Drugs and Basketball

Perception is everything. And that could not have been more obvious at Mayor Gabe Campana’s Town Hall meeting in the Sechler Community Room of City Hall last evening, April 28th, 2014. Evidently, the City Administration was expecting trouble. Three armed police officers were stationed around the perimeter of the room. But a young black father came with his baby to the meeting too. Symbolically, Williamsport is a divided city, one side expecting chaos, and the other, peaceful discussion of the issues.

The issues of race, class, poverty, illegal drugs and politics intersected when the mayor removed the basketball hoops from Memorial Park last week. The scheduled Town Hall meeting was guaranteed to be “standing room only” as social media was buzzing with wild speculations and rumors.

I’ve attended the mayor’s Town Hall meetings in the past. Most of the time, few African Americans attend, usually I would be the only black person in the room. But the removal of the basketball hoops (backboards and poles) for a second and final time was perceived to be punitive and racially insensitive. Hence, more black people would probably attend the meeting. Hence, the reason for the cops standing guard.

There was a lot of talk of community solidarity, personal responsibility, and family values. The mayor claimed that his reasons for the removal of the hoops was because of evidence of drug usage in the park, loud profanity, littering and the intimidating behavior of the young men playing B-ball. He said city parks are for families.

There’s a natural inclination to assume that the problem is a straight up racial issue. But, then you would have to explain the actions of a young, white mother of a 2-year old that said she used the park frequently and did not feel threatened. She was so angry that she started an online petition asking the mayor to put the hoops back. She delivered 179 names to the mayor during he meeting. She would have given him more printed petitions but her printer malfunctioned.

I found it interesting that no one asked about the surveillance cameras that cover the basketball court in Memorial Park. It is reasonable to expect the mere presence of the cameras to be a deterrence, but clearly that is not the case. If the cameras worked, then why didn’t police arrest the offenders instead of punishing everyone who uses the courts?

But the coup de grâce of the evening was Assistant Chief Tim Miller’s presentation. He played a few YouTube videos on a large screen for the audience. The videos were not surveillance camera footage, instead they were rap videos that were locally made. The song was gratuitously profane with the depiction of black gang members cooking crack on a kitchen stove, hanging out in the park to presumably to sell drugs, and waving imaginary guns in their hands. Miller claimed that there were 8 drug offenders identified in the videos. One observer in the audience, said the presentation was inflammatory and ultimately counterproductive.

The mayor said that it was his job to protect the families of Williamsport. He made statements comparing Flanagan Park, where Kevan Connelly was murdered in July 2012, to the current situation. He said that he was being proactive to prevent a murder in Memorial Park.

It appeared that a dividing line was being drawn between the city and criminals - who just happen to be young black men. The divide was being clearly defined; rural vs urban, young vs old, white vs black, and cops vs the community. But then, Assistant Chief Miller, mentioned the word “influx” and recalled the efforts of his father, Police Chief Bill Miller who died of cancer at age 53. He said that he did not want to end up like his father having accomplished nothing in fighting the war on drugs.

Miller said that the criminal justice system is broken. He said, “Cops are busting their butts everyday - and we are getting our butts whipped!” He said the Lycoming County jail is full. More incarceration is not the answer. He has another idea that has been proved successful in 18 cities across the nation. But it is going to be a hard sell. Not everyone is onboard with his idea. He wants to implement the High Point Initiative.

The High Point Drug Market Intervention Strategy was first applied in 2003 in High Point North Carolina. Police Chief James Fealy inherited a city that had “chronic and high level open, overt drug activity” and where traditional narcotics enforcement did not work. He enlisted the aid of various criminal justice experts including David Kennedy (then of Harvard University). The plan was simply to collect intel on low level drug dealers, prepare warrants to send them prison for a long time (but not sign the warrants), and to have an intervention session to give the young offender an opportunity to turn his life around.

Not everybody was convinced the plan would work. Many High Point officers thought the “Hug-a-Thug” concept was too lenient and preferred to do things the tried-and-true way - “Lock ‘em up!” But Fealy managed to get the program started. A key component in his plan was enlisting the help of the “influentials”; individuals that cared about the offenders.

Surprisingly, the plan worked, drug related crime dropped 50% and remained low years later. The once crime ridden neighborhoods were transformed literally overnight. Informants were instructed to go to the targeted areas and buy drugs but they were unsuccessful. The overt drug markets, and the associated crimes, dried up substantially.

Assistant Chief Miller wants to implement a similar plan here in Williamsport, but he has fierce opposition to his plan. Law enforcement traditionalists want to continue doing what they have always been doing while expecting better results. It remains to be seen if he can sell the concept to his boss, other members of law enforcement, social services and educational providers and the community at-large. He formed the group, Team Williamsport to achieve this goal.

Given the history, racial and cultural bias of Williamsport, Assistant Chief Miller’s task is not going to be easy. But perception is everything.

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