SR editorial: Walking beats key to keeping our streets safe

Street Roots and its vendors witness and experience both legal policies and illegal activities that play out on the streets of Portland.

That’s why when law enforcement and community groups target one neighborhood or area of the city, we see first hand how it affects a geographical area or a population of people in another. When things flare up, or there is a heavy push by law enforcement to target a specific population such as drug dealers, drug users or homeless people, it sets off a chain reaction that often times comes with consequences.

For example, when law enforcement targets Old Town-Chinatown for drug dealing, the game simply shifts to the Pioneer Courthouse Square area. When Pioneer Courthouse Square becomes the target, dealers may move to Third and Fourth Avenues, and so on.

Unfortunately, what happens in this process is that other groups of people, those some consider the undeserving poor (panhandlers, drug users), and the deserving poor (Street Roots vendors, canvassers, etc.) are then affected. Businesses are almost always caught in the crossfire, hence, the Portland Business Alliance advocates for strict laws across the board to protect the interests it represents. Finding the balance is tricky business.

When these events are set into motion, the streets often become tense and unsafe. If you push dealers, users and aggressive panhandlers out of one area, once-stable street corners that have Street Roots vendors, canvassers and others suddenly become the target of the more aggressive population. These are the turf wars we see repeated throughout the city.

Recently, drug dealers have been targeting Street Roots vendors in the central core of the city, especially near Pioneer Courthouse Square. After two months of squeezing out the Old Town-Chinatown neighborhood through the newly created drug-impact areas, dealers are now moving their operations to a more densely populated area where Portlanders become the cover for drug transactions.

It’s impossible to staunch the flow of drugs into Portland or any other community in the United States with our reactionary policies. It’s impossible to slay the dragon with police sweeps of drug dealers that are equal parts political theater and squeaky wheel grease. It simply will not curtail the problem.

What’s the answer? In the long-term, it’s much more complicated and something the city with the current budget crisis simply doesn’t have the resources to achieve — outreach workers, economic development and other harm reduction models. In the short term, we believe it’s simple. Put more police officers on a walking beat, something Street Roots and other community groups have advocated for years as a proven means of keeping our streets safe.

This doesn’t mean more uniforms on bikes or Segways, which reinforce the distance, but officers actually engaged with the streets, top to bottom. Having police officers assigned to a walking beat in the downtown core would create a presence for which drug-dealers couldn’t hide from. Police officers would become better acquainted with business owners, neighbors and others living, working and surviving on the streets. Real relationships would be forged and together we could face the problem head on. Walking officers could also cut down on fuels consumption, carbon emissions, and even boost physical fitness opportunities among the ranks.

Chasing crime around this city doesn’t make us any safer. But we can fill the vacuum that attracts criminal activity with a positive presence that walks in our shoes.

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