Serious questions about the police

March 11, 1993

Some of the charges of corrupt or mismanaged narcotics enforcement in Baltimore rest on evidence that can be proved or disproved by a competent investigator armed with subpoena powers and access to the secret portion of the grand jury report that made the accusations. Were search warrants or evidence suppressed because they were directed against well-connected people? Was a federal grant to fight the crack cocaine epidemic misused for routine overtime pay? Were black officers transferred from the central drug squad when this largess became available?

Other allegations by the special grand jury instructed to investigate narcotics law enforcement in Baltimore are less readily documented, but they, too, go to the heart of the city's war on drugs. Does the Police Department concentrate on cheap, easy arrests of minor street peddlers and drug users in order to make its record look good? Is it deliberately passing up opportunities to catch ringleaders and the businessmen who help them launder dirty money? Does it fritter away its resources and allow its top narcotics investigators to work essentially nine-to-five days?

A look at arrest statistics raises some serious questions. According to a recent study by the U.S. Department of Justice, Baltimore police made proportionately more drug arrests than any city other than Atlanta. But they were almost entirely piddling cases -- simple possession and petty street deals. In 1989 fewer than 1,000 of more than 17,000 persons arrested on drug charges were actually sentenced to jail. Nearly two-thirds never went to trial.

Is this what the police should be doing? Or should the department be using its manpower on the much longer, more sophisticated investigations that trap the dealers who really infest the city with their poisonous merchandise? The grand jury believes the police have the resources to conduct major investigations but are afraid to touch influential people. Law enforcement officials insist they do not have the tools and leave the major investigations to the better-equipped federal authorities. Citizens want drug peddlers cleared from their neighborhoods, these officials insist. They care less about the big-time operators they only hear about.

Questions like these will not be answered in criminal investigations by federal or state authorities. They are essentially questions about how effectively the police are combating the cancer eating away at so many neighborhoods and fueling crime everywhere. They can be answered only by an objective examination of the department's narcotics units by a qualified outsider. It is Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's responsibility to have one made.

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