Drug-Free Zones Prove Racially Biased, Get Smacked Down by Mayor
Backlash from Businesses, Media and Cops

In late September, Mayor Tom Potter allowed the so-called "Drug-Free" and "Prostitution-Free" Zones (DFZs/PFZs) in Portland to expire following a consultant's report that found enforcement of the Zones racially biased. John Campbell, the consultant, wrote that "There is a disparity by race in the data that does not disappear when explaining hypotheses are controlled for. As such, we are left with the stark fact that, during the time frame tested, African-Americans who were arrested for qualifying crimes were more likely to be excluded than either Whites or Hispanics similarly arrested."

Created in 1993, the Zones allowed police arresting a person on suspicion of a drug or prostitution crime in certain boundaries to be excluded from all the zones for 90 days; if convicted, a person was banished for one year (see PPRs #11&41). Many people were not charged for drug crimes, but their exclusions didn't go away. Many would get charged with trespassing and face additional prosecution if they were found in the Zones in violation of the exclusions.

Portland Copwatch has been among the groups opposed to this abomination of civil liberties since its inception, and along with the ACLU, members of the Public Defender's office, the Partnership for Safety and Justice, and others, helped push the Council to conduct the study. We consider the demise of the Zones a huge victory.

Although the Portland Business Alliance (PBA) kept quiet when the Zones were initially banned, stories quickly popped up blaming the Mayor's devotion to civil liberties and fairness for an upswing in crime downtown. The media, all too happy to go along, ran a string of stories bemoaning the loss of the Zones as a tool for law enforce-ment. Nearly all of the Portland Tribune's October 9 issue was devoted to the Zones' demise, with little to no voice for civil libertarians, while a whole article was devoted to praising Officer Jeff Myers. We've written before about Myers' well-intentioned but Constitutionally questionable efforts (PPRs #31 & 37). Here, the Tribune followed Myers as he stopped pedestrians in the former downtown DFZ admittedly for no reason, and ended up arresting one on a parole violation. Coincidentally?, the man arrested was black, and the person he was with, who was white, was not arrested. The Tribune left Myers' self-description unchallenged: "I'm chippy, but I treat everyone the same."

The Tribune also wrote an editorial on October 12 bemoaning the loss of the Zones; the September 29 Oregonian called it the "end of an era"; since early October, several local TV stations have been running stories about the downtown area being besieged by crime.

One news outlet not buying into the hype is the Portland Mercury , whose October 25 article pointed out that calls for service downtown went up from under two per month to 22 in June--four months before the DFZs ended. The calls went up to over 50 in July, August and September. October's total looked to be about 60, not a huge increase. The reason for the increase was probably not so much a spike in crime as an effort by the PBA and Portland Police earlier this year to have downtown residents and businesspeople document drug crimes by calling to report crimes more regularly.

The police, like the Business Alliance and most of the media, are also playing a part in ignoring that other drug laws are still on the books even though the Exclusion Zones are not. Detective Peter Simpson, editor of the Portland Police Association newsletter, the Rap Sheet, wrote in the September issue (published Oct. 30) that although Campbell showed a disparate number of African Americans excluded, "Possible reasons for this are not explored or explained in the report." As noted above, Campbell did explore the reasons, but could not account for the disparity. Mayor Potter's news release explained: "In all zones, African Americans are excluded 68 percent of the time, compared to 54 percent for Whites. Hispanics are excluded at a 47 percent rate, but far fewer Hispanics are arrested. The disparity is not related to the severity of the crime, since dealers and users are excluded almost equally. Arrests for methamphetamine account for much of the disparity, though not all of it. Exclusion rates for those arrested for cocaine (the majority of whom are African American) are significantly higher than exclusion rates for those arrested for exclusion-qualifying meth crimes (the majority of whom are White)." Simpson claims the Mayor branded the police as "racially biased," though what he said was "this is disparate enforcement."

Simpson predicts that the areas affected most will be Downtown and inner Northeast, but not SE 82nd. He has worked all three Zones and issued many exclusions, but not on 82nd because "It didn't occur to me-- it is a different kind of problem." He says this is because the people on 82nd drive cars or ride bikes through the area. Does that mean the people he accuses of drug dealing with vehicles would not be excluded from the area, as opposed to those standing or walking? Maybe he means there are more white meth dealers there.

The Mayor and Commissioner Randy Leonard's efforts to expand treatment services are also well- intentioned, but are premised on "forcing more people into drug-treatment programs by threatening them with jail" (Tribune, October 12). This plan has led to formalizing one of Myers' pet projects that targets 30 specific suspected offenders (the "Dirty 30"). Public Defender Chris O'Connor told the Mercury (October 25): "I am extremely concerned about my government putting certain people on a list without hearing or due process and then going after them with the threat of jail if they don't comply with the 'special treatment' that being on the list entails." (O'Connor was appointed to a committee to examine the Zones that was later disbanded by the Mayor's office and replaced by Campbell's report.) "Using arrest data to classify people just tells us who the police dislike, not who is actually guilty of a crime."

Drug treatment and jail beds are the County's problem, asserts the Rap Sheet's Simpson, calling on the Mayor and Commissioner Leonard to go to drug court for a week and see the "revolving door" there. He advocates that treatment as an alternative to jail should only be offered once. Regarding being excluded from one's own neighborhood, he states: "These sob stories about people not going to work, visit family and go to places of worship were probably less than 1% of all cases."

Coupled with the pullout from the Joint Terrorism Task Force (see PPR #36), Simpson calls the end of the Zones "transparently a move biased by anti-Bush politics." Could be that both decisions were made due to concerns about a little thing called the Constitution. Simpson says this confirms Potter as the "anti-cop-former-cop-turned-Mayor that cared less about public safety than any Portland Mayor in recent memory."

One final note: Campbell chastised the police for not having examined these statistics on their own despite community concerns raised over the years. "The Portland Police Bureau, institutionally, has seemed incurious about testing the hypotheses developed to explain apparent disparities and, in the absence of a willingness to do the necessary self-analysis, insufficiently committed to taking the self-corrective steps necessary to mitigate the racial issues that remain a barrier to better partnership with all citizens."

Campbell's report is at


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