Wednesday, December 11, 2002

Drug-related loitering hit

Citizens tell council they want action

By Gregory Korte
The Cincinnati Enquirer

When Cincinnati City Council solicited public input on a proposed drug-loitering law Tuesday, few of the three dozen people who came talked about the law itself.

Instead, council members heard story after story - some quite personal - about residents' experiences with drug dealers, drug users and drug violence.

And for the most part, City Council members did something unusual, too: They sat quietly and listened.

Cincinnati Councilman David Pepper proposes a misdemeanor anti-loitering ordinance to attack open-air drug dealing.

The ordinance would:
• Ban public loitering that exhibits the "manifest intent" to engage in drug dealing, as demonstrated by a combination of clear acts, such as regularly stopping cars or persons, concealing items from public view, fleeing upon viewing a police officer, operating as a police spotter and other indications of drug dealing activity.
• Require that before any arrest, officers ask suspects to explain the activity.

Charlotte Wethington told the story of her 23-year-old son, Casey, who died of a drug overdose in August.

"As a mom, this is going to be a real tough Christmas for us," she said, crying. "Our life is forever changed. Forever. And it's all because my son was allowed to buy drugs on the streets of the city of Cincinnati."

Gina Strohm of Indian Hill showed City Council the bullets she pulled out of Over-the-Rhine properties her father owns.

"I want to know why you guys, if you've been listening to this for so long, haven't done something more," she admonished the council members. "I'm appalled by the inaction. It's taken over, and you know it."

Hal McKinney brought a bag of garbage to show the litter drug dealers had left in Northside. "They're not just violating drug laws. They're violating every law," he said.

Amos Robinson spoke of his observation in College Hill. "I've watched in College Hill over the summer. The young boys get out of school, and they go immediately into drug training. They don't get a summer job."

And on and on.

Councilman David Pepper said he called for the hearing to hear directly from residents about the "open-air drug markets" found in many inner-city neighborhoods.

Mr. Pepper said he'll take that input into account as he crafts an ordinance that would outlaw loitering "with the purpose of engaging in drug-related activity."

The drug-loitering law would allow police to arrest drug dealers even if they can't prove drugs changed hands.

Under the law, activity like stopping cars, exchanging money and small packages, and running at the sight of police - taken together - would be enough reason for police officers to ask suspects to explain their activity.

Mr. Pepper said similar laws have been upheld elsewhere. But civil rights activists worry that innocent young men - especially blacks - may get caught up in the dragnet.

Sam Nellom, president of the Bond Hill Community Council, said he supported the law.

But he also noted, "Some of them are not drug dealers, but people who have nothing else to do - young people, mainly. And we need to protect their right to gather."

Kenneth Lawson, a criminal defense lawyer who has represented groups suing the city for racial profiling, said the law would give police officers an excuse to harass anyone standing on a corner.

"The law, like all these other ones that come out of City Council in the name of fighting drugs, has a serious impact on African-Americans and African-American males," he said in an interview.

"We realize there are a lot of people out there dealing drugs, but there are a lot of people standing on the corner on a hot summer night just because it's too hot to sleep inside."

Police Chief Tom Streicher sat through the nearly two-hour meeting Monday and listened throughout. He said he wouldn't take a position on the proposal, but promised that any law passed by council would be "aggressively enforced."


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