A radical program to break up English Avenue’s drug market helps former dealers find a way out

Under Drug Market Intervention, prosecutors offer dealers two options: keep dealing and face the full extent of the law, or accept help and leave that world behind.
English Avenue
Vincent Stephenson hopes to be a mechanic one day.

Photograph by Melissa Golden

Every night at eight, Vincent Stephenson’s alarm clock goes off, waking him from an afternoon’s sleep. Over the next two hours, the 48-year-old Norcross resident makes his way by bus, train, and another bus to the ExpressJet headquarters near Atlanta’s airport. While mechanics tinker on jets inside the airline’s hangar, Stephenson buffs the floors until sunrise.

The job is menial, but that’s fine with Stephenson. It means he can take his eight-year-old son roller-skating, buy his 13-year-old daughter pepperoni slices, and continue to work toward his GED so that someday he might be one of the people fixing those planes. Most importantly, it’s given the longtime heroin addict, who first used at age 14, a higher purpose than finding his next dose.

“I was what they called a ‘fiend,’” Stephenson says. “But I got really tired. It turned into a job—a real hard job.”

Stephenson first cleaned up at age 35 and moved here from Pennsylvania a little more than two years ago to be near his children. He relapsed during a run of hard luck, in which he lost his job as a parking attendant, became homeless, and was arrested for panhandling. To pay for his addiction, he moved into a trap house in English Avenue, a historic black neighborhood on Atlanta’s west side, and peddled heroin. One day last spring, he sold drugs to an undercover cop.

In past years Stephenson would have landed behind bars. But federal prosecutors have come to realize that locking up non­violent dealers is futile in stopping the illicit trade that by the 1980s had turned English Avenue into “the Bluff,” the Southeast’s largest open-air heroin market.

“You could get coke, crack, meth, or pills [across] Atlanta,” says John Horn, U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Georgia. “If you were into heroin, English Avenue was really the place to go. People drove there from Alabama and Tennessee.”

Over the years, says Atlanta Police Sergeant Ben Vayens, who oversees the APD’s efforts in English Avenue, officers have routinely conducted narcotics raids of key houses and blocks. Yet each bust in English Avenue, where nearly half of the homes stand vacant, proved only a minor disturbance for the local drug trade.

In the face of America’s growing heroin epidemic, Horn’s office tried a different approach known as Drug Market Intervention. Instead of prosecuting Stephenson, they sent him an invitation to the Lindsay Street Baptist Church. “We are giving you one chance to hear our message before we are forced to take action against you,” the letter said, vowing that he wouldn’t be arrested that night. On June 30, 2015, Stephenson sank into the front pew of the crowded sanctuary and was given a choice: keep dealing and face the full extent of the law, or accept help and leave that world behind.

New York criminology professor David Kennedy, director of the National Network for Safe Communities, says the DMI approach is intended to stamp out drug markets in struggling neighborhoods. In the program, police use traditional undercover tactics to build cases against dealers. But before issuing arrest warrants, prosecutors offer dealers the two options, either of which would force them off the streets.

“It’s not [just] a program to help dealers change their ways,” Kennedy says. “Once you break the connection between dealers and buyers, you can shut down a drug market.”

English Avenue
Heroin busts in English Avenue have dropped by 39 percent.

Photograph by Melissa Golden

Since 2004 DMI has been used to disrupt dozens of drug markets in smaller cities like High Point, North Carolina, which has seen about a 50 percent drop in narcotics offenses, as well as larger ones, like Nashville. The program is most successful, Kennedy explains, when community members and cops trust each other. However, the English Avenue community remained suspicious of the police following the 2006 murder of 92-year-old Kathryn Johnston during a botched drug raid.

Initially, neighbor Tracy Bates says she assumed the program was intended to benefit the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium, not the residents. Assistant U.S. Attorney Laurel Boatright attended as many neighborhood meetings as possible to convince residents like Bates that prosecutors were sincere about working with the community.

“I come from a history of black people who don’t trust law enforcement,” says English Avenue Neighborhood Association president Mamie Moore. “But if we have an opportunity [we can] give men and women trapped in a lifestyle, if that means partnering with the U.S. Attorney’s office, that’s what we have to do.”

With the community onboard, several agencies teamed up for an undercover operation targeting around 50 dealers. Plainclothes officers bought drugs, filmed the transactions, and compiled information about the suspects. After building each case, officers in May 2015 arrested 27 dealers with rap sheets that included violent crimes. With the APD’s help, Boatright then hand-delivered second chance letters to nonviolent dealers, many of whom struggled with substance abuse themselves.

Of 18 offers, only a third were immediately accepted. Four suspects were arrested after dealing again. Several disappeared. The rest later took the offer after unrelated run-ins with the law.

For Aric Goodar, 51, a five-month jail stint for shoplifting, which violated his parole for prior heroin possession, was the last straw. A former hotel worker, he swore off drugs and signed up for Georgia Works, a program that offers men temporary housing and supervision as they seek employment.

Since February, Goodar has landed temporary jobs in construction and at an alcohol distribution center. On average, Georgia Works graduates who get a permanent job make about $11 an hour. “If I can just stay clean, everything else will fall into place,” Goodar says.

In the year after the second chance offers, heroin seizures in English Avenue dropped by 39 percent, according to APD stats. Although trafficking still rattles the area—this spring a motorist who police say was high on heroin struck three children a few blocks west of English Avenue, killing one—prosecutors say dealers have started moving indoors, a sign that the intervention is working. Vayens remains hopeful that the neighborhood’s open-air drug market will disappear altogether.

“Are all the drugs gone? No,” Moore says. “Are all the drug dealers gone? No. Are all the problems that come with that gone? No. But they’re reduced.”

To Stephenson, a devout Muslim, the intervention was divine. The letter arrived after his fourth panhandling arrest. After a short stay at the Salvation Army, he was steered toward a cluster of nonprofits in the Lindsay Street Baptist Church’s basement that offer services for mental health, housing, and addiction needs. One of them, the Urban League of Greater Atlanta, helped him get a state-issued ID and bought him a suit for his job interview.

“I’m not a villain; I’m an addict,” he says. “I was looking for a way out. They pointed me to [it].”

These days Stephenson is often tired, his eyes drooping behind his thin-rimmed glasses, but not for the same reason he used to be. The graveyard shift might not seem like much, but he’s now rediscovering a simple life with his children. And that, to him, is everything.

Vital stats
car crash deaths in Georgia in 2014

fatal drug overdoses in Georgia in 2014

Heroin overdose deaths in Fulton County in 2010

heroin overdose deaths in Fulton County in 2015

This article originally appeared in our August 2016 issue.