Grand jury forgets drugs to pursue alien agenda

WILEY A. HALL

March 11, 1993|By WILEY A. HALL

National studies indicate that twice as many whites use drugs as blacks or other minorities. And since police say most drug users buy their narcotics from people they know -- family members, friends or co-workers -- there must be an awful lot of whites dealing drugs out there.

Yet, the nation's law enforcement efforts are concentrated in poor, urban, predominantly minority communities. Blacks and Hispanics make up a disproportionate share of arrests. Blacks and Hispanics, once arrested, are more likely to go to prison than their white counterparts and for longer periods of time.

In Baltimore, for instance, a recent study found that well over half of the city's population of young black males are either incarcerated, on parole or probation, or are being sought by police on a warrant. Most of these men had been charged with drug-related offenses.

And, since the overwhelming majority of all law enforcement officials are white, it is hard to tell whether we are engaged in a drug war or a race war.

The numbers bothered Baltimore Circuit Court Judge Kenneth L. Johnson so much that he asked a grand jury to investigate.

Judge Johnson wanted to find out why this city's predominantly white police force seemingly had locked its attention on young black men, most of whom were low-level street dealers or addicts.

What about white street dealers, Judge Johnson asked. What about the kingpins and money men that set up these operations? What about the seemingly legitimate white businessmen who launder money for dealers, taking cash payments for expensive cars, for instance, and not reporting those transactions to the IRS?

Finally, the judge wanted to know if all of these arrests represented the most effective way of waging the war on drugs.

These are important policy questions.

Drugs are devastating the black community here despite close to 20,000 arrests each year. Violence continues to escalate. The incidence of AIDS is spreading fastest among intravenous drug users, their lovers and their offspring. Families are ripped asunder by the incarceration of the man of the household.

Either police need to step up their arrests or try another tactic.

But something happened during the grand jury investigation launched five months ago.

The grand jury got sidetracked. It lost its focus. Police officers and other witnesses called before the panel had their own agenda and it was that agenda that prevailed.

And so, Tuesday, the grand jury released its final report, one that focused on allegations of corruption, stupidity and mismanagement on the part of the police department's command staff.

The panel alleged that high-ranking officers intervened in ongoing investigations to protect "certain elected officials."

The report said ranking officers failed to follow up on investigators' warnings that violent hoodlums from New York were taking over the city's drug trade. They said the narcotics division may have mismanaged its budget.

These are very serious charges and they should be investigated by a special prosecutor, just as the grand jury recommended.

But several sources insist that the charges will come to nothing, that they resulted from disgruntled underlings sniping at their superiors in some cases; or official stupidity, not criminal activity, in others.

I suspect they are right. Meanwhile, an opportunity has been lost.

The city's police officers, no doubt, will continue waging their fierce, take-all-prisoners war on drugs. Often, they sound like Vietnam vets -- blaming all of their failures on the fact that their hands are tied by politics.

The grand jury blew an opportunity to uncover another possibility for our apparent failure to effectively combat drugs. Maybe Judge Johnson should have turned the charges over to a special prosecutor the minute they were raised so that the grand jury could stick to its original mission.

We can win a war on drugs. A race war, though, is a no-win situation.

I believe the grand jury would have concluded that we are locked in a no-win situation.

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