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Crimewatch: Initiative targets drug market

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For decades, one of the top hot spots for drug dealing in Austin has been 12th and Chicon on the east side. In fact, police considered it one of the top open air drug markets in the city.

However, a new and ongoing initiative is changing that and appears to be working.

Undercover officers are capturing drug deals on camera. Officers bought drugs from dozens of dealers all at 12th and Chicon.

"We went in as undercover officers and purchased narcotics from street level dealers and identified them at a later time so warrants could be issued," said one of the undercover officers.

Police identified two groups of drug dealers from these buy walk operations. Those who committed violent or egregious crimes were put in the A group. The drug dealers who didn't were put in the B group.

All were arrested, but the B group was given a deal. They would not go to jail, but they had to get help.

"Offenders who have an opportunity for rectifying their situation and making amends to the community they have offended called the B group," said Commander Fred Fletcher with the Austin Police Department.

The program is called Drug Market Intervention. Instead of going to jail, the idea is to help the non-violent dealers get the help they need, as long as they don't re-offend.

Pastor Sherwynn Patton grew up in East Austin. His job is to coordinate services, like housing and drug rehab, with offenders.

"We wanted to send a message, not only were we there to assist them and to help but it was support and accountability," Patton said.

The theory behind the drug market intervention is called restorative justice.

"So in regular justice the victim is on the sidelines, often times they don't even get in the courtroom and restorative justice is about the bringing together the victims and the offenders and the community together so that the people who are directly affected by the crimes are the ones who are dealing with it," said University of Texas professor Marilyn Amour.

Amour is the director of the Institute of Restorative Justice and Restorative Dialogue.

She said the coordination among police, the district attorney's office, and the community is the secret to making the program work. She also said restorative justice is effective.

"About a third of the offenders that go through that program do not recidivate, which is very high," Amour said.

After undercover officers buy drugs from the B group dealers, they weren't arrested. Instead they got a visit with a letter. The letter is from Chief Art Acevedo and District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg.

"Initially, they didn't believe they weren't going to be arrested," said Travis County Assistant District Attorney Jason English. "There was a big concern, I was on the phone with a bunch of them promising them they wouldn't be arrested that we're trying to give them an opportunity, trying to provide them an assessment, any services that they might need to with the message that they have to stop selling."

The initiative comes at a time when new development is going in near 12th and Chicon. At 1200 and 1300 Chicon sit empty lots after old buildings were torn down. Mixed use residential and retail projects are expected.


12th and Chicon now looks a lot different. There are not as many people loitering, and it's quiet. Authorities hope it stays this way.

"It's not just the police department and the prosecutors, that you have to have the community involvement, the support of the community, the trust of the community, where the community takes a stand and says we don't like property crimes, we don't like drugs offenses and we want our streets to be clean," said Travis County Assistant District Attorney Dayna Blazey.

However, there is still work to do. Drug deals inside homes and businesses are still a big problem.

For example, take JT's Body and Paint Shop on Salina Street. Between April of 2012 and April of 2013, there were 27 calls for police service resulting in 18 police reports. The crimes ranged from delivery of a controlled substance to rape.

Police has sent a letter to the owner, starting a long nuisance abatement process.

Police also showed FOX 7 several other open air drug markets in East Austin. These are places where they hope to roll out the DMI program soon.

"Other parts of the city like Rundberg and I-35 would be another example that would fit into that program," said Sergeant Robert Jones of the Austin Police Department.

So far, out of the 30 drug dealers offered the drug market intervention program, 15 agreed to take part. The 17 drug dealers part of the A group were all prosecuted.

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