Closing the Center Street Drug Market

February 02, 1994

C Conditions on Westminster's Center Street have improved considerably since Gregory L. Howard was murdered there a year ago. At the time of the 22-year-old's death, dealers brazenly hawked their drugs on the street corners and in the nearby playground. Buyers from all over the county and beyond would drive to the open-air market to purchase crack, marijuana and other drugs. Since Mr. Howard's death, this unwanted market has been nearly put out of commission. The credit belongs to the neighborhood and the Westminster Police Department.

After Mr. Howard's death, city officials and the residents of the working-class neighborhood frankly discussed the pressing need to rid the streets of the hustlers and their customers. Westminster Mayor W. Benjamin Brown and Police Chief Sam Leppo increased patrols through the neighborhood -- in squad cars and on foot. Landlords evicted people known to be drug traffickers. The phone company removed a public pay phone dealers used for drug transactions. Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. installed sodium vapor street lights, eliminating the shadows that provided cover for the illicit trade.

For their part, members of the community no longer passively accept drug-dealing as they once did. Although there is no organized community group that has a formal liaison with the Westminster police, individuals feel free to anonymously call the department with tips about street deals and stashes of drugs stored in the playground. Police officers have responded quickly and have made more than a dozen drug-related arrests in the past six months.

To be sure, drug dealing has not been totally eliminated from this portion of Center Street, but the amount of drug activity has been drastically reduced, residents say. A number of them told Sun reporters that the surrounding streets are quieter at night and they no longer worry about being shot as they walk to their cars.

Clearly, this coordinated effort between the police and the community has paid off. All too often, drug dealers infiltrate a neighborhood and the residents retreat to their houses and wring their hands in despair.

If people inform police of suspicious activity, and the police respond quickly and aggressively, as happened in Westminster, open-air drug trade may never reopen so vigorously for business.

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