Law enforcement, city leaders look to stamp out open-air drug markets

By Kontji Anthony - bio | email

MEMPHIS, TN (WMC-TV) - Local law enforcement and city leaders are putting the squeeze on organizers of "open-air drug markets," defined as places where drug dealing becomes part of the fabric of a neighborhood.

Law enforcement and Memphis City leaders turned to Reverend Doctor Derrick Hughes in a new strategy to stop open-air drug sales.

"We want our community back, and we're taking it back," said Hughes, the pastor of Springdale Baptist Church.

As part of the effort, Memphis police identified four square miles in North Memphis' Old Allen neighborhood as an open-air drug market.

"For around two or three months, they ran an undercover operation," said U. S. Attorney Larry Laurenzi.

The sting netted 49 street-level drug dealer arrests.  Of those, 38 face state charges, with a total of 130 indictments for each drug transaction.

"Seven of them were homes, one was a grocery - Hyde Park Grocery," Shelby County District Attorney General Bill Gibbons said.

Five face federal charges, with penalties of up to 12-and-a-half to 30 years behind bars.

"Our message to them is we are not giving you a second chance.  You're done," Laurenzi said.

But six newcomers to crime got a rare intervention opportunity, in the form of a hand-delivered letter from Police Director Larry Godwin.
"Telling them we were aware of their activity, of six individuals, and inviting them to Springdale Baptist Church to speak with community residents, law enforcement, the U.S. Prosecutor and the District Attorney," said Peggy Russell of Operation Safe Community.

Five of the six showed up Tuesday night.  They saw themselves in undercover video, and citizens told them how they hurt Old Allen.

"Elderly people afraid to sit on their porch, and the residents, asked these individuals to please stop," Russell said.

Police will throw the book at the sixth person, who didn't cooperate.

"The door was open and he chose not to walk through," said Memphis Mayor A C Wharton. "He sealed his own fate."

Officials said they plan to expand the effort to target all known open-air drug markets in the city.

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