Police unit battles on 2 fronts to reclaim corners from drug thugs

October 21, 1992|By David Simon | David Simon,Staff Writer

"This corner," says Kevin Brown, pointing at the pavement, "is now ours."

From a half-dozen sullen faces lined up against the corner carryout comes only quiet indifference. Police sweeps and new task forces come and go; every dealer and user at Springhill and Towanda avenues has seen the act before.

"We got your names," says Detective Brown, a plainclothes officer with the Baltimore Police Department's fledgling Violent Crimes Task Force. "And even if you gave us a bad name, we know your faces. You come back to this corner, you're going to jail . . . so get gone."

The crowd wanders off, except for two dealers in handcuffs who were caught selling cocaine to an undercover officer. Two others from the corner, New Yorkers with no identification, are also going downtown to have fingerprints checked and photos taken.

On paper, the tally from Towanda and Springhill is two street-level arrests, a notebook page full of names and addresses, and fresh photographs of two New York Boys who would otherwise be unknown to Baltimore law enforcement. And yet, an hour from now, dealers will be back on the corner.

That outcome reflects the contradictory missions of the new 30-man task force. Announced by Police Commissioner Edward V. Woods in August after community leaders criticized the city's response to the growing crime problem, the Violent Crimes Task Force now can point to several successes.

But task force officials acknowledge that the unit hasn't resolved a conflict of basic goals. The first is the desire to clear corners and lock people up. The second is the need -- much-neglected by the Baltimore department in recent years, critics say -- to gather intelligence on the city's drug trade, then use it to target the most violent offenders.

At this point, the task force is trying to do both.

"This is not supposed to be a drug unit," says Harry Edgerton, the unit's senior detective. "If we spend all our time making drug arrests or clearing the drug-free zones, we're not going to have the impact we need to have."

The lack of an intelligence base is regarded by many detectives and patrol officers as a key factor in the department's slow response to drug trafficking trends, such as the arrival of Dominicans in certain areas of the city, or the influx of hundreds of New York drug traffickers.

The department also has been crippled by the absence of any computerized system for retaining drug intelligence. Information from hundreds of narcotics and drug-related homicide probes stays in the individual case files, with no way for the department to consolidate such material.

Noting that the data gleaned by the task force are to be entered into a planned computer base, Detective Edgerton says his unit needs one more full-time analyst: "Everyone who comes to this unit can't expect that they're going to put on sneakers and go out on the street. If it's going to work, we need people to be back in the office as well."

Already the task force has made New Yorkers a high priority. "If they're New Yorkers or we even think they're New Yorkers and they're out on a drug corner," says Sgt. Andre Street, a veteran plainclothesman, "then they go downtown. That's my rule."

The task force has also established an informal liaison with the district attorney's office in the Bronx, from which many of the young traffickers come. That link has led to the unit's most effective work so far.

"The system worked"

Contacted by Bronx detectives about a 22-year-old New Yorker named Turon Leighton Williams, who was wanted for a double shooting and believed to be in Baltimore, task force detectives quickly matched the information to a man known here as Ty Williams, or New York Ty.

For more than two years, Baltimore police have suspected Ty Williams of running the violent New York crews that have taken control of several lucrative drug markets in Southwest Baltimore centered at Hollins and Payson streets. Within days, Turon Williams was in custody on nothing more than traffic charges, and, without the time and cost of a lengthy drug probe, he was back in the Bronx, charged in the double shooting.

"The system worked as it should because people were finally talking to each other," says Detective Alan Sampson of the Bronx district attorney's office.

"To have real impact on violent crime, you have to pinpoint the people causing the violence and take them out," says Detective Edgerton. "It doesn't matter whether it's a gun charge, or drugs, or whatever, just so you're doing it to the right people."

That kind of police work requires time, however, and task force officers say that hard-pressed department officials aren't going to be satisfied to show results only in the long term.

"We want citizens to see immediate action," Lt. Col. Joseph R. Bolesta said when the task force was created. "The No. 1 priority is to make people feel safe and give them their neighborhoods back."

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