I had an incredible experience last night.
Frankly, before I walked into the Langston Hughes Cultural Center, I feared the event might be hokey, a total bust. But by the time I sat down and looked around the room I knew it would be a remarkable event. Never before done in Seattle, the Drug Market Initiative (DMI) Call-In was dramatic, powerful and profound.
The call-in was organized by Seattle police officers and City Attorney Tom Carr. The invited guests—the police called them "candidates"—were 20 low-level street drug dealers from the Central District who had plied their trade around 23rd and East Union, along Jackson Street, and near Garfield High School, disrupting the neighborhood, spreading fear and anger, and bringing other criminal behavior to the area. Fifteen of the 20 showed up, along with their family members or closest friends.
On the Langston Hughes stage were two large tables, each topped with three-ring binders. The cover of each binder—set upright so all could see them very clearly—had a large SPD logo and the name of one candidate in big block letters. We would learn later that the contents of each binder held details of a police investigation ready for submission to a prosecutor for the filing of criminal charges.
The candidates sat in the front of the center section, taking up four rows. Surrounding them were dozens of police officers, prosecutors, neighbors, social service providers, former drug addicts, criminal defense attorneys, a pastor, two journalists, and me.
Everyone in the room was tense with expectation. Most of us, except for a few police officers and staff members in Carr's office, had never witnessed anything like what was about to happen.
The first official to speak was Seattle Police Chief John Diaz. His message was simple—“You will not be arrested tonight, although we could because we have strong cases against you. Instead, we are here to give you a choice, another chance. I hope you take it.”
Captain Paul McDonagh, commander of the East Precinct, which covers the Central District, was next. His message was the same, but much more personal. “Your behavior is hurting the community and yourself, it must stop. Tonight, we're asking you to choose to accept job training, addiction and mental health counseling, and other social services. If instead you choose to continue dealing drugs— not only in Seattle, but anywhere in King County—you will be arrested. The cases we’ve built against you which are documented in these notebooks will be filed and you will go to prison.”
What McDonagh did next brought his warning into sharp focus. He showed police surveillance images of the dealers, both still photographs and video clips. He explained how police detectives monitored their activities and recorded narcotics transactions between the dealers and undercover police officers. I watched several candidates sitting right in front of me squirm in their seats, exchanging glances. I'm sure not a few wanted to bolt.
King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg, Tom Carr, and Assistant U. S. Attorney Vince Lombardi spoke next. They all delivered the same message: “We’ll nail you and send you to prison unless you stop dealing drugs.”
The Rev. Aaron Williams from Mount Zion Baptist Church told the candidates "If I was in church I would call this ‘a-come-to-Jesus’ meeting, but in this theater I'll just call it ‘a-come-to-justice’ meeting." He urged the guests to make a positive choice to accept what the police were offering and turn their lives around.
Several neighborhood representatives spoke and shared their experiences, including a former drug addict who used to walk the same streets shooting heroin, sleeping on porches, who told her story of getting clean. An older woman whose family has lived near 20th and East Union for over 30 years told of watching neighborhood kids grow up and succumb to the allure of street drugs, people being shot in front of her house, finding a dead body dumped in the street. The principal of Garfield, Ted Howard, explained how drug trafficking was harming his students and putting them at risk.
McDonagh wrapped up this first call-in session by repeating his earlier warning and urging the candidates to accept what the community was offering, a safe path to a brighter future.
Throughout all of this, another core message was repeated over and over again—the community loves you and wants you to become a contributing, positive member.
The session ended. It lasted 66 minutes. We were ushered out, but the candidates and their family and friends remained for a private discussion about the alternatives being offered, services ranging from drug therapy to job training.
I was exhausted. I was impressed. I was proud of our city. Here was a grand experiment that just might work. Instead of the very common arrest-prosecute-jail-release-start-over-again cycle, I got to watch a very innovative alternative approach. Some, I'm sure, will write this off as "hug-a-thug", bleeding-heart, crap. But when this strategy has been tried elsewhere in the country it has worked. Here is an early Seattlepi.com story on last night's event.
One of the leading advocates of this carrot-and-stick approach to open-air neighborhood drug markets is Professor David Kennedy of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. My office brought Kennedy to Seattle several weeks ago to participate in a series of conversations about youth violence. The June 22, 2009 edition of The New Yorker featured an article about Kennedy's approach to gun violence and drug trafficking. (Access to the article requires registration.)
This article by Kennedy describes how the city of High Point, North Carolina implemented a "carrot-and -stick" approach to neighborhood drug markets: Download Kennedy-High Point Intervention.