Clear74° WeatherClear74° Weather

Ocala tries to save a neighborhood by cutting deals with drug dealers

OCALA

James Brown sat in the front row of a police auditorium.

On a table in front of him was an arrest warrant.

A few rows behind him sat his wife. His body was tense. One nervous knee bounced up and down.

Ocala police Sgt. Corey Taylor cued the video.

There on the screen the whole room could see a bald man with a beard and glasses — indisputably James Brown — selling $20 worth of crack cocaine to an undercover cop.

Brown shifted in his seat. He put his hand over his face. He shook his head in regret. He could feel his wife's embarrassment from behind him.

A few days before, Sgt. Taylor had knocked on Brown's door and handed him a letter signed by the police chief.

I know that you are involved in selling drugs on the street. … You are invited to a meeting Monday, November 9, 2009 at 6:30 p.m. at the Ocala Police Department. … You will not be arrested. This is not a trick.

It's a crime-fighting strategy that police hope will do what no other program has succeeded in doing: end drug crime in one of west Ocala's most troubled neighborhoods.

If Brown changed his life, police wouldn't serve the arrest warrant staring at him from the table. But if he went back to drug dealing, this second chance would vanish and the next person to see this video would be a judge.

A parade of community leaders urged Brown and five other dealers seated next to him to make the right choice. Brown listened and wrote it all down as if he were afraid he'd miss some key piece of information.

A concrete mason by trade, Brown had been out of work and struggling for cash. He wanted to be a good husband to his wife of five years, a good father to his 13-year-old girl. He felt ready for this.

When the meeting ended, Brown rose, apologized to his wife and walked out the door, his notebook in hand.

What Brown did next could determine the future of a neighborhood. Or so Sgt. Taylor hoped.

• • •

Drug busts never gave Corey Taylor much satisfaction.

While his undercover operations garnered the praise of department leaders, Taylor could see that his church friends, neighbors and family didn't recognize much of a difference. There was always someone ready to take the place of the dealers Taylor arrested.

"Despite all these things I was doing that were so wonderful," he said, "it didn't effect change. … The immune system of the community wasn't strong enough to repel this problem."

In late 2007, one of Taylor's colleagues mentioned an out-of-the-box approach to combat street dealing called "Drug Market Intervention," which had been developed by a nationally recognized criminologist in New York City. Taylor, who has ambitions to be a chief of police, made some calls and squeezed into a training session with the police in High Point, N.C., where the program was first employed.

Officers in North Carolina boasted of the program's successes — a 20 percent drop in violent crime citywide, the virtual disappearance of open-air drug activity and an unprecedented partnership between police and community. Twenty-five other agencies had adopted it.

The basic recipe was simple: take dealers off the streets by sending them to prison or persuading them to change their lives; show residents that their complaints will be taken seriously and handled swiftly; and nurture an environment where neighbors are unwilling to relinquish their drug-free streets.

Taylor knew just the place to try it out, a testing ground not far from where he grew up.

• • •

Second Chance is a neighborhood where strangers know they can drive in with a fistful of cash and drive out with a handful of drugs.

It's a place where old farmhouses share blocks with overgrown lots and boarded up homes, where men on bikes appear in asphalt roadways, then vanish. Convenience stores owned by outsiders do a bustling business. No one trusts the cops.

Doris Roberts, 71, denies ever having a problem in more than 30 years here. But a sign posted to the side of her white-painted wood-framed home warns the property is "protected by Smith & Wesson."

Her son, 46, steps to the doorway and yells his own opinion:

"This is a drug-infested area!" he shouts, declining to give his name. He shrugs when asked about the Police Department's Second Chance initiative.

"There ain't no second chance around here," he yells.

The nickname "Second Chance" appears to date back to 1981 when city officials purchased an eighth of an acre near the heart of the neighborhood with the hope they could interrupt drug sales by creating a park for children. They put up a basketball net and installed a bouncy toy for kids.

It's not clear how long that lasted or whether it offered even a short-term remedy. But illegal activity again overtook the corner, police say. Recreational equipment fell into disrepair. Today, no one but police and parks folks really remember that this place ever had such a hopeful name.

Taylor drives through the neighborhood daily and swears it looks cleaner, but he knows that in order for this new program to work, families like Roberts' have to notice a difference.

The day after the Nov. 9 meeting, the city cleared the park, washed the forgotten concrete court, replaced the basketball net and ordered a swing set.

Everything else depends on getting rid of the dealers.

• • •

Taylor's cell phone rings as he sits down to lunch.

"Hey," the sergeant says. "What's up, man?"

It's Brown, who once served prison time on a burglary charge and has never trusted a police officer. Now he has Taylor on speed dial.

Brown and wife Tanecia Jones, 32, signed up for GED classes thanks to the intervention services offered at the meeting.

Though Brown is now working a steady contracting job, he hopes the sergeant's ties to a contractor buddy might help him land a better-paying position — something that might go further toward paying off the rent and power bills.

None of the other five drug dealers has been as diligent about keeping in touch as Brown has.

One was already rearrested, found in possession of marijuana after being accused of trying to break into a locked bill-changing machine at a carwash. Another dealer agreed to turn herself in on a pre-existing warrant after Taylor promised to ask a judge to transfer her from jail into a drug treatment program.

Results from High Point suggest that what happens to dealers who are given a second chance has little to do with whether police achieve their goals of eliminating drug activity from the targeted community.

High Point's assistant police chief, Marty Sumner, said that out of 75 drug dealers in four communities who have been offered a second chance, about 25 percent committed new offenses. He estimates that only one or two per neighborhood have genuinely turned their lives around.

More important is building trust with law-abiding residents and chipping away at apathy built over years due to police missteps and misunderstanding.

"That one common thing between the cops and the neighbors," Sumner said, "is that they all want it to be safe."

• • •

It's a Friday morning and 25-year-old Marie Hartwell stands before a classroom of 40 students at Howard Middle School, taking names for a holiday gift swap.

In some ways, Hartwell represents Taylor's biggest challenge.

Born and raised here, she was the first woman from her family to graduate from high school without first becoming pregnant. She has three brothers — one in prison, one just released from prison and one in jail.

Though Hartwell wants a safe neighborhood, she believes sometimes good people turn bad with good reason. Her oldest brother's drug dealing started when he saw it could help his mother put food on the table.

Taylor is one of the good guys, Hartwell says.

She has listened to Taylor talk about Second Chance (and it was the first time she heard the name). She has flipped through the pamphlet he handed out to residents. She loved the idea of police helping the dealers find jobs, education and drug treatment.

Still, she has her doubts.

It will take extraordinary measures to overcome the kind of distrust of police that once prompted her 4-year-old to clutch Mom's leg when she spied a uniformed officer at a festival.

"It's easy to say let's have a community event and everything is all shiny and new," Hartwell said. "But who are you reaching? Where is that connection?"

She might be it. Next time, she told Taylor, let me hand out the pamphlets.

Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at rcatalanello@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3383.

Ocala tries to save a neighborhood by cutting deals with drug dealers 12/20/09 [Last modified: Sunday, December 20, 2009 11:56pm]

© 2014 Tampa Bay Times

    

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

Loading...