More news from the front:
Last month, Baltimore city buried a six-year-old girl, killed as she walked near her home by a stray bullet. A young man loitering in an area known as an open-air drug market was later charged with firing the shot.
That same day, politicians gathered at a press conference to announce the latest in a series of drug enforcement task forces. This one, dubbed Project Achilles, involved local police and federal agents. Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke cautioned that the new task force "will not be any quick magic-wand solution" to Baltimore's crime problem.
Last week, city residents gathered on lawns and street corners for one evening to symbolically retrieve their neighborhoods from drugs and crime as part of the annual National Night Out celebration. After some speeches, residents returned to their homes and within hours, two young city men were shot to death in unrelated incidents.
It may look like a war on drugs and violence from on high, but at street-level it seems little more than a sham. That, in essence, is the view not only of inner-city residents who have lived through more anti-drug initiatives than they can count, but of many veteran police officers who know with certainty that they are losing ground.
Privately, in radio cars and district roll-call rooms, more and more officers seem willing to admit that the current strategies are ineffective. "We've lost our credibility in the community," says one veteran cop.
There are now as many as 50,000 heroin and cocaine users in Baltimore, but only 17,000 prison beds in the state. Street-level narcotics traffickers and users are locked up with regularity, only to be returned from a swollen city jail to the street. Police department commanders are judged not by the quality of the arrests that they make -- by violence reduced, or by real estate reclaimed from drug dealers -- but by the quantity. For his part, the mayor continues to note that the city has 100,000 registered "block watchers," though the significance of such a number in the wake of rising crime rates seems unclear.
Last month, an editorial in this newspaper -- written in frustration after the meaningless death of 6-year-old Tiffany Smith -- suggested something rather remarkable. It asked city police officials to consider "a turf battle that will pit the police and law-abiding citizens on one side and the criminal element on the other."
In brief, the editorial urged the city to do this: "Designate a major thoroughfare like Edmondson Avenue or North Avenue and reclaim it and the surrounding neighborhoods from drug pushers and addicts."
What better way could there be to re-establish the credibility of Baltimore's anti-drug effort? If the city permanently reclaimed one of its worst neighborhoods, that fact alone could be regarded as the most tangible victory in two decades of drug enforcement. If City Hall and the police department cannot do even that, then at least we are left with answers to larger questions about our drug enforcement policies.
"Community-based policing" is the current national watch-phrase among law officers, who say that the future belongs to those police departments that manage to integrate fully their officers with local residents, rather than simply use them to handle emergency calls.
It's hardly a new concept -- good patrolmen are supposed to know the people on their posts -- but it's one that has been lost by the majority of city police officers, who amid the rising violence have come to regard ghetto neighborhoods not as turf to be defended, but merely as hunting ground for daily arrests.
As part of its ongoing self-assessment, the city department is looking toward community-based policing as an alternative, but how such programs are to be implemented is still up in the air. No one can successfully explain where a 2,800-person department that has lost 500 positions in 15 years is going to find the manpower to both respond to crime and enhance its community role.
"Not only do you have questions of manpower to consider," says Maj. Ronald Daniels, director of personnel and an ex-tactical commander, "but you have to think about training. If these officers are going to be responsible for greater variety of things, then they need to be trained to a greater degree."
"We don't have the tools to try to do this properly on a city-wide basis," says one veteran detective, who asks not to be named. "If we try it across-the-board, it'll be a mess."
Instead, veteran detectives and prosecutors suggest a pilot program workable with existing resources. What follows is a cumulative suggestion from some of this city's best cops -- many of whom do not want to be identified as critical of their own department.
Their plan: Plant the flag.