Fighting Drugs On the Home Turf, Block by Block


Washington. -- "It's amazing," said the Orange Hat anti-drug patrol member in one of this capital city's crack-infested neighborhoods. "You come around the corner and the dealers freeze in their tracks like jack-lighted deer. Cars start backing down the street so you can't read their license plate numbers. Within minutes of pulling out a video camera, there isn't a dealer within a block and a half radius, where before there were a dozen dealers blocking the sidewalk."

The example comes from "The Winnable War -- A Community Guide to Eradicating Street Drug Markets," a booklet that may be the best manual ever for citizens trying to rid their neighborhoods of increasingly violent open-air drug markets. Authored by Roger Conner and Patrick Burns, it's just been released by the American Alliance for Rights & Responsibilities (1725 K St. N.W., Suite 1125, Washington, D.C. 20036).

While surveys purport to show overall national drug use declining, Messers. Conner and Burns say street drug markets have grown explosively since the introduction of PCP and crack cocaine in the '80s.

A typical "market" will find bands of young men congregating on sidewalks or in the streets, communicating by a complex set of hand movements, marketing to a parade of automobiles, many from the "respectable" suburbs. Mr. Conner describes the open-air markets as "the 7-11 of drug marketing -- high volume, ++ quick sales, small unit sales."

Once-calm neighborhoods suddenly find themselves plagued with drug sellers armed with semiautomatic assault weapons to protect themselves from other dealers.

Kids get exposed to the drug trade's most alarming values -- lawlessness, violence, sex-for-sale, instant gratification, ostentatious displays of gold jewelry and expensive cars. Elderly people become fearful, stop socializing in the parks. Property values plummet; physical degradation spreads.

The Alliance surveyed the nation's largest cities and found 1,500 drug markets operating in 15 of them. Two-thirds of the cities reported the problem was either steady or getting worse.

Perhaps most alarmingly, the Alliance found that few cities are pursuing the very tactics against drug markets that have proven highly effective in a number of lead communities.

The group places little hope in police "body counts" of arrested drug dealers, or filling up more prisons with small-time offenders. But it reports rich payoffs in a combination of neighborhood-based anti-drug activism and inventive, targeted community policing aimed at harassing drug markets out of business.

In cities across the country, organized citizen groups have shown how to intimidate drug dealers and their customers by shadowing their movements, taking photos, writing down license numbers. They demonstrate against bars and stores that let themselves become drug hangouts. They organize neighborhood cleanups, repair playgrounds, sweep litter and drug paraphernalia off the street.

And while there've been isolated reports of drug-dealer attacks on individual crusaders, the Alliance reports attacks on citizen patrols are, nationwide, "extremely rare." Stressing a community-based, not individual, anti-drug effort is said to reduce chances of physical confrontation.

Citizen efforts won't go far, though, unless city governments join in the effort, says Mr. Conner. Scattered cities are already showing the way. New York, Boston and others have "padlock laws" to close up properties associated with multiple drug arrests and convictions. Many cities seize cars used in the purchase or sale of illegal drugs. But not enough cities, says the Alliance, publicize the seizures to deter street-drug activity.

In Yakima, Wash., and Fort Lauderdale, Fla., owners of cars seen cruising through drug markets receive postcards warning that their vehicles have been seen in areas of high crime, prostitution and drug activity. Seattle, Alexandria, Va., Washington and Tampa have statutes forbidding loitering with the intent to sell drugs.

Tampa reduced its recognized open-air drug markets from 61 to three in two years. Mayor Sandra Freedman created a 41-member special police force to work closely with housing inspectors and citizen groups in boarding up or razing "crack shacks," organizing massive neighborhood cleanups and seizing drug dealers' cars.

Charleston's police chief, Ruben Greenberg, used police officers and prisoners conscripted from the local jail to pick up trash, clear vacant lots, tow cars and obliterate graffiti defacing buildings in drug-infested neighborhoods. Young, athletic officers were posted in and around drug markets to copy down auto-license numbers, photograph activity and aggressively ask loitering youth if they could be "of assistance."

What of the argument that drug activity driven out of one neighborhood just re-erupts in another? The Alliance acknowledges that's often the case. But the first victimized neighborhood is relieved. The drug dealers' customer base is disrupted. And eventually drug selling and buying are driven behind closed doors -- "privatized," one might say.

That may not be enough for people on a crusade to lock up drug dealers and users. Police may complain: It's tougher to compile a dazzling arrest record. But as report co-author Patrick Burns argues, once a single open-air drug market is closed down, "the community benefit is immeasurable."

Neal Peirce is a syndicated columnist.

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