Suppose for a moment you live next door to a drug house. Cars queue up in your street. Drug abusers loiter in front of your house or apartment. Gunfire occasionally disturbs your sleep, and in the morning you might find derelicts sleeping it off in your front yard. Whether you’re a yuppie rehabber, downwardly mobile artist, aging home owner, white ethnic, Hispanic, Asian, or African American, you’re in danger the moment you step out your door and you know it.

Suppose you try to fight back. You call the police, detailing your knowledge of your neighbor’s illicit enterprise. Now what? Do you expect them to surveil the building, confirm your suspicions, raid the drug dealer’s home, and make your neighborhood safe again for decent citizens?

You might expect that, but it probably won’t happen. Why not?

Well, your first call most likely would be meaningless. If you called 911, they’d say it wasn’t an emergency. If you called your local police station, they probably wouldn’t have the manpower to seriously pursue your information. Most squad cars on the street are “radio police,” meaning they respond only to the 911 dispatcher. Not even their district commander can pull them off 911 duty to check into your complaint.

Even if you get past these initial frustrations, you’re going to have a hard time closing down your neighborhood dope house. Let’s say you and a group of like-minded neighbors are able to get a meeting with your local police commander, and he promises to check out your complaint. In practice, this often means uniformed police will cruise down your street, stopping some of the likely offenders for a not-so-friendly chat. If they can’t scare the bad guys away, and you keep complaining, they might stage a bust. And that will usually slow up a well-organized drug dealer for a couple of days at most. In the event that one of the bad guys is sent to jail for a long time–keep in mind that this requires three busts involving certain well-known quantities of drugs–one of the drug dealer’s associates will usually take over the store. By then, your block will have deteriorated for quite a few years.

The 1700 block of West Superior was once disfigured by an extremely active drug house. Then, a few years ago, organizer Pepe Frau stepped in. (At the time, Frau worked for the Chicago Alliance for Neighborhood Safety.) He itched to try something new against the drug dealers, but the Superior Street block club elected to stay with conventional measures: they worked painstakingly through every step of the scenario above. That took about two years.

When those efforts ultimately proved futile, Frau got his chance. First the block club went to court to ask judges to make it a condition of a neighborhood dope dealer’s probation that, unless he lived there, he not be allowed back on the block. The block club had discovered that breaking probation is an administrative offense, and therefore the standards of evidence in determining a violation were less strict than if it had been a criminal offense. To have the offender locked up all they needed was a “preponderance of evidence” that the terms of probation had been violated. It sounded slick enough to be a good plan.

“Sure enough,” said Frau, “a guy gets out, and is seen almost immediately on the same block. Somebody calls us, we call police. But the police wouldn’t enforce [the conditions of probation] because they don’t know nothing about it. ‘Let the courts enforce that,’ they say.” That was the end of that new tactic in the domestic war on drugs.

Around this time, David del Valle, an organizer with the Northwest Community Organization (NCO), was working less than two miles away from the Superior Street drug house with other groups of neighbors frustrated by the flagrant sale of narcotics on their blocks. He, too, had gone the conventional route, talking to police commanders, feeling encouraged by an initial spate of arrests, and ultimately realizing that nothing much had changed. Like Pepe Frau, he longed to try something different.

Del Valle took a seemingly conventional approach: he formed a committee, Citizens United for Safety (CUFS), drawn from four block clubs, including the one on Superior Street. The committee decided to study the whole network of law enforcement: the local police station, the state’s attorney’s office, the central police department’s assets-forfeiture unit, the corporation counsel, and the city’s departments of housing and inspectional services (the latter two have roles in shuttering buildings that house unlawful activities or present a public nuisance). Del Valle interviewed representatives of each agency, emerging with a thorough knowledge of each agency’s relationship to the others. It was slow work.

“OK,” del Valle’s NCO director said to him one day, “but where’s this leading to?” Del Valle admitted that he didn’t know yet.

That’s when he got the idea to diagram the lines of communication between agencies. He connected them by solid lines if they had good communication, dotted lines if they didn’t. “There weren’t too many solid lines,” he said.

That realization led to the CUFS task force, which brought together representatives from each of the public agencies and some of the CUFS committee members. “We went to the agencies and asked if they’d be willing to try something a little different, and they said they would,” said del Valle.

At the first meeting of the CUFS task force, a wondrous thing occurred. Dotted lines were made solid. The state’s attorney, for instance, said he’d like to go after the owners of drug houses under nuisance-abatement laws, but his staff didn’t have time to do the title searches. No problem. It turned out the Department of Inspectional Services (DIS) had them on computer. All the state’s attorney had to do was call; they’d punch in the address and the owner’s name would pop out.

After a few more meetings, the task-force plan was complete. CUFS would inform the police and their local alderman of the existence of a drug house. The alderman would write the owner (name provided by DIS) and ask for a meeting to discuss the problem. If the owner didn’t respond, the alderman would contact the police to see if the owner’s name appeared on its list of suspected narcotics dealers. If so, the police would call in the central police department’s assets-forfeiture unit, which seizes property suspected of being involved in illegal activity. If not, David King, supervisor of the state’s attorney’s narcotics unit, would call in the owner to pointedly explain Illinois laws on nuisance abatement and the unlawful use of buildings, including the unhappy implication for the owner of assets forfeiture, and the willingness of the grand jury, this being America and all, to hear the owner’s side of the story before considering an indictment. The hope was that the landlord would throw out the drug-dealing tenants–or, if the landlord was the dope dealer, cease operating out of the building–in order to preserve the property.

It seems to have worked. Of ten buildings targeted by the CUFS task force, police records and investigatory information indicate that drug activity has ceased in seven as a result of the CUFS approach. In another, drug activity was halted through more conventional means. In still another, the drug dealer had a fire in her building, ran outside stuffing drugs under her coat, and was busted by police on the fire scene. Though she’s not currently in custody, “she probably figured her luck at the address had gone bad,” one 14th District tactical unit lieutenant observed. In any event, she is believed to have ceased operations in the area. In the last of the ten buildings, the dealer has so far outfoxed police by rotating his operation among several buildings owned by relatives in the neighborhood.

The CUFS plan is not a silver bullet for the local drug war, however. True, the 1700 block of Superior has been cleaned up–“They can sit out on their stoops now; they couldn’t do that before,” said Frau. But neighbors on adjoining streets have seen the same drug dealers move onto their blocks. And the CUFS plan doesn’t work with the corner drug dealer, who has nothing to fear from the twin hammers of assets forfeiture and nuisance abatement.

After a few months of internal reorganizing–Frau has joined NCO and taken over CUFS, while del Valle remains at NCO but has moved on to other issues–CUFS is studying the results of its first effort and looking for new ways to confront drug dealers of all kinds. While it is difficult for either the police or CUFS to say with certainty exactly what is going on in the ten targeted buildings, CUFS is not convinced that the sale of drugs has stopped in some of them. Another problem is that only one of the ten (the Superior Street house) was on CUFS’s original list of dope houses. To get the CUFS plan in motion, the task force agreed to use the Police Department’s list of dope houses rather than go after the ones that have been disturbing the lives of the CUFS committee members.

Still, all concerned hope to expand the success of the CUFS plan. Assistant state’s attorney David King believes it can work. “When you see owners putting up For Rent signs [looking for legitimate tenants], you can see the results,” he said. He is now seeking Cook County Board funding to hire six assistant state’s attorneys and a contingent of investigative and administrative personnel to implement a CUFS-style program countywide. Knowing that money is tight at the Cook County Board (and mindful, perhaps, that not much is likely to happen during the current political season), King has asked the Illinois Criminal Justice Authority, which distributes federal moneys for law enforcement, for a grant to hire the new attorneys and staff.

Meanwhile CUFS would like to expand its base of operations and is looking for other interested citizens, community groups, and block clubs.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Kathy Richland.