Coke, Cops, and 23rd Avenue
Is the City's New Initiative for Drug Dealers Working?
On August 19, Jeffrey Berry, 48, stood on the corner of 23rd Avenue and Union Street in the Central District, carrying a baggie of cocaine tucked in his left sock and a glass pipe in his back pocket, according to police records. Around 10:00 p.m., Berry was milling around in the alleyway next to Thompson's Point of View as, unbeknownst to him, police officers in plainclothes and an unmarked car watched from nearby. Officers observed as Berry made several hand-to-hand exchanges and briefly leaned into vehicles that pulled up. In half an hour, Berry made four suspected drug transactions. By 10:30 p.m., Berry was in handcuffs.
Almost two weeks earlier, on August 6, Berry and 15 other dealers had been confronted by Seattle police and King County prosecutors at a meeting in the Central District: They were told they could quit dealing or go to jail. Police presented the 16 men and women with stacks of evidence against them, compiled during a two-month-long investigation. "I could arrest you today," East Precinct captain Paul McDonagh told the group. "But I'm not going to." Police and prosecutors offered drug dealers clemency for past crimes if they promised to get out of the drug trade immediately.
The city's new Drug Market Initiative (DMI) program is a major departure from law enforcement's traditional catch-and-release approach to arresting and prosecuting drug dealers. But within days of announcing the program, prosecutors filed drug charges against Nekea Terrell and Matthew Moore for failing to show up to the August 6 "call in" and against Gerald Cowles, who was caught with a crack pipe and "exchanging and smoking cocaine" the day after the meeting, according to King County Superior Court records. On August 27, King County prosecutors also filed drug charges against Berry, Jason Lamont Curry, and Demetrius James Williams—all of whom had been at the meeting. In other words, less than a month after the city offered 18 drug dealers clemency in exchange for voluntarily giving up dealing and seeking help for their addictions, one-third of them either failed to show up or have been picked up by police for using or dealing and are now facing between one and five years in jail.
So is the initiative a failure? Despite the high burnout rate, the city still believes the DMI program has a shot to work—and they're probably right. One big problem the city faces with the DMI is that low-level dealers are typically drug addicts themselves. Under the initiative, the city is essentially expecting dealers to immediately give up their lifestyle or face harsh consequences. But it's hard to believe that people who have been addicted to drugs for decades will voluntarily turn their lives around so quickly. Berry alone has 37 warrants since 1985 and prior drug convictions, according to court records.
Let's say the two-thirds success rate for the program holds. That's better than the alternative: filling jails and prisons. Lieutenant Jason Henderson of the High Point Police Department in North Carolina says that before High Point instituted its own version of the Drug Market Initiative in 2004, that city's West End, much like the Central District, was a haven for street drug dealing, prostitution, and violence. City officials in High Point invited 15 dealers to participate in the DMI program—and there as well, one-third of them failed out. When the open-air drug market in the West End moved to the South Side neighborhood, across the railroad tracks in High Point, Henderson says the city's DMI program followed.
All told, High Point police brought the DMI program to 65 dealers in four neighborhoods and, Henderson says, crime in the city has dropped dramatically. "It's just not an open-air market anymore," he says. "You don't have guys hanging out on the corner. Patrol cars can't drive down there and jump out on guys dealing on the corner. When drug houses pop up in that area, they stick out like a sore thumb now." Because of the success of the program, High Point expanded its intervention work beyond drug dealers, and it now calls in violent offenders three times a year for meetings as well. There has been a 57 percent decrease in violent crime and a 25 percent reduction in drug arrests in High Point since enacting the program in 2004, according to Assistant Chief Marty Sumner. Henderson points out that there hasn't been a murder in the West End since 2004.
How is the program in Seattle working from the point of view of residents? At an East Precinct neighborhood meeting on August 27, neighbors buzzed about how quiet the neighborhood has been. After the meeting, 23rd Avenue, usually crowded with loiterers, was empty. The groups that used to congregate around 23rd and Jackson Street and 23rd and Union Street seem to have vanished.
At Thompson's Point of View—where the owners have previously had problems with shootings and drug dealers hanging in and around the restaurant—bartender Cliff Reeves stands in the middle of the room, looking out at Union Street. Asked whether he's seen a change in the neighborhood, Reeves answers emphatically: "Hell yeah." He says that dealers no longer gather in front of the business and that there's a "total lack of drug activity" in the area. Now, Reeves says, police cars roll by every hour, rather than once or twice a night. "It's nice," he says, flashing a grin.
With the drop in foot traffic, business has also dipped a bit. However, Reeves says, the pluses outweigh the negatives: "It's not to the point where we regret it."