Durham has released new language in the city’s anti-poverty initiative calling for a “zero tolerance” crackdown on drug activity in Northeast Central Durham. My honest reaction is that such a policy seems counterproductive if the intent is to help lift people out of poverty.
It is an empirical fact that a person saddled with a criminal record for a low-level drug offense will have more difficulty finding employment and is thus more likely to remain in poverty.
In the last year, my office has assisted hundreds of people in Durham in seeking expungement of their criminal records in order to improve their employment prospects. A large percentage of those individuals were convicted of nothing more than minor non-violent drug offenses.
When the city says it intends to take even more of a “zero tolerance” approach to drugs in predominantly Black areas of Durham, I take that to mean even more aggressive efforts by the police to arrest anyone suspected of drug involvement and aggressive efforts from the District Attorney to prosecute. I think this is a mistake, as it will only expand the pool of people who are currently experiencing difficulty finding legitimate work opportunities.
For most of the past 5 years, I lived in Northeast Central Durham, within sight of the corner of Alston and Main, the intersection that Durham PD has labeled the “Bull’s Eye” of its aggressive drug enforcement efforts since 2007. Rarely a week went by that I did not see police officers pulling young black men out of their cars or placing them against walls, often quite forcefully, and patting them down for drugs.
This experience, in part, informed my decision to join the FADE coalition and support their organizing efforts against racial profiling and police misconduct in the community. The FADE coalition’s approach involved holding community meetings and listening sessions and taking its lead from the people living in those neighborhoods most saturated with police activity. These meetings began happening well before the anti-poverty initiative was ever announced. They informed the policy proposals, including written consent, that we brought to the City in October 2013.
I know from the hundreds of people I have met with over the last year and a half that to be young, male, and black in East Durham is to live in a state of regular surveillance and under the abiding suspicion of law enforcement.
Though most focused on that demographic, this state of suspicion extends to others as well. I recently assisted a 50-year old black woman who was pulled out of her car on Alston Avenue, illegally searched, and accused of being a drug dealer all because officers saw her handing a plate of BBQ to a friend. This sort of thing does not happen on Ninth Street. In East Durham, however, it is a regular consequence of our “zero tolerance” approach.
Self-report drug use studies indicate that whites are using illegal drugs in this city at numbers equal to or greater than blacks. Yet there is no “zero tolerance” policy for Durham’s white neighborhoods. Police rarely kick in doors or drag people out of their cars in the areas surrounding Duke University. The same article that quoted my remarks also quoted the Duke dean of students saying that the university’s approach to drug offenses is “much more therapeutic than it [is] punitive.” On this point, I believe Duke has it right.
Rather than treating people involved in drug activity as our enemies, I believe we should hold them accountable for the harm they cause in their neighborhoods while also supporting them and trying to help them redirect their energy in a more positive direction. There are already multiple efforts ongoing in the City of Durham right now to do just that, including SpiritHouse’s Harm Free Zone initiative and Scott Holmes’ Restorative Justice Circles of Support program.
While recognizing that many people have different opinions on this issue, I believe the city would be better off supporting those efforts rather than doubling down on policies that are proven failures. We cannot arrest our way out of this problem. We have had forty years of zero tolerance and of letting police take the lead. Drugs are as available in our communities as they’ve ever been and our struggles with poverty are more intractable than ever. I believe it is time for a new approach, and fully support the FADE Coalition’s efforts.
Post by Ian Andrew Mance
Soros Justice Attorney-Fellow
Southern Coalition for Social Justice
Zero tolerance drug policies cannot alleviate poverty was originally published @ Southern Coalition for Social Justice and has been syndicated with permission.