A swarm of more than 500 state troopers and National Guardsmen converged on Baltimore's red-light district last night and raided 24 businesses, arrested owners, employees and patrons, and declared a new era of police enforcement along the famed burlesque strip.
Last night's raids marked the first major effort by troopers in fighting city crime under an agreement worked out last year with city police.
In subfreezing temperatures and helped by more than a dozen barking police dogs, officers began storming through The Block's strip clubs and pornography shops about 8 p.m., serving 25 search warrants and leading those they arrested to Maryland Division of Correction vans. About a half-dozen Ryder moving trucks also lined the 400 block of E. Baltimore St.
The operation -- which closed down The Block for the night and could result in closing some businesses permanently -- was the culmination of a four-month state police investigation agreed upon by Gov. William Donald Schaefer, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and Col. Larry W. Tolliver, the state police superintendent.
"We felt [state police involvement] was the best way to allow the city more time to work on other crime areas. We are here making arrests for gambling, prostitution, narcotics and weapons violations. A major drug kingpin was also arrested," Colonel Tolliver said during a media briefing in front of the Circus Show Bar.
Mr. Schaefer, who toured a few of the raided bars and nightclubs, emerged saddened by what has become of The Block.
"We saw drugs, we saw prostitution, we saw liquor. It's just not right," he said. "I'm disappointed in The Block. Years and years ago, when Charles Center was first developed, The Block was left in, simply because it was a safe place. There wasn't crime, there wasn't drugs, there wasn't problems with alcohol. But what I saw tonight, it's gone down. It's really gone down."
Mr. Schaefer described the bars he saw as "not a very pretty sight. I saw places that were dingy and dirty. I saw some young people in there, and it made me very sad to see them. I could see how there was prostitution going on.
"The Block as I knew it years ago was an attraction. But tonight, it is not an attraction. It's a detriment."
Troopers were armed with 60 arrest warrants, charging about 600 criminal violations. Patrons who provided identification proving there were no warrants for them were released, state police said.
Several hundred troopers surrounded the district while troopers went door to door, serving warrants on the establishments. Police dogs sniffed the cars along the street looking for drugs.
The raids continued late last night, and the majority of those arrested remained inside while troopers walked the neon-lighted streets. The Ryder trucks were to be used to haul off gambling equipment such as video poker machines, police said.
As the police carried out their action, a horde of citizens watched, some complaining that they couldn't get to their cars and others that they couldn't get into the bars.
Eric Wilson, 28, of West Baltimore, was on his way to the 408 Club with three friends when he saw The Block teeming with police.
"I feel as though they shouldn't direct so much attention on this particular area when there are so many areas around that are full of crime. Even though there is a lot of riffraff that circulates throughout the downtown area . . . they've pretty much got everything under control. They should direct it somewhere else."
In light of The Block's closing for the night, Mr. Wilson said, he and his friend were going home to watch X-rated movies.
Colonel Tolliver said the investigation involved undercover work by troopers who posed as patrons of the bars and identified criminal activity.
He said 26 handguns and a pound of cocaine were seized from a Baltimore County man named in one of the warrants. He was arrested at his home but was identified through the investigation of The Block, investigators said. Police described him as a kingpin who used The Block for dealing drugs.
Dozens of Maryland National Guardsmen and Division of Correction and city police officers provided extra security in the area. Division of Correction vans were on hand to haul away those arrested.
Unrelenting crime, coupled with a tight budget, prompted city officials last year to consider using state police for some assignments in Baltimore.
In the past, state troopers occasionally have cooperated with city police on drug investigations. Under state law, troopers are not allowed to use their authority in the city unless invited in by the mayor or ordered in by the governor.
The governor said the cooperative efforts between state and local authorities will continue. "It's not going to stop here," Mr. Schaefer said.
Colonel Tolliver said he, too, expects more state police operations in the city.
"This is a beginning of a number of initiatives and programs. . . . We all have to work together to work together to address the violent crime problems," he said.