West Atlanta neighborhood declared off limits to drug dealers in federal program

Credit: Willoughby Mariano

Credit: Willoughby Mariano

Beneath the stained glass windows of Lindsay Street Baptist Church, Rev. Anthony Motley sent a message of love to 14 suspected drug dealers.

“We simply want to welcome you,” Motley said before leading a prayer. “The church of Jesus Christ is in the forgiving business, the second chance business.”

Not all of the accused were in the mood to bow their heads. They were in church because federal prosecutors had hand-delivered them letters saying that they had proof that each of them sold heroin in an Atlanta’s English Avenue neighborhood. The community, just west of the Falcons stadium, is known as the region’s hub for heroin dealing.

If they showed up to the Tuesday evening meeting, they would get one last chance to stop. If they didn’t stop, they were going to jail.

“We want to let you know, now and forever, selling dope, street crime, and violence is no longer tolerated in this neighborhood,” said Atlanta’s acting U.S. Attorney John Horn.

This warning is essential to what’s known as the Drug Market Initiative, a program first used in High Point, N. C. and followed in other cities such as Rockford, Ill.; Nashville, Tenn., and Seattle, Wash. The Atlanta effort was launched last year by then- Atlanta U.S. Attorney Sally Yates, who is now the nation’s Deputy Attorney General.

I reported on this approach years ago as a crime reporter who wrote a blog about homicides. The strategy become renown in criminology circles for drastically reducing street violence.

The idea is to make a neighborhood safer by dismantling what experts call its “open-air drug markets,” which are places where dealers set up shop on street corners and sell out in the open. These markets foster the kind of violence that makes residents afraid to sit on their own porches, experts say.

Shutting down these markets is more complicated than making arrests, proponents believe. Any effort to make a neighborhood safer needs the cooperation of law-abiding residents. But they often don’t trust police to do it. They’ve become cynical after years of seeing police tactics that they believe violate their civil rights, but fail to make them safer.

Law enforcement builds credibility with a lot of communication, a lot of carrots, and a very big stick.

First, investigators build cases against the area’s street-level dealers. The violent ones get arrested. The rest are invited to a meeting much like the one at Lindsay Street.

Police seated them in the church’s front pew, facing 20 or so mugshots, taped to the back of chairs, of offenders who federal agents had already arrested. Each suspect received a personalized binder with evidence they had committed a drug crime and an unsigned federal indictment with their name on it.

If they go back to dealing, the warrant gets signed. There will be no bond when they are arrested, Horn said. And nowadays, there’s no such thing as parole in the federal prison system.

Some 100 members of law enforcement and social service agencies joined community members in the church sanctuary in a show of support. One by one, a dozen or so speakers made brief speeches where they told suspects that they are loved and valued, but they need to change.

A woman known as Mother Moore rolled to a church microphone in her scooter. She gave the suspects directions to her house, and said they were welcome any time if they needed help.

“I’m here tonight because you’re worth fighting for. I’m here tonight because y’all are my people,” Mamie Moore said.

Some of the suspects clapped when she finished.

When prosecutors played video of the suspects dealing drugs to undercover officers, members of the group suspects shifted in their seats and craned their necks.

“We can arrest you tonight,” Horn said. “We’re not going to.”

It’s unclear whether this initiative will work as well in Atlanta as it did in High Point. Local authorities say that it has never been tried in such a large neighborhood, or one with such an entrenched heroin problem. They’re not sure it can be done.

Some speakers invoked a higher power when they asked the suspects to participate in their rehabilitation program. Others pleaded.

“Good luck to you. God bless you,” said Carl Walker, special agent in charge of the Atlanta field division of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

“God bless you. I bid you Godspeed, and we’re here for you,” said Rev. Howard Beckham, pastor of new Jerusalem Baptist Church.

“We want you to succeed. We need you to succeed,” said Vernon Keenan, director of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.

Participants were invited to the church’s fellowship hall to meet with 20 area social services providers after the meeting. That’s where I found Marie Johnson, the only female suspect in the group.

I first met Johnson, 45, a few months ago on the corner of Jett and Vine Streets. That’s where the homeless gather in the winter to warm their hands over fires set in metal drums. Johnson is the size of a skinny 13-year-old, and said she has been to drug rehab before.

On Tuesday, Johnson was snacking on peanuts in a folding chair. She wore a turquoise mesh sweater, and carried her belongings in a purple velvet Crown Royal bag. She was skeptical that law enforcement officials and social service workers were really there to help the neighborhood, but she was willing to try rehab again if she had to.

“Anything to help better Marie,” she said. At 9 a.m. the next morning, a van would be waiting to take her and the rest of the suspects to the Urban League of Greater Atlanta for a 10-week job training program.

Johnson said she would go. First, she said, she had to find a place to stay the night.