Vigilant, Not Vigilantes

November 28, 1993

Residents of the Forest Heights community in West Baltimore, who are conducting a novel form of warfare against neighborhood drug dealers and their customers, may have hit upon a strategy to help other communities fight back, too.

Instead of confronting the criminals directly, Forest Heights residents collect the tag numbers of suspicious cars and have the City Council president send car owners a letter saying the car was spotted near a drug market. The tactic seems to be effective against suburban drug buyers who scoot into the city ++ for a quick fix.

The effort has its critics, but Forest Heights' residents are being vigilant, not vigilantes. They aim to intimidate, but their method is non-violent. For middle-class drug abusers, the threats of exposure and embarrassment often are more effective than the possibility of arrest or imprisonment.

The tactic itself is not new. A decade ago, residents of thDistrict of Columbia's 14th Street "Sin Strip" adopted a similar approach to would-be patrons of prostitutes who had made the area a base of operations. Residents took down tag numbers and wrote letters to the owners of cars seen cruising the area. Coupled with an aggressive police presence that closed off the main drag through the neighborhood during peak hours of the illicit trade, the residents' hard work eventually paid off in a gradual decline of the business.

The initiative in Forest Heights seems likely to achieve a similar success if residents there get comparable support from local police and city officials.

When people are trying to put their own house in order -- without taking the law into their own hands -- the least the city can do is offer support.

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