Seeds Of Oppression?

A Federal Anti-Crime Program Raises Civil Rights Questions.

By Dave Devine

ALL IS NOT roses in Tucson's "Weed and Seed" crime-fighting garden.

Weed and Seed is a federally funded effort begun under the Bush administration to channel social service and police funds through the U.S. Department of Justice. Opponents initially criticized the program, calling it "a move towards the imposition of a police state on the public life of low-income communities of color."

But changes in federal administration, and some alterations in guidelines, have reduced complaints. So far, about 170 communities have participated in the program's three-year funding cycles. Program officials claim an average crime reduction of almost 40 percent, but these figures couldn't be confirmed because the Washington, D.C., staff of Weed and Seed didn't bother to return The Weekly's phone calls.

Currents Last year four Tucson westside residential areas joined the program. Residents are seeking to make changes in Barrio Anita, Barrio Hollywood, and the Menlo Park and Silvercroft neighborhoods.

According to the first-year application for nearly $250,00 in funding, these areas are "characterized by prevalence of crime, drug use and dealing, gangs, and deteriorating structures. Neighbors complain they live in fear." In addition, the application pointed out the high level of poverty and the low education levels of many residents.

To combat those problems, the application said the "Weed strategy is targeting drug and gang issues, through suppression, intervention, and community education." The "Seed" approach was to focus "on recreational, educational, and social programs intended to reduce the attractions of gang lifestyles and support neighborhood empowerment for youths in the neighborhood."

Specific projects in the application called for spending the "Weed" portion of the funds on seven "Safe Street diversions" to be implemented by the Tucson Police Department. Program funds would also pay for a crime analyst and police equipment, including four digital cameras for "gang-member identification."

The "Seed" part of the effort supplies funds for additional programs at the Steve Daru Boys and Girls Club, late-night basketball at the El Rio Neighborhood Center, a bicycle-repair program, a van lease and graffitti abatement.

Despite all of those projects, one neighborhood decided not to participate. El Rio Acres Association president Ann Moler says that while problems exist in her area, the "Weed" portion of the Tucson program is about teens, although many of the drug peddlers in her neighborhood are middle-aged. She added the parents of some teenagers were concerned the "Weed" effort might trigger an open season for the police on otherwise innocent, baggy pants-wearing kids.

"What slope are we going down with this program?" asks Judy Bernal, a neighborhood resident who is relunctant to "demonize people based on their dress."

Critics of the local program also gripe about Tucson Police Department tactics in a zero-tolerance Safe Street diversion program. During these dark-hour operations, cops will stop anyone who's suspected of breaking the law--any law.

But in addition to issuing tickets, making arrests and trying to educate the public about its crime-fighting programs, TPD is also gathering information during these operations. When officers stop someone who fits a very broad "gang-member profile," which could include anyone having tattoos or wearing clothes or colors associated with gangs, the officers ask if they can photograph the detainee--and anyone with him.

A few months ago, police told the Weed and Seed coordinating committee that "pictures are tools for gathering intelligence, and that if no arrest is made, the person cannot be forced to have his picture taken." At the same meeting, TPD officials claimed, "If there's a picture taken and the person doesn't meet the criteria for being a gang member, the information is deleted" from TPD's database.

But that assurance is not comforting to many people. For decades, TPD officers demanded Social Security numbers when issuing citations, an illegal practice. Now cops are taking pictures of people who've done nothing wrong, leading some critics to question how many civil liberties Tucson is willing to give up so the police can collect information.

Bernal wonders what the police are doing with the Weed and Seed photographs. She also questions the cops' criteria for photographing non-suspects, which she calls potential McCarthyism toward Chicano kids. She accuses TPD of red-lining westside neighborhoods.

But Ramon Olivas, chair of the program steering committee, supports the program. To succeed, Olivas believes the Weed and Seed program must encourage the involvement of businesses, churches, the Tucson Unified School District and parents.

One thing he'd like to see is grassroots crime-prevention services like graffiti abatement. "Neighborhood people can do it on their own," Olivas says, if the Weed and Seed effort succeeds in organizing them.

The steering committee is now considering "Seed" projects for the local program's second year. But Olivas backs TPD's "Weed" efforts.

"I'd rather partnership with the police than with criminals," says Olivas. TW

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