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."
Thinking Outside the Box
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.
Tracking Down Drug Dealers
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.
In a unique collaboration, prosecutors, police and the community teamed up and went door-to-door to seek out the 13 criminals, inviting them to show up at a community meeting. As incentive, the dealers were given freedom and an opportunity to turn their lives around. The round-the-clock mission wasn't easy. Mistrust is common, and many people wouldn't even open up their doors.
Sixty-three-year-old Everett Hairston, who has lived in Hempstead for more than two decades, was one of the first dealers to participate. He was once a successful musician who appeared on the "Dinah Shore Show" as a member of the hit band The Platters in 1976, and played with music greats like Melba Moore, Roberta Flack and Smokey Robinson.
But after retiring from life on the road to raise his children, Hairston's life took a few rough turns. He ended up selling crack out of his apartment, according to Rice.
Hannah Tindall, another dealer from the neighborhood, also agreed to participate in the initiative. Her mother died when she was 10 years old, leaving her to be raised by an abusive aunt, the foster care system, and, eventually, the streets.
Young and impressionable, she began to demonstrate the behavior of the older girls she lived with in group homes: drinking, smoking, cursing and running away.
Tindall, now 26, said that, in her youth, she used to like "hanging out, partying with my friends in the city, just doing irresponsible things. ... I just got mixed up with the wrong people."
At 22, Tindall began dealing crack to support herself and her own drug habit.
'I Cannot Face Another Year'
Less than two weeks later, all 13 of the drug dealers showed up to the community meeting.
They were led into an auditorium where they watched surveillance footage of themselves selling drugs on the corner of Terrace and Bedell. Nearby were mug shots of the other dealers captured on tape who were not fortunate enough to be offered a second chance.
Parents, relatives, preachers, service providers and other community members confronted the dealers head-on and addressed the drug problem in their community.
"I'm at the funeral home late nights with sisters that could have been prom queens, looking like their grandmother's age because they're strung out," said Karl Burnett, an undertaker at a local funeral home.
Others urged the dealers to stop their destructive behavior.
"You need to take advantage of the opportunity," said community activist Reginald Benjamin. "I cannot face another year of seeing young men die on the streets like dogs because you guys are leading them down a bad path."
After hearing from loved ones, law enforcement gave the dealers two choices: give up a life of crime, or go to prison.
'Working Makes Me Feel Good'
A few minutes after the community meeting ended, the police put Terrace and Bedell on lockdown. No one was allowed to enter without their knowledge, and the police made arrests on outstanding warrants for a few dealers who had, until then, eluded law enforcement.
At the same time, the 13 dealers taking part in the program began the process of turning their lives around. The district attorney's office set up counseling sessions with a support group for ex-offenders, called Council for Unity, a type of AA for criminals. They also offered social services and managed to find jobs for six of the dealers in the program.
"Working makes me feel good," Hairston said of his new job at a local community center for the elderly, where he works as a janitor. "'Cause I always say, the more you do, the more you're able to do."
As for Tindall, she now works in her first-ever full-time job with benefits.
The High Point Initiative has been successful in eight other cities across the country -- so successful that the Department of Justice has authorized funding for 10 additional towns to sign on. It may take several more months before the success of the program in the village of Hempstead can be fully measured, but so far, things look hopeful.
Two of the dealers from Terrace and Bedell have been arrested for single crimes committed after joining the program. The district attorney's office needs more resources to successfully run the program, and, most importantly, they need jobs for the reformed dealers.
Now, several months after the community came together to rid their neighborhood of crime, the streets of Hempstead are hardly recognizable.
"I think Terrace looks a lot different today than it's looked in a long time," said Eddison Bramble, president of 100 Black Men of America, Inc., a group that seeks to improve quality of life and educational opportunities for African Americans. "It looks beautiful -- people seem happier and more comfortable walking down the street."
In a place where drug deals once overwhelmed the community, kids are now outside playing. And for the first time in a long time, the residents have something to be hopeful about.