Reclaiming 'The Corner'
Neighbors, police, and prosecutors applaud the 'Drug Market Intervention' at 12th and Chicon
By midsummer 2012 Lauren Bard was at her wits' end.
Roughly eight years before, she'd bought a trio of small Victorian-era cottages lined up along Salina Street, just a block from the intersection of East 12th and Chicon, ground zero for a decades-old open-air drug market and the criminal behavior associated with a mall for addicts – including thefts, assaults, and prostitution.
But action at The Corner has never entirely confined itself to that specific intersection, and has long spilled over into the surrounding neighborhoods – onto New York Avenue to the south, Poquito and Alamo Streets to the east, East 14th to the north, and, intensely, west onto Salina Street. For years Bard dealt with the crime, which would wax and wane, but never disappear – and at times greatly intensify.
By the middle of 2012 it was difficult even to drive a car down Salina without having to slow to a near halt to avoid hitting drug dealers and prostitutes who would run the block – back and forth along the alley that parallels 12th Street, and that butts against the third of Bard's three houses, and up and down Salina – making deals and looking for johns. One of Bard's tenants, a relative, tried to be proactive, calling the Austin Police Department every time he saw a deal (or worse) going down, but to no apparent avail. Instead, the dealers somehow figured out who was making a fuss and began to threaten and harass him. Much of it was "just crazy talk from cracked-out people," Bard recalls, but there was more than just bluster at times – including the time when someone fired a gun through his home's kitchen window, killing the toaster oven. He moved out.
Bard did everything she could think of to secure the property and her tenants – by becoming a squeaky wheel with the APD, regularly pleading for more visible patrols (or even just a cop parked on Salina, like a mini, mobile police substation), and ultimately by erecting a high-security fence around two of her houses. The charm of the Victorian structures she so loved was quickly subsumed by the glinting metal fence. She'd had enough.
Now, just more than a year later, Bard is far more sanguine. The fencing still stands, but the dealers are gone; the once trash-strewn alley and vacant lot next door to her property are mostly clean – the lot not only has a "for sale" sign on it, but grass is also creeping through the cracks where once so many feet traveled that nothing would dare grow. To the east, on The Corner, there is a similar silence that traces itself down New York, and up to 14th. The open-air market has been shut down, and the crime it attracted has, largely, gone with it.
And that's how neighbors, including Bard, would like to see things remain – and if the APD, Travis County District Attorney's office, and other local stakeholders have anything to say about it, that is how it will remain. Indeed, the marked drop in crime around The Corner appears directly attributable to a yearlong project known as a "Drug Market Intervention" – a strategy through which police and prosecutors partner with neighbors and service providers to shut down the open-air dealing and crime while simultaneously giving low-level dealers and users a chance to avoid jail and to get off the streets for good – into treatment, housing, school, or even a job.
The initial push has been so successful, police and prosecutors agree, that they've devised a follow-up plan that they hope will not only ensure the open-air market around 12th and Chicon remains permanently shuttered but will also ring in a new era of cooperation between police and residents that will help to reshape Austin's most notorious intersection.
DMI is a radically new approach to policing, a strategy more about nuance and community cooperation than about sweeps and cuffs.
In a nutshell, it goes like this: Police identify the main players in the open-air drug market. For those among the group who are truly bad actors – dub them the "A Group," particularly chronic criminals with a violent streak – police build cases as they normally would, and prosecutors throw the book at them. But for the lower-level players, "B Group" offenders – young dealers who are endlessly replaceable, or users who prostitute or burgle for money to stay high – police surveil and build strong cases, but then stop short of filing them.
Instead, those people are called to a meeting with police, neighbors, faith leaders, and social service providers, and given notice that they are being granted a second chance: Get off the street and into services, if so desired – housing or counseling, education or employment – or go to prison. If these folks stay off the street, the cases that police and prosecutors have developed will disappear; if they're caught again – on The Corner, or any corner – every case against them will be filed and they will be fully prosecuted.
So it has gone at 12th and Chicon. Starting last fall, APD undercover narcotics investigators worked for months, surveilling dealers and making controlled buys. They captured video and stills of the dealers and users at work. In all, they made cases against 49 persons, including 19 A Group offenders, who this spring were rounded up and taken straight to jail. For the 30 in the B Group, there would be a second chance, they were told in a letter delivered to each, a message reiterated during the May 7 call-in, where roughly a dozen offenders gathered with family or friends amid neighbors, prosecutors, police, and service providers who told them what help would be offered and explained what would be expected in return.
As has happened in every city that has tried DMI and followed its precise formula, the DMI efforts around The Corner appear to be paying off: Of the 30 B Group individuals, just three have been rearrested for dealing drugs in Austin; as a result, those individuals have been moved to the A Group for prosecution. (Thus far, eight members of the A Group have been sent to prison, one received 10 years probation, and another was subject to a civil commitment. Cases against the remaining 12 are pending.)
Importantly, APD statistics show a dramatic decline in the number of drug and prostitution offenses occurring in the DMI zone – a nine-square-block area with The Corner at its center – subsequent to the arrests and call-in. From May 7 through Aug. 26, there were a total of just 33 drug and prostitution offenses reported, or witnessed, by police; during the same time period in 2012, police responded to 75 such offenses. (In the months just preceding the call-in, the numbers were even higher, with 79 drug and prostitution offenses reported between Jan. 1 and May 6, 2013.)
'We Are Here'
When we first reported on the open-air drug market around East 12th and Chicon, and the nascent plan to institute DMI there (see "Working 'The Corner,'" July 13, 2012), neighbors expressed frustration at what they collectively considered institutional tolerance for lawbreaking in the heart of Central East Austin. Longtime neighbor Scottie Ivory said that she had seen decades of round-'em-up style police raids that had done nothing to change the dynamic on the streets – aside from convincing neighbors that the police might too be their enemy. Some 10 months later, Ivory was among those who gathered on May 7 to speak to the B Group offenders, who had come to learn more about their second chance. The neighborhood was once a proud and self-sustaining African-American neighborhood that became crippled by drug use and crime – but it could again change, and she intends to be a part of the resurrection, she told the crowd of some 100 people. "I've been a part of the past, I am part of the present, and I will be part of the future" of the neighborhood, she told them.
The future, it seems, is now. The Corner and the surrounding streets are quiet – really quiet. It nearly echoes, one longtime neighbor recently observed. That's exactly what APD Commander Fred Fletcher likes to hear and, along with his crew of officers and investigators, prosecutors and social service providers, that's how he'd like things to stay – at least when it comes to crime. With that goal, he's crafted a follow-up plan that would keep DMI going, in perpetuity, along the streets and alleys within the nine blocks surrounding The Corner. Fletcher was tapped last fall to lead policing efforts over a large swath of East Austin, including the historic Central East core that includes East 12th. He's gregarious and indefatigable, and DMI is exactly the kind of policing that he says he'd like to see more of: community policing that builds lasting relationships and partnerships in crime-fighting. And so, with the enthusiastic backing of Chief Art Acevedo and D.A. Rosemary Lehmberg (who says she has been impressed by how wholeheartedly the APD has embraced DMI, a strategy to which she first committed in early 2012), Fletcher and a crew of officers last week traversed the DMI zone knocking on doors and talking to neighbors about the "We Are Here" plan that Fletcher has designed to keep The Corner and its neighborhood clean and quiet.
Under the plan, all drug offenders arrested within the DMI zone will be vetted for inclusion in a sort of rolling B Group. Those who are deemed eligible – first offenders or addicts, for example – would be given the opportunity for change extended this spring to the 30 initial group members. The D.A.'s office will maintain a prosecutor assigned to handle all DMI cases (as it stands, the DMI work is being handled by prosecutor Jason English, the office's Downtown community prosecutor who handles quality-of-life crimes, and overseen by Dayna Blazey, the office's director of special prosecutions, and within existing budget resources), and Fletcher will tap a detective within his command to serve as a single point of contact for all DMI cases and issues. All drug arrests that occur within the DMI zone will be routed through these individuals (and through designated social services and community contacts).
Additionally, Fletcher says he's designated $20,000 of his overtime budget for specific operations in the area (also from existing resources, and likely the amount he'd use in the area regardless) – including undercover and community policing operations – and says that APD will pursue funding to place High Activity Local Observation (HALO) cameras in the 12th and Chicon area. The cameras are the most controversial part of the plan; they're long favored by some neighbors and not so by others (including many who live not in the immediate area but in the larger neighborhood).
Fletcher is convinced that the open-air drug dealing in the zone is finished for good. He says the "We Are Here" plan is designed not only to make sure that remains true, but also to further strengthen the community relationships that have blossomed over the last year as the initial DMI work was happening. The "multigenerational residents" – like Ivory – "are probably the biggest inspiration for the follow-up plan," he said, because these neighbors over the decades have seen wavering commitment from APD, and the negative effects of strong-arm sting operations that may reduce drug-market activity for a few months, only to see it soon return. "They are the most skeptical of police commitment" to keeping the area clean, he said. Lehmberg agrees that has been the case, but says she too is committed to seeing that the success of DMI continues, allowing it "to do what the program is intended to do, remove the bad influences, and then you can have the core community take it back and rebuild."
So far, the success of DMI has been multilayered, Fletcher says. There is the plainly obvious elimination of drug dealing and the associated crime from the streets, corners, and alleys, but there are also the less outwardly apparent effects – namely the positive relationships being built within the community, and, importantly, between neighbors, police, and prosecutors. Take, for example, the hand-addressed envelope that Fletcher found recently in his office inbox. Inside was a typed letter with a tip for police about a man meeting a certain description, trolling the neighborhood in a particular vehicle during certain hours of the day; the man, it seemed clear, was a dealer. Fletcher sent the letter to his Metro Tactical officers; within four hours the man was arrested.
Indeed, the number of tips from neighbors has increased dramatically since the DMI efforts have begun, Fletcher says – clear evidence, he says, that the level of trust and partnership with police has increased. "The number of anonymous tips" as well as named tips, "continues to escalate," he says. "To me that's the real success: building partnerships of trust and real teamwork." It's evidence that the community believes that if they share "information with us we're going to act on it."
For her part, Bard is optimistic. Like many others, she's seen crime near The Corner come and go, but she's encouraged by Fletcher's enthusiasm and said she feels, for the first time, that her concerns are actually being heard. The progress she sees in the area is something "I was agitating for for years and years," she said. But she felt as though her concerns were often met with "pat-on-the-head, lip-service treatment" from the APD, which didn't seem to have the will, or resources, to target the area. Now, she says, things are dramatically better. Although she remains skeptical about whether the changes will hold, she's far more inclined to believe they might.
Ultimately, says Fletcher, this is the point of DMI: to return The Corner to the neighborhood. "Once we've forgotten all about 12th and Chicon being an open-air drug market, these relationships and trust should still exist."