Causing much controversy over the last decade, Portland's Drug and Prostitution Free Zones have been lauded for – allegedly — reducing street level crimes and reviled for causing a disproportionately high arrest rate for African Americans.
Now, if no City Council action is taken by Sept. 30, the ordinance – which restricts a person arrested for certain drug or prostitution crimes from entering three large geographic areas in the city – could quietly disappear. In the past, most members of City Hall have supported the zones, but support has eroded after a report last spring revealed that the proportion of exclusions given to African Americans was much higher than that of Whites.
Driven by these civil liberties issues and doubts about the zones' oversight, the City Council gave the zones a six month extension. And in July the mayor's office commissioned an independent study of the zone's effectiveness and fairness. Many say the timeline for the study was too short.
John Campbell, the study's author, says he is planning on having his report completed on deadline. Yet he also wants to make sure the council isn't looking at an incomplete report.
"We haven't made this public because we do need more time," Campbell said.
Although Campbell said the timeline to produce the report was short, he's also had a "challenge getting good information."
"We'll have very interesting information (when the report is complete)," he said.
Campbell says he wants to make sure the City Council has a complete report that analyzes how the zones have worked and if a racial or ethnic disparity has been created.
John Doussard, spokesman for the mayor's office, said the mayor will wait until the report is out to make a decision.
"These programs are very popular in the neighborhoods and among business people," he said.
Depending on the actions of the mayor and the council, the ordinance renewal could be added to the council agenda as an emergency item, brought up for a vote, an alternative could be proposed or it could simply expire.
Commissioner Eric Sten, the only councilmember to issue a technical no vote in the spring said he has deep doubts about the zones' effectiveness and fairness. He also doesn't believe the mayor would let the zones expire without a vote.
"I'm expecting to vote against it," Sten told The Skanner, although he added that the report's contents could have an effect on his decision.
"My concern has always been that somebody could become a criminal by being accused of drug activity (and is then arrested for criminal trespassing without being convicted of the original crime)," he said.
A hearings officer must now approve all exclusions — which are now given only after an arrest – an oversight that Sten says has helped. A failed state Senate law this year would have required an exclusion to be conviction based. Sten says he would like to see an exclusion based on both an arrest and proven past behavior.
"My bar is lower, show me they've been convicted before," he said.
In the past, other commissioners, with the exception of Commissioner Randy Leonard, have also expressed support for the zones.
Jim Hayden, the Northeast district attorney, an early architect of the zones, said he was last involved when he served on the now defunct oversight committee, a group that he said was dysfunctional from the start. Although Hayden said he was unaware of the contents of the unreleased report, he continues to support the current form of the zones and believes they are fair and an effective tool for law enforcement. Sgt. Brian Schmautz, spokesman for the police bureau, said the police also support the continued operation of the zones.
Joseph Santos-Lyons, the new director of the Northeast Coalition of Neighborhoods, said he is skeptical. Santos-Lyons, who was not speaking on behalf of his organization, said that although other community leaders see the zones as an effective tool, he believes that the resources of the city could be better used on job opportunities and substance abuse treatment.
"A lot of people see this as an important tool," he said. "Necessary in times of crisis to shake up a culture (of street-level dealing and prostitution) … My hope is that it will not be renewed."
Commissioner Leonard is another opponent of the zones' renewal.
"No one has ever convinced me that people excluded from a zone don't go deal drugs or prostitute elsewhere," Leonard said.
To deal with the problem more concretely, Leonard is proposing to increase the availability of treatment. Currently, his Project 57 program offers a city-funded jail bed to drug offenders; the arrestees are given the option to stay in jail until bail is made or attend treatment. The program has shown a 71 percent drop in the recidivism rate of the city's top repeat offenders, he says.
Leonard said he has garnered much interest from Commissioner Adams and met with Potter on Tuesday to discuss the matter.