Since the 1960s, the infamous intersection of Terrace Avenue and Bedell Street and the surrounding six blocks in Hempstead, N.Y., have been home to more arrests, shootings and deaths than just about anywhere else in the state. At times, Terrace and Bedell resembled an open air convenience store for narcotics: merchandise was cheap, plentiful and always on display.
Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice had tried just about everything to curb drug trafficking in Hempstead, even launching an investigation that traced a local dealer back to a Colombian drug cartel.
Police arrested the dealer and, with federal assistance, took down the cartel. But weeks later, he was back on the streets. Rice knew it was time to try something different.
"The answer is not building more jails and keeping the revolving door system of criminal justice going," Rice said. "That's not having the effect of sustained crime reduction."
In an effort to rid the neighborhood of drugs, Rice and her office decided to try a radical, but simple, program called the High Point Initiative.
Developed by renowned criminologist David Kennedy, the High Point Initiative was named after the North Carolina city that was the first to try it.
By eradicating open air drug markets and, thereby, eliminating drug-related crime, the program attempts to heal old wounds between urban communities and law enforcement. Kennedy, who directs the Center for Crime Prevention at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, cites the entrenched distrust of law enforcement, dating back to slavery and the Jim Crowe south, as one reason why dealers and community members are less likely to cooperate with police and traditional drug enforcement tactics.
"So much of this revolves around race, it's our original sin. We've all bitten from that apple. Our country was founded on racial violence," he said.
The High Point Initiative first identifies local drug markets and then builds evidence for criminal cases against drug dealers caught on video surveillance. Next, law enforcement enlists the entire community to participate in the program. A key component of the High Point initiative is community involvement, the theory being that the disapproval of those who matter most to the dealers is a greater deterrent than squadrons of police.
Kennedy says that, unless the community itself commits to addressing the problem, there won't be a significant impact on the drug trade.
Once the community is on board, the initiative holds a large gathering where the community confronts the dealers, reprimands them for their destructive behavior and demands change.
The Nassau County district attorney's office launched the program with a 10-month undercover investigation. They sent in confidential informants to buy drugs and to learn the identities of the dealers on Terrace and Bedell.
Throughout the course of the investigation, 50 dealers were identified, and the DA's office conducted background checks to see who would be eligible to participate in the program. The vast majority were disqualified because of their violent pasts, but 13 demonstrated potential to change and were offered a second chance.