Nowadays, it’s heroin and crystal meth.
A decade ago, crack cocaine.
Whatever the drug, dealers working Tucson neighborhoods within the 85705 ZIP code drive up crime rates and hinder residents’ efforts to improve an area damaged by years of hardship.
The Tucson Police Department and local sociologists working on a new revitalization effort called Thrive in the ’05 are planning a different way to address this problem.
In early 2020, they will begin enacting a nationally recognized program called Drug Market Intervention.
Put simply, people that police catch dealing drugs will be given a choice: be arrested or turn your life around.
If the drug seller chooses the latter, a team comprised of law enforcement, social workers and community organizations will help the person make a plan toward a legitimate job.
This might include setting up job training or finishing a GED as well as finding new housing.
The idea is to use existing resources as much as possible, although some federal funding could also be used.
The program, which has been enacted in nearly 30 cities nationwide, is based on reversing the stereotype that people who sell drugs are incapable of change.
“For a long time, there was a view that people want to live in these conditions, with the violence and the chaos, and that’s not the case,” said Heather Perez, who offers training and technical assistance for Drug Market Intervention as part of her job with Michigan State University’s School of Criminal Justice. She is currently training people to use this approach in Santiago, Chile.
When Tucson adopts this new method for the Thrive in the ’05 project — a 2.6-square-mile area that’s loosely bounded by Miracle Mile to the north, Speedway to the south, Stone Avenue to the east and I-10 to the west — only nonviolent offenders will be given the choice.
Tucson police Lt. James Wakefield, who works in 85705 and is the police liaison for the revitalization effort, recalled a crack dealer who served a 10-year prison term and then, not long after his release, was back in 85705 selling heroin.
This dealer, a violent offender with a long history of trouble, might never find his way to a better life. But Wakefield said he believes others could if they are given the support and the incentive to do something better with their lives.
An “Open-air drug market” for sellers, buyers
People living at the Tucson House — once a luxury hotel and now one of the city’s largest public housing units — say dealers and prostitutes often roam the hallways and stairwells, as well as the city park behind the building at 1501 N. Oracle Road.
Parking lots, street corners and washes are also popular spots for dealers in 85705, and this sort of easy flow of sellers and buyers makes the area what’s called an “open-air drug market.”
One way to tell if there’s an open-air, or overt, market is if someone unfamiliar with the area could easily buy drugs there, said Katie Stalker, an assistant professor of social work with Arizona State University in Tucson and associate director of the ASU Office of Community Health, Engagement and Resiliency. Overt markets are challenging to address but it’s critical for revitalization.
Drug markets drive down property values and business, and sour people on spending time in public places like city parks.
Drug-ridden areas also leave young people vulnerable to crime and unhealthy life choices, and has contributed to 85705 becoming one of the 10 areas statewide with the highest drug overdose rates.
The area has one of the highest rates of calls statewide to the Department of Child Safety for allegations of abuse and neglect.
It also generates the highest number of calls to police for drug-related activity and violent crimes in the city.
Tucson police Capt. John Leavitt, commander of the department’s Counter Narcotics Alliance, said about 95% of the problems faced by young people police come in contact with revolve around drugs and alcohol. Single-parent households in low-income areas are often mired in such problems, he said.
“All of those things combined create the environment we see in the ’05,” he said. “The cycle of poverty, at least in Tucson, means the poorest people get put together in an environment where criminals take advantage of them.”
Wakefield said the people dealing the drugs are often, but not always, also using them.
“You can see how it keeps getting perpetuated,” Wakefield said, “cycle after cycle.”
Mary Ellen Brown, an assistant professor of sociology at ASU in Tucson and director of the Thrive in the ’05 Community-Based Crime Reduction Initiative, said she saw how a similar program worked to reduce violent crime in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. She’s excited to see similar changes brought about in 85705.
“It’s an opportunity to streamline communication and increase effectiveness (between) law enforcement and community partners to reduce violent crime and drug-related crimes, by shutting down the open-air drug market,” said Brown, who is also director of the ASU Office of Community Health, Engagement and Resiliency.
“This intervention will build critical community/police relations in the ’05 ZIP code where relationships have historically been strained.”
Commitment, Organization leads to crime reductions
Strong leadership is critical for the interventions to work, said Perez of Michigan State University. The people who are involved have to stay organized and committed.
There are key steps to follow, outlined in publications on the interventions, including making realistic assessments of available resources and services and leaving enough time to get set up before starting the program.
It’s also important to have a person whose job is dedicated to organizing services and maintaining data.
Expectations need to be clear, the former drug offender’s family and friends should be involved if that’s helpful, and meetings have to be held regularly to see how things are going for the person trying to change.
“If they don’t follow through with what’s been promised,” Perez said of the intervention steps, “then it can just blow up.”
Michigan State University helps with training and implementing Drug Market Intervention with support from the Department of Justice. About 30 cities nationwide, including Chicago and Atlanta, have used this approach, which first got started around 2003 in High Point, North Carolina.
Marty Sumner, who retired as chief of police in High Point in 2016, said police were so thrilled with how well the interventions worked, they now use a similar approach for cases of domestic violence as well as for gang activity.
Sumner was a patrol officer with the department there in 2003 when a new police chief was hired. They toured the neighborhoods together and talked about how the drug market was flourishing to the detriment of just about everything else.
“They were just doing it right out in the open,” he said. “Perhaps we had become a bit too accustomed to it.”
The problem seemed insurmountable.
That’s when the new chief brought in criminologist David Kennedy, then with Harvard University and now with the Center for Crime Prevention and Control at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
Kennedy suggested a new way to intervene, a technique that involved helping dealers change their lives. Within a few years, the High Point Police Department’s success became the blueprint for Drug Market Intervention.
“We saw dramatic reductions in violent crime and drug activity within just 30 days,” said Sumner, who has since worked as a consultant for communities trying this approach. “The results were immediate and the impact, dramatic.”
Over the next four years, police used interventions in four more neighborhoods with similar success and, over time, saw great reductions in drug activity and violent crime.
One of Sumner’s favorite success stories involved a drug dealer whose lifestyle left him estranged from his family. After this dealer stopped using and selling drugs, he went to culinary school and was eventually reunited with his family. Not every case was such a success story, Sumner said, but that was expected. The goal was to help some of the dealers while also making the communities safer.
“We removed the dangerous people,” he said, “and redeemed the people who could be redeemed.”