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No to loiterers

The Oakland City Council approved a loitering ordinance geared towards removing drug dealers from Oakland streets on Tuesday in the first round of a two-part vote.

At the end of a four hour meeting, and after hearing over one hundred testimonies from Oakland residents, five of eight council members voted in favor of the proposed ordinance.

Supporters of the proposal said the ordinance would serve as a temporary solution to dealing with the drug transactions visible on Oakland streets and would be a step towards economic development.

“We’re giving our people a chance to bring their property value up,” said Iris Merriouris, chief of staff to councilman Larry Reid who proposed the ordinance.

The ordinance, which was approved by the Oakland’s public safety committee last week, is an extension of a loitering law currently in practice, in which suspected drug dealers can be arrested and charged with a misdemeanor.

Under the new ordinance, anyone appearing to have the intention to engage in drug related activities can be ticketed and charged with an injunction, an offense handled much like a speeding ticket.

Merriouris, an Oakland resident, believes that the city’s drug problem and related murder rate hinders its potential to become a bustling and thriving city.

“In order to get businesses coming to East Oakland, you have got to clean up the crime,” said Merriouris.

Community members, however, are suspicious of the ordinance’s vagueness because actual possession of illegal drugs is not required in the issuing of an injunction.

“We’re tired of not being able to arrest people without drugs on them,” said Merriouris about the inability of police to arrest known and suspected drug dealers who cautiously alternate possession of drugs to avoid getting caught.

“Writing citations for loitering isn’t going to solve the problem,” said Public safety officer Lewis Nelson who opposes the ordinance. If the ordinance passes in the second vote scheduled in two weeks, police could ticket anyone who, with the intent to engage in drug activity, exchanges money for packages, uses hand signals to flag down buyers or warns suspect individuals of approaching police. Of this Nelson, a former BART police officer affirms, “you have to be able to prove intent, otherwise, there is no crime.”

In an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle, Oakland police Chief Richard Word discussed the need to update the department’s powers in order to meet the systemized techniques dealers have developed. However, City Council Policy Analyst, Amanda Brown-Stevens, disagrees with Word. “It gives more power to police to target people who they can’t prove are involved in drug activity,” she said.

If the ordinance is adopted, offenders will be issued a $100 citation on their first offense and can receive up to six months in jail and a $500 fine on their third offense, facing a judge and not a jury in court.

According to Word, police will receive specialized training on how to detect the drug related loitering and will target specific areas known for drug trafficking.

“Young people out on the streets of Oakland doing the right thing,” will not be punished under the ordinance, said Reid to the Chronicle.

Yet, this does little to alleviate community fears that the ordinance will give police permission to unfairly harass youth, the unemployed and the poor, and ultimately infringe on individual civil liberties.

“We’re concerned with the youth,” said Merriouris, “that’s our main concern. It’s not aimed at kids, but if you’re dealing drugs, then it’s aimed at you.”

Pueblo, an Oakland police watchdog organization, which led the community in a public and civil opposition four years ago that lead to the original proposal’s rejection, attempted to repeat their success at Tuesday’s council meeting.

“They completely hijacked the meeting,” said Merriouris of the committee meeting four years before. “They had speakers…because they thought it took away their civil liberties.”

Teenagers, community members and leaders of various grassroots organizations such as the ACLU, Let’s Get Free, Pueblo and the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, spoke in opposition to the ordinance.

According to Brown-Stevens, youth misconduct during the meeting was a determining factor in the proposal being passed. One council member, who she said originally opposed the ordinance, decided to vote for it because the youth present acted disrespectfully by speaking out of turn and taking up more than their allotted speaking time.

The ordinance, which must be approved twice before it becomes law, will go before the city council for the second time on February 25.

If approved, the ordinance will be instated for one year and then reviewed at the end of that period.