ASHEVILLE -- Undercover High Point police officers could buy drugs at 16 crack houses in the city's West End neighborhood before May 18, 2004. A day later -- using a strategy being considered by Asheville police -- informants failed to find or buy drugs at any of the houses. Police say it took a meeting of nine people well-known in the West End drug scene to get things going in what has become known nationwide as the High Point model.
Authorities spread out pictures showing the nine dealers selling drugs. Police also gave them a look at documents that would be used by prosecutors. With parents, relatives, preachers and other community members looking on, the dealers were given a choice to either stop selling drugs or go to prison. Asheville Police Chief Bill Hogan wants to implement a plan using the High Point model's combination of threat and support -- steps some activists say they have been waiting for.
"Why talk about it when you got people out there standing on the corner?" said Shad Waters Sr., who is helping his son overcome a felony drug conviction and addiction while also joining efforts to clean up his Shiloh neighborhood.
The plan started in High Point and combines community and police efforts to give drug dealers support with education and jobs.
High Point has a population of about 90,000. Cities including Winston-Salem; Raleigh; Providence, R.I.; Kansas City, Mo.; and Tucson, Ariz., have adopted initiatives based on High Point's plan.
Fear and Redemption
A week before High Point police officers met to talk about their plan, a man in the West End neighborhood was shot to death in an attempted robbery. High Point police Maj. Marty Sumner said a woman living nearby reluctantly called 911. Fearing retribution, he said she only reported hearing shots fired and quickly hung up.
Eight months later, violent crime was down 36 percent within the West End neighborhood, according to police statistics. Open-air drug sales had disappeared, and residents had taken charge of their neighborhood. Sumner said the same woman who dialed 911 that night came forward to testify against the three men connected with the shooting.
"No dealers, no customers ... that translates into a reduction in violent crime," Sumner said.
The biggest challenge for any city using the plan comes in getting the community to buy into the idea, Sumner said.
Police had bought into the plan as well when they decided to work with its creator, David Kennedy, head of the Center for Crime Prevention and Control at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. Asking residents to take immediate responsibility and put their lives on the line to clean up their neighborhood is unfair, Sumner said. Instead, police gather intelligence on suspected dealers by buying drugs from them while undercover, taking pictures and gathering evidence. "The police department does the heavy lifting," he said. "It's too much to ask people to take that risk." After police first called in the group of suspected drug dealers and gave them a choice of jail or help, residents in High Point's West End neighborhood took charge.
The same initiative was applied successfully in two other city neighborhoods, one of them a public housing development. An analysis from UNC Greensboro showed that much of the drug market disappeared altogether, rather than having been shoved to other neighborhoods.
Sumner said the market for drugs is undoubtedly still around but not as visible and not causing street crime that had plagued each neighborhood. The Rev. Jim Summey was at the first "call-in" meeting where nine young men were brought in and given a choice to turn their lives around or go to jail. He said the entrance to his Baptist church in the center of the West End neighborhood used to be constantly clogged with prostitutes and dealers. "It was a war zone," he said. "The traditional methods of policing had not worked." The summer after the plan was implemented, Summey said his Bible camp went from its average of six children to 36, many of whom were walking over from the surrounding neighborhood.
"It was just like everything had changed," he said. Bringing it to bear In Asheville, it could be months before one of the city's troubled neighborhoods is turned around.
Hogan said crime statistics are being examined to pinpoint an area where the plan will work best.
"It will be based on the magnitude of the problem," he said. "We don't know where it will go initially." Already officers have been to High Point to see the results of the initiative that has cleaned up three neighborhoods in that city. Hogan said officers from Asheville traveled to Raleigh to witness that city's first call-in meeting. Police in the state capital started their own plan. It will probably be two to three months or longer before police are ready to have their first meeting in Asheville, Hogan said.
The proposed plan is running parallel to other efforts from police to step up the fight against drug activity.
A recent police request for an added $2.4 million from the city calls for increasing policing throughout the city. That would include a public housing officer who would work with a High Point-type model if it were started in a housing development.
That budget request doesn't include any specific items related to the plan, which hasn't yet had a cost put to it.
The city is already planning to invest in five new officers for the drug suppression unit and one new crime prevention officer who will work exclusively with the city's public housing developments. In High Point, the plan did cost money but managed to be written in the midst of the police department's budget year.
About $5,000 was used in each of the three neighborhoods for buying drugs undercover.
The beat police already operating in those areas were able to maintain each neighborhood after the plan was implemented, Sumner said. That work involved never letting calls go unanswered. "You can't let one crime go unnoticed without giving it special attention," Sumner said.
Breaking Asheville's drug markets and stopping those who operate them will be a challenge, Hogan admits.
"This is income for people and sometimes even income for the family," he said. Hogan said he has not yet put a cost to the proposed plan. Making it work Shad Waters Jr. knows what it means to be addicted to drugs. More than a year ago he gave up that life after facing more than 30 years of prison time. Instead, "by the grace of God," he got three years of probation. "I knew I was doing wrong," he said.
Now, he and his father, Shad Waters Sr., are working in their Shiloh community to help young drug dealers find legitimate employment. Both men know the challenge of pulling a community together to fight a problem. Shad Waters Sr. said residents in his Shiloh neighborhood are aware of the open-air drug dealing on their streets but fear often prevents them from doing anything about it.
Giving someone a second chance can be a challenge, too. Cookie Mills knows the struggle a person can go through when they try to give up drug dealing for an honest living.
In recent weeks, Mills has been helping his two nephews find jobs. Both have felony convictions. One of the young men had been shot twice in the back at Pisgah View Apartments.
"That's a big part of the problem, getting off the streets," he said. "I tell all these guys you got to be real with me." He said many times, residents are reluctant to help because of fear. When told about the High Point initiative, Mills was hopeful that the plan could succeed in Asheville.
"We could get people to step up and get involved," he said. "I would love to be involved with that program."
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