a crime, or their charges are dropped. And that's just one of the problems with the zones, Meyer said, sitting next to the mayor and Police Chief Derrick Foxworth at the hearing. The civil liberties organization opposes renewing the zones, she explained, because the exclusions lack constitutional protections like the presumption of innocence, the right to due process, and the right to counsel.

"Instead of these ordinances, we can use the judicial process," Meyer said. Judges, she said, could issue an exclusion when sentencing someone for a crime, or releasing a person from jail.

Then it was the citizens' turn. Two meeting moderators had to ditch the night's official agenda—they'd hoped to usher people into small groups for discussion—because so many people wanted to speak out about the zones.

With the exception of downtown business representatives, including those from the Portland Business Alliance (PBA)—and an elderly couple who'd had a bad run-in with a pimp in the Hollywood District—the town hall-style hearing was practically a rerun of a November forum in North Portland, with residents lambasting the ordinance for being unfair, potentially racist, and for simply shifting drug and prostitution problems to other neighborhoods.

"This does nothing to get drug dealers out of the city," said Brad Taylor, who lives on the border of North Portland's DFZ.

Sister Cathie Boerboom, director of Rose Haven, a homeless women's drop-in center in Old Town, talked about clients who've gotten exclusions while trying to access services or buy groceries.

"They don't deserve them," she said. "It gives officers a heck of a lot of power."

Other residents—including two who had received exclusions themselves—urged Potter to modify or ditch the ordinance.

"We need to get beyond the argument that this tool works," said a young man who lives near NW Broadway and Everett. "To argue that something works doesn't mean it's the right thing to do."

The meeting's moderators asked for a show of hands of those in favor of keeping the ordinances "with changes," like the mayor's proposal to tie exclusions to criminal charges. Half of the hearing's attendees were on board (though one PBA suit in the back row thrust his hand in the air and muttered, "How about WITHOUT changes?" to his colleague). The rest didn't support the zones at all.

There's one more public hearing—near NE 82nd, where the city is considering adding another zone—on December 15. The council is expected to take up the issue in February.