On Thursday police officers and residents in the Campground area ate together, as a notorious crack house was ripped to pieces and hauled away. That is the last step in a lengthy process that has become a routine way for the Mobile Police Department to deal with properties known for repeated drug activity.
Police Chief James Barber said the house at the corner of State Street and Kennedy Street has been a hotspot for drugs for decades. The heroin of the 70s slowly turned to crack in the late 80s, and for the last 25 years has been one of the only “open-air” drug markets in Mobile despite numerous raids on the property.Barber himself took the first piece of the house down, making use of a backhoe. As he stepped down he told reporters it felt good to have a part in bringing the house to the ground.
“I’ve been in law enforcement for 27 years,” Barber said. “This place predates me, and to finally see a permanent solution to a longterm problem is very satisfying.”
Officers and city officials were able to tear down the home after the city purchased it and had it declared a “drug nuisance.” Barber said the criminal approach wasn’t working, so — as it has done a few times since 2014 — his department used the civil arm to seize the property through the courts.
After a five-month operation in the Campground area, police documented more than 600 drug transactions from the house, 50 of which were undercover purchases cops made themselves.
With that mountain of evidence, police put a restraining order on the home in February preventing anyone — including the owner — from using the house. However, Barber said the police work in these cases doesn’t take up the time the legal work does.
“It’s cumbersome, and most police don’t want to get involved in civil process, but it’s very effective and it’s certainly part of my plan,” Barber said. “It takes a lot of man hours and time in the courtroom, but it if you look at the amount of man hours it takes to keep hitting the same place over and over again, to me it’s just cost effective to put a stop to it once and for all.”
Barber said it’s typical for police to notify property owners if a location is causing problems with drug activity. They are often given a letter suggesting they could face civil penalties if the problem continues, but must often assume the department is bluffing or doesn’t have the legal authority to seize their home.
Despite that, the 81-year-old woman who owned the home is now transitioning into a facility run by the Mobile Housing Authority, and Barber said she didn’t want to come back after the police showed up.
Lagniappe has chose not to print the woman’s name, but according to authorities she had been “trapped” in the house by relatives and their associates who were using the property to sell drugs. A diabetic, the woman was immediately taken to hospital after the home was raided and kept there for a week.
Barber and Mayor Sandy Stimpson said she was a prisoner in her own home.
“We had a very elderly lady whose family and relatives were taking advantage of her, and she too was captured in that environment,” Stimpson said. “We took the resources and legal team from the city to make sure we could find her a suitable place to live. Since the first day, we’ve held her hand every step of way.”
Stimpson said the city has purchased the property from the homeowner and had turned it over the Martin Luther King Redevelopment Authority — a nonprofit that works through federal funding to build affordable housing. The Authority has put more than 100 homes in the area and has plans for two additional affordable housing units on the corner where the house used to stand.
“This was her home,” Stimpson said. “You don’t just come in and use bully force and make her do something. You want her to understand why you’re doing it and you want her to be compassionate of her feelings and her belonging.”
The investigations that helped bring down the State Street house were part of a larger operation in the campground. Police have touted the success of the operation, but they aren’t the only ones. Other residents say the change in the area is like “night and day.”
Bruce Malone, who has lived next door to the house for 25 years, said there used to be drugs being sold 24 hours a day at the house. He said there were “crackheads and prostitutes” walking the streets and often fights and gunshots.
“It’s nice when kids are out and can actually play in the yard and not have to worry about bullets,” Malone said. “You can actually sleep at night. I used to have to leave the TV on just drown out the noise from across the street.”
Malone said he was glad to see the neighborhood under control, and he wasn’t the only one. Others from the Campground came down to watch the house topple and share hot dogs and sodas with the police officers.However, not every resident was thrilled the police were “throwing a party” in the middle of the road. William Blevins, who openly admitted he has a criminal record, said he was glad the house gone, but didn’t think the “the spectacle” was necessary.
“This ain’t the World Trade Center. Ain’t nobody died in that house.You shut a dope house down, I applaud you. Now, let’s go to the next stage,” he said. “You shut down four blocks because y’all want to knock this house down and put it in the newspaper and out to the media? It’s political. The only thing they had to do is take the bulldozers and knock it down. But 17 cop cars?”
Though even as a critic of the celebration, Blevins said the police had done good work in the neighborhood.
“Oh the drug problem is over with over here. Yeah,” he said. “Just don’t blow it out of proportion. Get on to the next one. Go Down the Bay. Go to Happy Hill. Go to Prichard.”
It’s worth pointing out that’s what the administration is trying to do. Both Barber and Stimpson have walked the streets of other neighborhoods including Toulminville, which the pair visited later on Thursday afternoon.