The Sarasota Police Department is trying a new approach to eliminate the open-air markets in the Newtown neighborhood — and, eventually, lower crime rates citywide. One of the most significant changes? Police won’t be arresting some known offenders.
That new approach is known as the High Point Initiative, named after its success in the town of High Point, N.C. Nearly a decade after High Point first implemented the initiative, SPD is trying to replicate that success locally.
Lt. Pat Ledwith described the initiative as a two-pronged approach. The first prong is standard operating procedure — aggressive prosecution of serious offenders in the drug markets. About 35 repeat sellers were arrested at the beginning of June.
The second part is more novel: nonviolent, infrequent offenders can avoid prosecution. Instead, working with the community, the police will offer these individuals rehabilitation opportunities to prevent further criminal activity. If they’re caught breaking the law again, the original charges can still be filed, but the SPD is looking past arrests as the first option.
“We’re bringing in social services to try to get them redirected in a more positive direction, try to help them with job skills, life skills in general, addiction skills,” Ledwith said. “We’re trying to break the cycle.”
Down the road, this is designed to lead to a decrease in other offenses — particularly violent crimes, which can stem from the drug trade.
“People are stealing to support a habit, or some of our violent crime is offender on offender,” Ledwith said. “If there are no more open drug markets, that takes a hit.”
Six people were targeted for the first round of deferred prosecution. All six appeared at an Aug. 27 community meeting, and Ledwith was happy with the proceedings. He said a group of speakers from the affected community were present to talk with the offenders. Educational-and-employment service providers, including Sarasota County Technical Institute and Sun Coast Workforce, were also present.
The attentiveness the six offenders showed encouraged Ledwith; he said they had all spoken with the service providers after the meeting. Mentors will monitor the progress of the people who were called in. Still, he said, the offenders will determine how well it works out for them.
Visiting the source
High Point began the drug market intervention initiative in May 2004. David Kennedy, then a Harvard professor, teamed with local authorities to formulate a new approach to tackling the city’s open drug markets.
Ledwith downplayed the immediate results Sarasota might see, but High Point Police Chief Marty Sumner said the effects were evident after the first call-in.
“The next day, there were no dealers out,” Sumner said. “There was a 75% reduction in violence in the first 50 days.”
In the first neighborhood the initiative was tested in, violent crime had fallen 57% five years later. Violent crime decreased 20% citywide as the effort spread to new neighborhoods. Sumner said there were few bumps in the road.
“Getting the community commitment was way easier than I thought, because they were very motivated to make the change,” Sumner said. “The biggest challenge is to get a committed leader to say, ‘We’re going to do something about this.’”
Cities seeking to implement the initiative can visit High Point to get a first-hand lesson. Sumner said some cities would send just one person to feel out whether the initiative was right for them. Sarasota, on the other hand, was committed; a team of governmental, police and community leaders visited in fall 2012 to be trained.
“I thought they had an excellent chance of replicating it when they got back,” Sumner said.
Changes for communities, police
A less-quantifiable, long-term goal of the program is to create a better relationship between officers and the communities they police. By acknowledging the difference between individual offenders, Ledwith said people would see the police aren’t just out to make arrests.
City Manager Tom Barwin said a decrease in crime, paired with the education and employment opportunities the initiative offers, would eventually lead to a revitalization of areas such as Newtown.
Barwin said participants in drug markets needed to be offered a better economic opportunity elsewhere.
“The whole system of illicit drugs is an economic system,” Barwin said. “If we’re going to get away from the negative impacts of illegal drugs, we’ve got to strengthen the legitimate economy.”
In High Point, Sumner said, struggling neighborhoods saw increased development after drug markets were shut down.
“We found the city put new housing stock in, got a Boys and Girls Club, got a community center,” Sumner said. “A lot of things that healthy neighborhoods have, they’ll never be able to be fully realized if you don’t do this first.”
There was some reluctance to the new strategy among the police force, Ledwith said, due to a perceived leniency. After seeing the department is still focused on prosecuting serious offenders, he said officers are beginning to buy in for now.
“The officers are looking at the fact that we’re still arresting people; people are still going to jail,” Ledwith said. “I think most of them are willing to give it a chance.”
POINT OF EMPHASIS
The Sarasota Police Department is trying to replicate the success High Point, N.C., had in breaking up drug markets. Here’s a look at how High Point fared, and how Sarasota compares.
75% — Decrease in violent crime in High Point’s West End neighborhood 100 days after initiative began
57% — Decrease in violent crime in West End four years after initiative began
25% — Decrease in drug-related crime in West End four years after initiative began
20% — Decrease in violent crime in High Point citywide 2 years after initiative began
90,522 — High Point’s population when initiative began
867 — Violent crimes in High Point the year initiative began
52,517 — Sarasota’s population in 2012
425 — Violent crimes in Sarasota in 2012