It’s been nearly a year since the Mobile Police Department extended an olive branch to a handful of nonviolent drug offenders, and despite some growing pains MPD Chief James Barber considers the Second Chance or Else (SCORE) program a success.

As narcotics units raided eight homes and arrested dozens in the Campground neighborhood in February 2015, six street-level drug dealers were handed a letter from Barber instead of an arrest warrant.

The letter gave them two options: go to jail for drug trafficking or join the SCORE program, a fatherhood and job-skills initiative Barber says unexpectedly grew to focus on drug rehabilitation as well.

According to Barber, the rehabilitation was mainly for the use of marijuana, cocaine and synthetic spice. While some were able to kick the harder drugs, Barber said marijuana has continued to be a stumbling block for some of the participants.

“You’d think they’d be able to quickly stop, but for example, one of the guys we’ve been working with has smoked marijuana since he was 5 years old,” Barber said. “Usually, no one is going to run out and rob a store to support that habit, but the problem with marijuana is, it means they can’t sustain gainful employment.”

Yet, Barber claims drug use only remains a significant issue for two of the original nine participants, one of whom failed multiple drug tests and then refused treatment. As a result, that individual was removed from the program and arrested in November for distribution of cocaine based on the evidence collected last year. Police have yet to release his identity.

Barber said another participant is still in the program, but has continued to test positive for marijuana.

Still, Barber credits SCORE for improvements in the lives of the seven other participants, most of whom the MPD says have ended their involvement with drugs, completed parenting programs and developed better job skills and financial habits.

The youngest participant earned a high school diploma just last week through the DESI Career Training Center in Mobile, and five others are working — many maintaining full-time employment and some holding multiple jobs.

A panel of community leaders from the Campground area meet at Police Headquarters in May 2015.

A panel of community leaders from the Campground area meet at Police Headquarters in May 2015.

Mobile’s NAACP Chapter President Ronald Ali has led the community panel that selected and worked with the SCORE participants. He said the change in tactics has given people who used to feel like “prisoners in their own neighborhoods” an opportunity to work together with law enforcement.

“It does us no good to take fathers and breadwinners from their homes and families,” Ali said. “It’s the not the best way or the socially accepted way to make a living, but sometimes people get off track and they use corruption to take care of their families. In this situation, it’s illegal drugs. In other forms, people have businesses and they commit fraud. They usually end up incarcerated as well.”

Though some criticized the program for its leniency, Barber has maintained the goal of SCORE was always community improvement as much as crime prevention, and a month shy of the program’s first anniversary, he believes the approach has been effective.

“The environment that this type of open-air drug market was in has ceased,” he claimed. “I can’t say it doesn’t have problems, but it is not what it was where we were seeing 650 drug transactions coming from a single house.”

Indeed the Campground is not entirely free from problems, as evidenced by an assault reported only days ago where police say a man was “shot in the neck for no reason.” However, police say things in the area are much improved from this time last year.

Ali agreed conditions in the campground have improved, and said the SCORE program has affected more than the seven who are expected to complete it in March.

“It’s not just having an impact upon those guys that were selling drugs, but also on their families and their children and also on residents in the area,” he said. “They see a law enforcement agency that’s not only giving the people in the street an opportunity to make a change but also providing an opportunity for the average citizen to help clean up their community as well.”

Police are already working with five new SCORE participants from the Maysville area, and Barber said the department is applying the lessons it learned from the Campground. The five new participants joined the program after a similar drug operation in Maysville last November.

So far, two are volunteering at the Inner City Mission and one is working with the homeless through Mobile’s First Christian Church. Despite that progress, some of the same issues with drug use that plagued the Campground participants have been a problem with this second group as well.

According to the MPD, only one of the five from Maysville has routinely passed required drug tests during the first two months.

The seven from the Campground crew that remain part of SCORE will meet with community leaders in March to determine whether they’ll be released, but in keeping with the theme, Barber said the final decision will be up to the panelists.

“We won’t be bringing charges against any that complete everything successfully to our satisfaction, but if a guy has done everything else right and still has issues with marijuana or something like that, it will be up to the panel to decide what to do,” Barber said. “They’ve been pretty closely involved with these guys, and if they will stay involved in keeping them off the street and off drugs, we won’t arrest them.”

In keeping with the community approach to policing, Barber said the MPD plans to continue working in several communities to address not only crime but also blighted and abandoned properties through Mayor Sandy Stimpson’s blight initiative.

“From a police standpoint, blight breeds crime and crime breeds blight,” he said. “In order for us to have a long-term solution for a neighborhood, we’ve got to address blight as well as crime.”

The department has already taken the approach with a few properties, one of which was demolished last May after it was condemned by city. However, as Lagniappe reported last month, Stimpson’s blight initiative is already proving to be more costly than anticipated.

The expense is another reason why Barber said his approach has focused on working with those who live in a community in hopes of finding partners to invest in a long-term solution.

“If we can change the environment completely, by getting the blight removed and getting people back into the area that are working class people, you’ll begin to truly change the neighborhood in a long-term sense,” Barber said. “You can’t just walk in and weed out the crime but leave the environment intact. If you do, it just breeds another generation of it.”