Afterthoughts on Raiding The Block

January 19, 1994|By DAVID SIMON

Whether Friday night's raid of Baltimore's Block resulted from a plan by state and city officials to dismantle the city's red-light district remains to be seen. The coming court fights for possession of East Baltimore Street liquor licenses will tell that tale.

From a law-enforcement perspective, however, the sprawling, 500-trooper operation -- performed largely to the exclusion of the Baltimore Police Department -- has given birth to a couple of extraordinary suggestions:

* The contention that an outside police agency had to be brought in to police a crime-ridden strip that sits adjacent to the Baltimore Police Department headquarters -- a circumstance that implies corruption or incompetence on the part of the local department.

* The suggestion that the show of force by state officials was out of proportion to the assignment. With the city's murder rate soaring and much of that violence concentrated around the drug corners of the east and west sides, why expend such effort to pursue prosecutions in an area relatively free of violence, if not drugs and other notable vices?

Since Friday night, these two suggestions have been voiced on radio talk shows and been hinted at as well in some news reports. Why, many have asked, aren't 500 troopers surrounding some East Baltimore housing project? And what are the officers of the Baltimore department doing in the meantime?

Reasonable questions on the face of it. But in truth, the answers, in this case, are equally reasonable and far less dramatic.

The suggestion regarding local police corruption on The Block is, from all available evidence, without much merit. The Baltimore department does have a growing integrity problem, but some recent research by The Sun suggests it isn't systemic, organized corruption of a kind that plagued Baltimore in early 1970s.

Rather than a problem on The Block, police corruption is showing up increasingly in the city's bloated drug markets, where some individual officers -- poorly trained and poorly supervised -- have become little better than rogue profiteers, feeding off the ubiquitous street-corner drug trade.

Spend time in an inner-city neighborhood and the people selling and using drugs will soon provide you with an analysis of the officers policing them. By name or nickname, they will tell you that this officer is brutal, that one not; this one steals money from arrestees and lies in court, while that one plays the game by the rules.

But spend some time on The Block talking to doormen, dancers or bartenders and it's clear that no similar situation exists. Except for one or two veteran officers, Block people often can't name or identify the people policing them -- normally a prerequisite for graft.

''We didn't have any concern about corruption,'' says State Police Superintendent Larry Tolliver. ''In fact, we asked for some help from the city narcotics squad and we worked well with several detectives in the case. We weren't looking at corruption and we didn't find it.''

Nor did FBI officials find corruption when they spent months looking at The Block a decade ago. Officers on Baltimore Street are rotated to other assignments regularly, and their primary chore is policing the area against violence and property crime. When officers do venture into the clubs, their arrival is preceded by warnings from the doormen and illegal activity is quickly curtailed.

The officers check the premises and leave quickly: ''I don't like to hang around too long,'' muses one honest soul. ''I don't want the club people to even think that I'm waiting around for a payoff.''

Does the limited police presence mean the city department has been looking the other way from crime in the Baltimore Street clubs? Of course, but not because of corruption. In a city with a murder a day and more than 100 drug markets operating full-time, there is justifiably less priority to eradicating the self-contained vices of The Block.

In short, the Baltimore department, despite genuine problems relating to strength and performance, has its priorities straight in this instance. After all, no less a sage than Russell Baker long ago noted that Baltimore was a more functional city than its neighbors because it learned early to distinguish between vice and sin; vice as the usual Block currency, sin as evidenced in human bodies that continue to fall on the drug corners of East and West Baltimore.

Which brings us to the second argument. Did state police overreact?

There are certainly any number of Baltimore neighborhoods at great risk from violence and drugs; all of them could do with the attentions of whatever new police legions the governor can make available.

On the other hand, the charges issued thus far in The Block investigation generally respect the priorities. They are drug charges -- an indication that many Block people were themselves heading the wrong way on the vice-sin continuum. Judged by the outcome, a crackdown on Baltimore Street was overdue.

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