Calling All Drug Dealers

By Nate Van Duzer 12-28-2009

Does this sound familiar? A poor, minority community experiences high levels of violence and drug dealing. A predominantly white police force sweeps in and arrests many offenders. New drug dealers and gang members almost immediately fill the void, leaving the level of crime intact and the community more hostile than ever to the police.

Is there an alternative? There is.

Speaking at the first annual conference of the National Network for Safe Communities, David Kennedy, an expert on crime from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, laid out an innovative approach to policing being implemented by municipalities across the country. His strategy involves three core constituencies: law enforcement, social service providers, and the community. While each city executes it differently, the basics are the same: law enforcement agencies choose an area of town in which the level of violence or drug dealing is especially unacceptable. They build cases on the worst offenders there. At the same time, they reach out to social services and moral voices within the community. When the groundwork is laid, they then deliver letters to the offenders asking them to attend a meeting. Each time, the vast majority of those invited show up -- out of curiosity if nothing else.

At the "call-in," the offenders hear a unified message from police, family members of victims, and others: "You are hurting yourselves and those around you, but it's not too late to change. If you choose these services we're offering, you won't be prosecuted." And it works. Because this process empowers the communities, the evidence shows decreases in crime upwards of 50% in areas of High Point, North Carolina; dramatic reductions in the murder count in Cincinnati; the closure of an entire drug market in New York. (For the individuals, the results are more mixed. Some call-in attendees turn their lives around and even become outreach workers themselves, but many find the road too steep and end up arrested.)

From a Christian perspective, I was struck by several pervading themes over the two-day conference. First, humility. To look outside the box, police departments and other law enforcement agencies have to own up to the fact that the conventional lock-'em-all-up method isn't effectively improving safety. Concurrently, residents of crime-ridden areas have to set aside their own long-held prejudices about the police.

Second, reconciliation. This work is by necessity relationship-based. Unlikely partnerships of police captains and academics, pastors and prosecutors have been formed in pursuit of saving lives and restoring communities. As a result of these efforts, icy relations between police and the people they are charged to protect have begun to thaw. "This is a process in which all of us have come to recognize that we have sinned," Kennedy noted.

Third, redemption. Kennedy told a powerful story during his plenary address. At one call-in, a prosecutor held a one-hundred dollar bill up and asked, "Who wants this?" Everyone in the room shouted for it. He crumpled it, stamped on it and asked, "Who wants this?" Everyone still called for it. He spit on it and asked again, "Who wants this?" Everyone still wanted it. "Why?" he asked.

"Because it has value," one of the attendees explained.

"That's right," the prosecutor replied. "And you still have value too."

Nate Van Duzer, a former Sojourners intern, now works as a legislative aide for a Seattle City Councilmember.

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