Nightly News   |  March 17, 2013

Detectives take drug dealers under wing

Police in North Charleston, South Carolina are taking a new approach to keeping drug dealers off the streets.

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>>> the battle to get some drug dealers off the streets has frustrated countless american communities. often it seems as soon as police arrest one dealer, another quickly takes their place. so one federal prosecutor wondered, what if instead of arresting drug dealers police tried to help them turn their lives around? what followed was a daring and emotionally charged experiment. it's a never-ending battle against neighborhood drug crime in north charleston , south carolina . it's frustrating work for narcotics detectives.

>> wherever he is, we're going to find him.

>> reporter: a chase to catch the dealers frequently leads through a resolving door. did you ever fine the people you're putting away you see them back on the street?

>> oh, sometimes the same day.

>> reporter: but these cops are at the center of a groundbreaking and controversial new program to sut thhut that revolving door . stand -- stop and take a new direction. instead of arresting they're assigned to mentor them for a year, try to convert them from law breaking to law abiding citizens. from the start, the officers are skeptical these men can change.

>> i'm not a social worker. i'm a cop.

>> reporter: and the drug dealers clearly don't trust the detectives.

>> all of a sudden change?

>> you don't have to like the police. like yourself enough to want to make change for you and your son.

>> reporter: as the transformation unfolds, the detectives put these men through drug counseling, jobs, community service and intensive school work to earn their high school bl diplomas. it is a grueling 14/7 pace as officers spend hours behind the wheel coaching and coaxing the former criminals.

>> i'm tired, too.

>> reporter: but just two months into the program, it becomes clear both sides are developing a lasting bond.

>> it's consumed my life. i would have thought at the beginning of the program that i would have become so attached to these group of guys.

>> reporter: but financial pressures end up claiming one of the men the detectives tried so hard to save. he's arrested for possession of $3,000 worth of cocaine.

>> i'm not going to lie. that broke my heart. it just killed me.

>> did you it.

>> reporter: it's hard to accept that all the men won't make it through the program. but these once-skeptical cops refuse to give up.

>> if we can affect one life, that's a ripple effect through that family. you're talking countless people. countless.

>> similar programs have been tried in other cities to offer drug dealers an alternative to jail. what makes the north charleston approach different is that the men are mentored through a tightly organized year-long program to make sure they get the skills needed to succeed. you can see our full hour on this program tonight on "dateline" at 7:00, 6:00 central.