Determined neighbors can slow drug traffic

September 13, 1993

Call a well-educated professional woman who heads a small neighborhood group not far from Park Heights and Woodland avenues to ask about the drug trade.

"I'll help you any way I can," she says, "but please don't print my name." In the past year, she says, one bullet passed through her bedroom wall, stopping her stereo in mid-tune. Another was fired through her parked car, leaving a hole in her headrest.

There is so much gunfire in the area, she says, that it is possible that the bullets simply went astray. But they may have been intended to discourage her anti-drug activities. She's taking no chances.

The good citizens far outnumber the bad, even around a drug corner like Park Heights and Woodland. But law-abiding adult homeowners are intimidated into silence by teen-agers with guns. Neighbors fear to scold the dealers or to speak to their parents. They help the police only surreptitiously.

In a neighborhood so demoralized by the drug trade as this one, it is easy to despair of any local solution.

But many tactics have been used elsewhere with some success to weaken or break up street drug markets.

Among them:

* Trace the owners of houses being used to stash drugs, house dealers or shelter addicts and seek eviction of troublemakers or even confiscation of the property. Baltimore's Community Law Center recently began to identify such houses in seven neighborhoods, including Pimlico, to target under the state's nuisance abatement law.

* Target the area for constant, aggressive street cleaning. The intersection of Woodland and Park Heights often is strewn with trash despite the clean-up efforts of some neighbors. Dealers often conceal small stashes in crumpled bags camouflaged by litter.

* Renovate or raze vacant houses. Within a few blocks of the drug corner, streets are dotted with vacant rowhouses that provide cover for dealers and users.

* Intimidate customers, especially those from outside the area who travel by car. Neighbors can trace drug buyers' license tags and sending or phone them a warning.

* Organize walks or marches past drug corners to restore a sense of community and erode the dealers' feeling of ownership.

* Videotape drug dealers and customers -- not covertly, but openly and obviously. Dealers invariably grew nervous and usually scattered when a Baltimore Sun photographer tried to take their pictures.

"The most important thing is removing the feeling of impunity that exists in these drug markets," says Roger Conner co-author of "The Winnable War: A Community Guide to Eradicating Street Drug Markets," a self-help guide for neighborhoods that has sold 15,000 copies since 1991.

While street-cleaning may seem a feeble response to gun-toting drug peddlers, Mr. Conner says that any move by residents to reassert control over their neighborhood can make the area less comfortable for dealers.

"The drug dealers are like jackals. They never take down a healthy animal," he says. "Slightly dilapidated houses, lots growing weeds, trash on the ground -- those are all cues the dealers look for."

Mr. Conner says violent retaliation by dealers against neighborhood activists is rare, though there have been several instances around the country. His organization, the American Alliance for Rights and Responsibilities, advises neighbors to work in groups and avoid direct confrontation with dealers if there is a chance of violence.

Sometimes, as unnerving as it can be, speaking directly to drug dealers can produce small victories. Christine White, who lives on Pimlico Road a few blocks south of Woodland, confronted the dealers in front of her immaculate rowhouse one summer afternoon in 1990.

Arriving home from work, she saw the crowd and lost her temper. "I said, 'Move! Move!' They looked at me like I was crazy. But they moved, and they haven't been back since."

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