Local law enforcement officials are six months into a program that extends a second chance to a handful of street-level drug dealers in Mobile — another community-based tactic the Mobile Police Department (MPD) has adopted in recent years.

In March, when the MPD began focusing intensely on crime prevention efforts in the Campground area, officers confronted six drug dealers, informing them they had been filmed selling drugs in the area. They were given two options: Participate in the “Second Chance OR Else” (SCORE) program or face prosecution.

“It was kind of amazing because when we hit the houses, instead of arresting them, we handed them a letter,” Mobile Police Chief James Barber said. “One broke down in tears when we handed it to him. They couldn’t understand why we weren’t arresting them.”

Barber said not only did those six agree to attend the initial meeting, three dealers previously untargeted by the MPD arrived voluntarily, asking to participate. Though a similar program was attempted in South Carolina, Barber said Mobile’s program adds an unprecedented community element.

The SCORE program, a partnership between the MPD, United States Attorney Kenyen Brown’s office, and the Mobile County Health Department, placed a lot of authority in the hands of a council of community leaders from the Campground. Local pastors, members of the Mobile County NAACP and others were actually shown evidence against the participants in the program before those suspects were notified.

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.

They even selected which six of the 28 drug suspects in the Campground operation would be allowed to participate in the program, though Barber did say certain criteria weren’t negotiable. For example, eligible dealers could not have a violent criminal background.

Barber doesn’t excuse the drug offenses but said the new approach was an attempt to break a “revolving door” problem in communities where young, predominantly black fathers are incarcerated for nonviolent drug crimes and absent from their children’s lives.

“For many of these guys, they’ve known no other life than what they’re doing,” Barber said. “There are 37 children represented by these nine guys, and one of the common factors is that all nine had no father figure. What we’re offering to do is leave a father figure in 37 kids’ lives rather than remove them, because if we did that [arrested them], 10 years from now, we’d could be dealing with 37 more.”

The participants, who range in age from 18-39, are drug tested regularly, are required to attend drug addiction and job skills counseling and must participate in the Mobile County Health Department’s Fatherhood Initiative, which is led by James Dixon along with Curtis Graves. The SCORE participants also meet twice a week with community leaders in the Campground area and police so their progress can be monitored.

Lagniappe was invited to attend one of those meetings in May, and a recurring theme was accountability — something Curtis Graves said some in the Fatherhood Initiative found difficult to accept at first.

“Conversations can become heated when we’re talking about life and talking about looking in the mirror because sometimes we don’t like what we see in the mirror,” he said. “When we don’t, we get angry.”

The other recurring issue has been employment. Barber said it’s been a challenge to find jobs for some of the participants with extensive criminal records. It’s also been difficult for others to abandon the lucrative, untaxed income of drug dealing and adjust to a nine-to-five life at minimum wage. But, for the first time, some of those individuals have someone with whom they can share those difficulties.

One of the oldest participants, identified only as Tony, said having the support of the Campground leaders was unlike anything he’s seen before. He said he “never felt like [he] had anybody to call on,” but the relationships established with the council members and other participants made him believe he could change his lifestyle.

“It keeps you focused on doing the right thing, and on wanting to do the right thing,” he said. “It’s not easy, but it’s always better when you’ve got somebody in your ear telling you, ‘you ain’t got to look back.’”

For his part, Brown said SCORE and the Drug Market Intervention Program the MPD established with his office have had a measurable impact on the Campground area that’s benefiting the residents as well as law enforcement.

He also said alternative prevention strategies complement traditional law enforcement practices because they’re aimed at prevention and enforcement, which can “reduce prison expenses and slow the pace of prison overcrowding.”

“So many times I get calls from community members saying, ‘help us with our crime problem, but don’t arrest all of our young people,’” Brown said. “It’s a delicate balance of trying to increase public safety, but building and maintaining community trust.”

The SCORE program was conducted in tandem with a focused effort to eradicate drug activity in the Campground that led to dozens of arrests and the removal of a notorious drug den at the corner of State and Kennedy streets. Brown said those operations have been effective but more importantly have also been accepted by the community, which he said is a sharp contrast from previous enforcement strategies.

“Community members are actively engaged in taking their community back, and there’s been a lasting and sustained decrease in the amount of drug activity in the Campground community unseen for the past 30 to 40 years,” Brown said. “There’s also been a tremendous impact in terms of police and community relations in addition to a 400 percent reduction in drug crimes in the area over a sustained period of six months.

“With these SCORE participants, they’re not only held accountable to the Chief or myself but to their own community,” Brown added. “I have to commend these leaders for being willing to sit face to face, across the table from known drug dealers, and speak constructively to them. It’s definitely a situation where they’re receiving a positive social modeling that some of them never saw in their own home lives.”

Correction: The printed version of this article incorrectly identifies Curtis Graves as being in charge of the Fatherhood Initiative. While Graves does do a significant amount work with the program, the administrator for the Fatherhood Initiative under the Mobile County Health Department is James Dixon.