Monday, August 20, 2012

WWGD?: APD and TCDA to Pursue Innovative Approach to Drug Enforcement in East Austin

Greetings, Gentle Grits Readers.  Jennifer Laurin here, broadcasting to you from the University of Texas School of Law, and extending thanks to Scott for the opportunity to post while the head honcho enjoys some beach time.  I thought it was important to alert Grits readers to some news on drug enforcement strategy in East Austin that the Austin American Statesman carried on Sunday.  The story followed up on earlier reporting on the options on the table for law enforcement officials faced with few gains and many losses (in terms of resource diversion, official abuses, and erosion of community mistrust) from aggressive policing in the neighborhoods surrounding the open air drug market at 12th and Chicon.  Sunday's story confirmed that the APD intends "by the end of the summer" to launch a new and innovative enforcement strategy often referred to as "the High Point model," drawing its name from the North Carolina city that first implemented it.  Here's an excerpt:
Each police department calls the initiative by a different name. But the steps are the same: Officers use statistics to pinpoint the high-crime drug market areas and work to identify the biggest players within the trade. The most violent and dangerous drug dealers are prosecuted and given harsh penalties, while police work with the community to reach out to family and friends of low-level offenders.
These perpetrators at the bottom rungs are asked to come in for a "call-in," or an intervention, where authorities, neighborhood leaders and families come forward to explain the harm their crimes cause and offer support in changing their ways. But law enforcement officials send the message they will come down hard on violators who break the law again. . . .
Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg said authorities are not ready to discuss the specifics of the initiative in central East Austin, but she does not yet anticipate any additional costs to implement it. Reports show some law enforcement agencies have managed to complete the program without taking on extra expenses, while others have sought external funding through government grants.
Acevedo said the Police Department is looking for feedback from neighborhood associations, community organizations and social services agencies willing to participate.
Austin police officers have attended training sessions on the program given by Fealy and visiting officials from Michigan State University, which has followed the progress of the initiative in several cities and was among three colleges awarded federal funding to provide the courses. Acevedo said police have the strong working relationships with neighbors in the area necessary to make the program work.
By way of background, The High Point model is of a piece with a broader trend in policing, known as Problem Oriented Policing ("POP"), in which (roughly) enforcement energy is directed at specific crime and disorder problems experienced in a community.  POP is a close cousin of the (perhaps) better-known Community Policing strategy:  Both require close collaboration with communities in order to identify and target the disorder problems that are occurring, but while true Community Policing emphasizes generating enforcement priorities and strategies from the ground up, POP tolerates more priorities being imposed from the top---with due input from the "bottom."  The High Point model illustrates this: It entails significant community collaboration, both by involving the community in the program's roll-out with early and regular community meetings, and by largely deferring to the community to hold low-level offenders accountable in lieu of incarceration; but, there is a heavy, mandatory, law-enforcement-wielded stick accompanying those carrots, in the form of aggressive and punitive treatment of the most serious offenders.

The High Point strategy has been embraced by critics of one of the country's most controversial top-down enforcement strategies, New York City's stop-and-frisk program.  Indeed, what starteed as an isolated experimental partnership between an academic and a North Carolina police department willing to take a gamble on innovation has evolved into something of a movement in policing reform.  It's been tried around the country reportedly with fairly convincing success---both in terms of crime reduction outcomes, and in terms of community-law enforcement relations.   David Kennedy, the professor of criminal justice who first developed the approach, works with the National Network for Safe Communities to promote and help other cities adopt the High Point model. The organization's website has what appears to be a comprehensive listing of studies that have actually evaluated the approach, for folks interested in further reading.Of course, it's not an unblemished record, and the Statesman story notes that shortchanging implementation---by, for example, failing to maintain close community ties after the initial roll-out---can compromise the program. 

Curiously, the headline to Sunday's Statesman article broadcasts the presence of "doubters" in East Austin, but the story reports only one interview with a neighborhood resident and activist that evinces the kind of skepticism that is foreshadowed.  It may be that the details of the program are still too vague to permit much reflection by prominent community and political leaders, some of whom have called for a community policing model to replace the top-down enforcement strategy pursued to date.  I will be interested to see whether this variation on community policing, combining close community partnership with targeted, punitive sanction, will appeal to those constituencies.  (At the risk of pulling a "gotcha," Grits evinced a favorable disposition to this sort of approach a couple of years back, when he profiled the work of researcher David Kennedy and others in pioneering this program in High Point, North Carolina.)  For my own part, I certainly am favorably disposed toward law enforcement strategies that seek to build neighborhood bonds the process, and that target resources toward the most serious offenders committing the most troublesome crimes for communities.  But often this is easier said than done:  Some police officers are terrific at facilitating neighborhood meetings, conducing youth interventions, and building bonds with citizen leaders . . . but these are not typically the skills that police departments screen for at hiring or build over the course of traditional careers.  Additionally, this is a strategy that requires commitment not just from the APD, but also from the District Attorney's Office, which must follow through on both the stick and carrot ends of the prosecution picture . . . a consistent commitment that could be difficult to rangle from the ranks of relatively autonomous ADAs working these cases, or (down the road) from a new District Attorney if Rosemary Lehmberg does not serve in perpetuity.  We shall see.  For now, I'm cautiously cheered by the spirit of collaboration and innovation (as well as public scrutiny) that was reflected in the Statesman piece.


Anonymous said...

Nice blog entry...and on the mark when it comes to field officers buying into the initiative. Thanks.:~)

Anonymous said...

Guess you missed the Austin Chronicle's earlier reporting on this. Might want to check that out too.

Jennifer Laurin said...

9:27, I did indeed miss that. (Add The Chronicle to the long list of publications that I wish I had time to regularly read, but don't.) Thanks for the tip. Here's a link to the archived story, which is much richer in detail about the neighborhood, the transitions it has undergone, the community's (various) perspectives, and the path some have taken to consider the High Point model. Of particular note is that the sole resident quoted in Sunday's Statesman story, Scottie Ivory, has a fascinating history with the former chief of police in High Point - himself a former APD cop, who in the '80s played a role in bringing aggressive and controversial drug enforcement strategies to East Austin. (He reportedly views his embrace of the High Point innovations as of a piece with his general rejection of such approaches.) Way to skimp on the interesting details, Statesman!

Anonymous said...

Father Pfleger, a Chicago social activist, says that violence is an acceptable way of life these days. It's "the" way of life for many. That's just the way it is.