Anti-Drug Program Tackles Open-Air Markets

Illegal drug sales bring a constellation of other problems. One program is trying to rid cities of their worst open-air drug markets by offering dealers an opportunity to get out of the business. The anti-drug effort is under way in Hempstead, N.Y.

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When drugs are sold on the street, communities live in fear. There tends to be violent crime, property values deteriorate, businesses leave town. There's an effort under way to get rid of some of the worst open-air drug markets in the country. As Amy Costello reports from New York, the approach, which is more carrot than stick, is succeeding in some places.

AMY COSTELLO: Sell cocaine to someone on a street corner, and there's a very good chance you won't end up in prison.

P: Right now in America, the risk of going to prison for a single cocaine transaction is 1 in 15,000.

COSTELLO: That's David Kennedy, director of the Center for Crime Prevention and Control at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Kennedy himself has devoted much of his career to trying to push drug dealers out of neighborhoods. His latest target is the two-block stretch along Terrace Avenue in Hempstead, Long Island. Hempstead's police chief, Joseph Wing, says Terrace Avenue became a magnet for buyers from around the region, mainly because of its location next to two major thoroughfares.

HANSEN: It became notorious, it was well-known, buyers knew that they come there and get in and get out and leave relatively safely.

COSTELLO: Chief Wing sits in front of grainy, silent surveillance tape filmed by his undercover agents. You see a man or a woman approach a car. They thrust small, white packets of crack cocaine through the open window. It happens over and over again, often in broad daylight. The surveillance tape then moves inside a Terrace Avenue public-housing complex.

HANSEN: A subject just opened the apartment door, and that's the crack cocaine that he just purchased from inside the apartment.

COSTELLO: Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice says she and her predecessors had tried to stop this open-air drug market using all the usual tactics: surveillance, the occasional raid, arresting dealers.

COSTELLO: What we were doing really wasn't having any effect at all.

COSTELLO: Rice says arrested dealers were quickly replaced by new ones. Those who got out of prison made their way back to the same spot on Terrace Avenue and began dealing again. Addicts remained on the street. So Rice teamed up with Professor Kennedy to see if they could eliminate Hempstead's drug market.

Law enforcement officials identified more than a dozen dealers on Terrace Avenue. They trailed them, using the video surveillance, to capture the suspects red-handed. Then earlier this year, officials delivered letters to the suspects ordering them to show up at a town hall meeting or face prison. Rice was there.

COSTELLO: It was quite an amazing night because the 13 individuals who came, they were very hardened when they walked in the door because they were very skeptical - I don't believe that when I show up, you're not going to put handcuffs on me and take me away.

COSTELLO: During the meeting, suspects watched their own images on surveillance tape. Each dealer now realized that the seemingly remote 1-in- 15,000 chance of going to prison no long applied to them. Professor Kennedy says at that moment, each suspect realized his or her number was up.

P: Now we can say to them the next time we know you've sold drugs, the chance that you're going to go to jail is one in one. We've got you now. We're going to tell you ahead of time. The deterrent value of that turns out to be spectacular.

COSTELLO: More than 300 members of the community were there, too. They got to voice their frustrations at the dealers. Despite years of mistrust between residents and cops, tonight they showed dealers that they were now a united front and that drug crimes would no longer be tolerated.

Then Rice gave the suspects a choice. They could commit to turning their lives around. She offered them fast-track access to a range of social services, everything from job training to drug rehab. Otherwise, they'd face prison. All but one of them took Rice up on her offer.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAFFIC)

COSTELLO: It's a windy day, a few weeks after Rice offered the dealers their second chance. The once-notorious block along Terrace Avenue is dead quiet, save for a piece of scrap metal blowing across the street.

(SOUNDBITE OF METAL BLOWING ACROSS A STREET)

COSTELLO: Ever since the town hall meeting, a couple of cop cars have been parked round-the-clock at the infamous corner of Terrace and Badel. Other police cars cruise up and down the street. Captain Corey Pegues is a New York City police officer and a member of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives. He is not part of Rice's initiative, but he is a longtime Hempstead resident.

COSTELLO: Before you would see dope fiends and crackheads all over this place. Now look at this. Ironically, we're driving down the street, and you see kids walking down the street, playing tag with each other.

COSTELLO: Even so, Pegues wonders how long this will last.

COSTELLO: Once the funding is over, what's going to happen? What's going to be here to sustain it? After all the, you know, lights and cameras go off and everybody's gone, are we going to go back to the old days?

COSTELLO: Not necessarily. Professor Kennedy has shown in places from High Point, North Carolina, to Providence, Rhode Island, that drug markets do not necessarily return once police patrols subside.

William Sherman Mason(ph), pastor of New Hope Baptist Church in High Point, North Carolina, has seen it himself. After Kennedy's program was under way in his town, Mason said dealers began selling on his church property. Frustrated, Mason went out and stared at the suspects. They stared back. He was a little frightened. Then he saw that his neighbor was standing on her porch, too, staring at the dealers.

R: Not long after, I noticed that yet another neighbor had come out, and she also was standing on her porch, and she wagged her finger at him, and she says, I see you, I see you.

COSTELLO: Mason suspected he and his neighbors each felt emboldened by one another. He went inside and called the police. He thinks his neighbors did, too. The cops arrived within minutes. Police in Hempstead are hoping that this kind of partnership between cops and residents will be as effective in their community.

For NPR News, I'm Amy Costello in New York.

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