Housing police face danger, frustration Suspects elusive, often better armed

September 18, 1992|By Melody Simmons | Melody Simmons,Staff Writer

Sgt. Michelle K. Holmes of the Housing Authority police was cruising through West Baltimore when the patrol car radio crackled with an urgent call. She turned on the siren and sped toward the George B. Murphy Homes to investigate a report of gunshots.

Sergeant Holmes and her rookie partner, Aidrine Murphy, raced to the 10th floor of a high rise, where they searched the dark, narrow stairwells and vacant apartments looking for the gunman. A suspect was questioned but released.

There were no injuries and no arrests, and the officers were unable to determine who fired the shots or why.

It was a typical call for the officers, who are part of a 45-member squad that routinely patrols 17 high-rise apartment buildings in East and West Baltimore. The police force was created five years ago in response the drug-related violence that plagues the high rises.

During the the first quarter of this year, Housing Authority officers made 182 arrests for crimes ranging from drug offenses and aggravated assaults to trespassing and indecent exposure.

Some officers describe their job as frustrating and dangerous. Increasingly, the officers say, they are confronted by criminals packing high-powered handguns and military-style assault weapons. Some Housing Authority officers pack powerful 9mm handguns, but others are armed with .38-caliber revolvers, which are considered obsolete for police work.

Last month, two Housing Authority police officers and eight city police officers were pinned down by sniper fire at Flag House Courts, a housing development near Little Italy.

The five-hour incident ended after the officers were rescued by an armored personnel carrier borrowed from the Prince George's County Police Department.

"We're up against Uzis, Mac-10s, and there are some reports of AK-47 rifles. We've seen the 9mm and your garden-variety .22-caliber gun," said Col. William H. Matthews, who heads the Housing Authority police force. "It's chess. Unfortunately, we're dealing with human players in a game of wits and strategy."

The officers also say they would be more effective if they had more patrol cars with better radios. The force has 10 cars, and its officers share a busy radio frequency with the city Sheriff's Department.

The Housing Authority police operate on a $6 million annual budget financed through a federal drug enforcement grant and a portion of the community development block grant money the city receives from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

HUD also finances the Housing Authority, but the city agency cannot earmark any of that money for its police force because HUD does not recognize security as an operating expense for public housing, explained Bill Toohey, spokesman for the Housing Authority.

Housing Authority officers are paid an average of $23,000 annually, $7,000 less than city police officers earn. Mr. Toohey said pay raises depend on funding and that "given the limited resources, we think we are doing as good as we can."

Colonel Matthews said his officers are frequently shot at and often witness drug dealing in the high-rises.

But it is difficult to arrest dealers because they hire lookouts who shout warnings from stairwells and balconies when police approach, he said.

Some officers also expressed frustration with an overburdened judicial system that they said seems to allow some criminals to get out on the streets shortly after they are arrested.

"Over and over again, it's the same people we arrest," Colonel Matthews said. "It's frustrating. It's a question of stamina, who can persevere the longest. This is a long-distance race, a marathon."

Colonel Matthews said his officers waged a losing battle with drug dealers until this spring, when Operation Clean Sweep was launched. The operation's objective is to get the dealers out of the 17 high-rises in four housing developments -- Lafayette Courts, Flag House Courts, Murphy Homes and Lexington Terrace.

Colonel Matthews said Operation Clean Sweep has allowed the authority to gain control over much of Lafayette Courts, where at least 30 arrests have been made since May, when the crackdown began.

"In early May, this place was an open-air drug market," Colonel Matthews said while driving through Lafayette Courts on Aisquith Street in East Baltimore. "Drug dealers were shooting at us regularly and at the police and shooting at the [nearby] post office. Now there is a complete rebirth of this community. It's been very time-consuming and very expensive, but the rewards are unimaginable."

At Lexington Terrace on West Saratoga Street in West Baltimore, the officers thwarted dealers by setting up a command post on their home turf, Colonel Matthews said. But the operation has been difficult for many officers, who are working double shifts. The force's overtime bill exceeds $60,000 a month.

"It's incredible," Officer Edward Fallon said of Operation Clean Sweep. "We have officers who are suffering from burnout and other stress-related illnesses. The operation is working for the short term, but whether we can sustain it will require more assistance from other law enforcement agencies."

Some authority police officers said they are devoted to their jobs because they grew up in public housing and are disgusted by the crime and blight in the high-rises.

"We kiss a few babies and shake a few hands," said Officer Duncan E. Vines, 33, who grew up in Lafayette Courts. "We're in the community police mode now. We walk through the developments to give us a feel for what's going on. This is a way for us to get out here and give back. That's one of the things that motivates me."

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