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The High Point Strategy: Cure for Wilmington's Drug Problem

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John Connolly
John Connolly, a lifelong resident of Wilmington, graduated from the Charter School of Wilmington in 2013. He is now attending the University of Virginia on a Jefferson Scholarship and is an Opinion Columnist for The Cavalier Daily, where this piece first ran.

The journey begins by the Delaware Art Museum, just by Rockford Park, and one glance at the surrounding homes reveals an area replete with wealth. It continues through the Highlands neighborhood, past Tower Hill School, where some of Wilmington’s most privileged attend, and on to Pennsylvania Avenue, which takes one towards downtown Wilmington, until, after only a quarter mile, the journey continues with a right turn on North DuPont Street, which, after traveling just 1000 feet, yields a neighborhood entirely different from the one in which the trip began.

This is the wrong side of the tracks. In just five short minutes, the Rockford Park area yields to the crime-filled Hilltop neighborhood, areas less than a mile from one another, and yet, worlds apart. And so although Wilmington ostensibly thrives as a haven for high-powered corporations and lawyers, its ugly underside constantly looms. Wilmington, Delaware has a drug problem. The most recent data shows Delaware is fourth nationwide in cocaine-related treatment admissions and fifth in heroin-related treatment admissions. With drug use there is usually violent crime, and in 2009, Wilmington’s violent crime rate was a whopping 330.56% over the national average. And just this month, Parenting magazine ranked it as the single most dangerous city in the United States.

Naturally, the police and law enforcement officials in Wilmington have toiled endlessly to find remedies to this shocking problem, but they have been, thus far, remarkably unsuccessful. Strategies such as photo identification of potential criminals and lackluster youth initiatives have failed to significantly reduce crime. However, David Kennedy, a criminologist at John Jay College, proposes a remedy to urban drug problems in the form of his “High Point strategy,”- a method in which police call drug dealers into the station for a meeting with officers, family members of the accused, and community leaders, expressing disappointment but also offering help and a second chance, provided that they cease all dealing.

This strategy proved a success in High Point, North Carolina and Providence, Rhode Island, cities of similar size to Wilmington, and cities similarly plagued by crippling drug problems. Traditional methods of policing drug crime in Wilmington have failed spectacularly, and so the Wilmington Police department should consider adopting the High Point strategy as a method of eliminating drug-related crime in the city.

Wilmington’s drug and crime problems are undoubtedly serious. Per capita, Wilmington is one of the nation’s worst cities in terms of drug-related crime, and traditional policing methods have failed, opening the door for new and innovative replacement strategies. According to the National Drug Intelligence Center, drugs are “distributed and abused increasingly in Delaware.” Additionally, Wilmington held the third-highest violent crime rate among similarly sized cities in 2009 and 2010. These grave problems are not isolated, but rather, are linked by the even more troubling issue of overt drug markets. David Kennedy and Sue-Lin Wong, in a report for the Department of Justice, attribute many well-known urban problems to the presence of these overt drug markets, as opposed to the presence of the drugs themselves.

While individual drug abuse obviously affects the user, overt drug markets directly engender more complicated problems such as increased crime, reduced property values, unusable or unsafe public places, and simpler entrance into criminality for youths (http://www.cops.usdoj.gov/files/RIC/ publications/e08097226-HighPoint.pdf). A simple drive through one of Wilmington’s poorest neighborhoods, such as Hilltop, will reveal the veracity of their argument, namely, that the neighborhood broke under the unbearable burden of an overt drug market.

James Rodgers, a resident of South Clayton Street in Hilltop, identified what he believes to be the root of Wilmington’s crime problems: policing.

“No, I don’t think the police do a good job,” he stated. “Instead of trying to engage the community, they just run around suspicious of everybody. They don’t know what they’re doing… they’re not making it better.” Indeed, the effectiveness of the strategies employed by the Wilmington Police Department is called into question by rising crime rates.

In 2002, for instance, the Wilmington Police created squads to “take pictures of at least 200 people who were not arrested for any crime” so as to “create a database of potential suspects to investigate future crimes.” However, despite the excitement surrounding this new strategy (and all Constitutional issues aside, for the strategy’s legality was extensively debated), it simply failed to achieve any measurable impact whatsoever. In fact, between 2002 and 2003, Wilmington’s violent crime rate actually rose.

Unfortunately, the relationship between the police and the community is one of strife and mistrust. According to The Economist, police come to be seen as “people who take sons, brothers and fathers away while the neighborhood remains unchanged.” And it is shockingly easy to see the insightfulness of The Economist’s observation simply while walking around Hilltop. The streets themselves are dirty and crumbling, while the rowhomes lining the sidewalks decay and rot, complete with boarded windows and unkempt lawns strewn with trash. During the course of the interview with Rodgers, two police cars whipped by to looks of mistrust and skepticism from the many residents who frequent their small porches in the early afternoon. It was, to be sure, a sad sight. Wilmington’s drug problem is indeed a grave one, and strategies to control the problem have not been effective. But this sobering reality offers one silver lining, one golden opportunity, namely that the Wilmington police may depart from the norm, and implement innovative strategies to deal with drug crime.

The High Point strategy is a sound method of eliminating overt drug markets. Also called drug-market intervention (DMI), the strategy has since spread to more than 30 cities in the United States. The strategy involves police surveillance of drug markets, mobilization of community leaders into an alliance with police officers, identification of drug dealers, undercover investigation of the dealers, contact with the offender’s family to invite them to an intervention, and finally, an official call-in, where the offending drug dealer is called into the police station and met not only by police officers, but by community leaders and family members, all of whom stress that the offending behavior will not be tolerated. The interveners do, however, express mercy and understanding, professing that charges will not be pressed if the offender ceases dealing in under three days, and offer professional help and job counseling so as to push the offender towards the law-abiding side of society. The strategy, thus far, has proved a success.

High Point, North Carolina’s drug market was “shut down eight years ago”, and “it still has not reopened”, this because of the implementation of the eponymous strategy. The strategy has also been utilized successfully in Providence, Rhode Island, where Wanda Perry, a resident of Chad Brown, a previously drug-plagued housing project in the city, claims that because of the High Point strategy her project “changed a hell of a lot…you can actually sit outside (now).

It should be mentioned that disparate cities have developed disparate methods of dealing with crime, such as New York City’s efforts under Mayor Rudy Giuliani to dispel crime by simply increasing the volume of police officers and arrests. Giuliani’s efforts have been widely credited with creating a safer New York City, and critics of the High Point strategy often cite Giuliani as a counter-example to what Providence Police Lt. Dan Gannon once thought was nothing more than “hug a thug.” The dissenters would rather see increased police budgets, affording a greater amount of arrests and officer patrol time. These detractors forget that such strategies are extremely costly, as they involve huge increases in police officers hired and wages paid (since the officers work more), not to mention the costs associated with processing offenders in the criminal justice system. Wilmington is, like many cities, facing a budget crisis, and does not have the funds to employ such a strategy. Its police department thus must innovate, and consider smarter, and not simply more expensive, strategies. This should make the High Point Strategy all the more appealing.

Because of strategy’s prior successes and the specific cities in which it thrived (cities similar to Wilmington), coupled with the enthusiastic response of many community members, the Wilmington police should indeed adopt the High Point strategy. The strategy’s successes in Providence and High Point suggest its probable success in Wilmington, as the two are similar to Wilmington in terms of size (mid-sized cities), location (east coast), and demographics (largely African-American). Wilmington’s size particularly lends itself to a grassroots strategy, as it is thus easier for police to establish strong relations with a large portion of the city’s population. As high-profile criminologist David Kennedy and South Clayton Street resident James Rodgers both point out, relations between police and low-income communities are frayed, particularly in Wilmington, a place where Police Chief Michael Szczerba, up until 2011, when he contacted Providence police about their efforts, had “no interest whatsoever” in pursuing a High Point strategy that would potentially improve police-community relations.

This in a city with over triple the national average in per capita violent crime rate. This in a city where James Rodgers, a self-described “upstanding citizen of a very black neighborhood”, blames police for “not improving their relations with us…they’re out to get us” (Rodgers). This in a city that is the “primary transportation hub and distribution center for many of the drugs distributed and abused in Delaware.” These shocking testimonies support the claim that Wilmington’s drug problem is severe, and more than that, support the claim that something must be done.

The strategy worked in Providence. It worked in High Point. And it will work in Wilmington, as well. Focusing not simply on individual dealers, but rather on overt drug markets, the High Point strategy tackles the root of the problem that plagues poor neighborhoods around the country. Interestingly, drug usage is just as high in suburbia as in urban areas, but it is the presence of these overt drug markets that afflict these poor urban areas, sucking them into a vicious, back-breaking cycle of poverty and crime. Effectively tackling overt drug markets will clean up Wilmington’s streets, as it has in the similar cities of High Point and Providence, cities whose police departments were also initially skeptical of the strategy.

Years later, after these cities have cleaned up their projects, these same skeptics are the strategy’s biggest defenders. The strategy works. It not only effectively stops drug dealing, but creates upstanding citizens out of former drug-dealers, and it is embraced by citizens in the community. As testimonies from the Chad Brown project attest, the strategy helps drug dealers find real jobs, and allows model citizens to enjoy an increasingly elusive peace and happiness in their communities. So indeed, Wilmington does have a major drug problem. But with the High Point strategy, it is fixable so that one day, in the near future, the drive from Rockford Park to Hilltop is not one of decay, not one of urban blight, but one of redemption, renewal, and recovery.

References:

Chalmers, Mike. “Cities Rethink How to Combat Crime.” USA Today. 18 Oct. 2011. Web. 15 April 2012.

“Cleaning up the ‘Hood.” The Economist. 3 Mar. 2012. Web. 26 Mar. 2012.

“Delaware Drug Threat Assessment.” National Drug Intelligence Center. Mar. 2002. Web. 15 April  2012

Kennedy, David. “Drugs, Race, and Common Ground: Reflections on the High Point Intervention.” National Institute of Justice. 9 Mar. 2009. Web. 26 Mar. 2012.

Kennedy, David, and Sue-Lin Wong. The High Point Drug Market Intervention Strategy. United States Department of Justice. Jul. 2009. Web. 26 Mar. 2012.

Rodgers, James. Personal interview. 11 April 2012.

Staub, Andrew. “Wilmington Ranked Most Dangerous City on Crime Rate.” The News Journal. 22  Aug. 2012. Web. 3 Sep. 2012

Taylor, Adam. “Delaware Police Compile Photo Database of Future Suspects.” The News Journal. 25 Aug. 2002. Web. 26 Mar. 2012.

“Wilmington Crime Report (Delaware).” 2012. cityrating.com. Web. 15 April 2012.

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