Drug war? Fight 'disruptive property' owners first

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It's a pretty sad commentary when news that Pittsburgh police have successfully concluded a 10-month-long investigation with 38 arrests elicits little more than a close-lipped smile and a "We'll see."

But that sums up how most of my neighbors and I reacted to last Monday's drug-sweep announcement.

Well, I also admit to a brief and unsatisfying moment of "I told you so." In an October 2011 column imploring readers not to give to the men begging along our main North Side streets, I wrote that our community knew many of them were dealers, and begging was just a cover for dealing drugs.

Sure enough, several of those "beggars" starred in the 38 mug shots published last Monday. Most of those arrested are low-level dealers and junkies. They are pitiable -- destructive, but pitiable.

And their temporary removal from our neighborhoods isn't -- in the short term -- going to make much difference.

Which is not to demean the police bureau's patient, courageous, thorough work. I could not do what they do, and most days I remember to thank God for them and pray for their safety.

Perhaps many officers struggle with the same weariness we citizens feel about the drug war's revolving door. They slog through investigations -- this one in response to myriad citizen tips and complaints -- and no sooner are the no-goodniks arrested than many are back out on the street.

With overcrowded prisons and clogged courts, "there's a lot of cases with small quantities [of drugs] where we write them a ticket and let them go," said Lt. Daniel Herrmann, the city's acting commander of narcotics and vice. "That's how bad it is."

In the short term, the same destructive people continue to harm our community.

In the long term, we should declare the drug war lost. It's a failure, just like Prohibition. If drugs weren't illegal, the black market would collapse and the accompanying violence would disappear. The government could even tax drugs the way it does cigarettes and booze.

But in the midterm, Pittsburgh has two important tools at its disposal that could contain the blight that comes with drugs -- if officials and citizens worked a bit harder at wielding these tools together.

For years we've been hearing at community meetings that the owners of "nuisance" or "disruptive" properties can be fined after a certain number of citations occur. And for years we've watched these problem houses and wondered when someone would finally lower the boom.

It turns out it's not as simple as advertised.

It turns out there are two separate tracks in these situations: The city's Department of Public Safety compiles and monitors a "disruptive" property list, while the Allegheny County district attorney's office addresses "nuisance" properties.

The long list of violations of city and state laws that will put an address on the "disruptive property" list ranges from uncut weeds to dealing drugs. Any three infractions in a 180-day period should result in a property landing on the list.

Should. It seems citizen activism both helps the list to grow and ensures additional incidents get reported. This is key, because once a property makes the list, the owner can be charged for the cost of all public safety services required at that address.

The county's nuisance list focuses on properties where the state's drug laws are violated and can culminate in "expedited evictions."

City and county staffers work cooperatively to keep lists and information current. They urge citizens to stay alert and report every possible infraction.

"We take back our streets one house at a time," assistant district attorney Kevin McCarthy said. "Until the property owner or landlord feels the pain, he won't care."

But some incidents fall through the cracks. Recently there were two simultaneous drug overdoses at a nearby house that's on at least one of the official lists. Several squad cars and ambulances responded, but no report was written -- until the next day, when a community council member threw a fit, by phone, to city Councilwoman Darlene Harris and then on a conference call with Zone 1 police.

"Most [officers] will defer to medics to write the report" on an overdose, Lt. Herrmann explained.

The problem, though, is that medics' reports don't go to the city's disruptive property committee. Until this unhelpful policy is changed, neighbors who witness such events should -- carefully -- request a police report.

The point is to make the price of crime too high to pay -- to force the deadbeats out.

"They'll just take their problems somewhere else," Lt. Herrmann pointed out. "Didn't England try that with Australia?"

He's right. We're addressing the symptoms and results, not the source. Which, to bring this full circle, is why you generous souls should give your money to the agencies, shelters and churches that try to heal what's broken, and not to the broken people who are destroying our streets.

ruthanndailey

Ruth Ann Dailey: ruthanndailey@hotmail.com


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