Drugs: A war with futile tactics

February 07, 1994|By David Simon | David Simon,Sun Staff Writer

A photo caption in yesterday's Sun incorrectly described the assignment of several police officers seen making a street sweep. The officers, shown arresting a man wanted on a warrant, were from the Northwestern District.

The Sun regrets the errors.

In assessing the Baltimore Police Department's war on drugs, consider the case of Rodney Curtis, who inhabits one drug corner in one neighborhood of a beleaguered city.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

Arrested at Fayette and Mount streets in July, Curtis, 19, was soon released and then arrested again for loitering at the West Baltimore corner a month later. Released on his own recognizance, he was within days rearrested for possession of heroin.

In October, he failed to show up in court and was promptly arrested for drug possession. In December, he finally went to trial and was sentenced to six months' probation.

Two weeks ago, Curtis was arrested yet again for loitering on the same drug corner. That's five petty arrests, thousands of dollars in court time, jail costs and police overtime -- with the grand result that Rodney Curtis has yet another court date.

And while Mr. Curtis is one of hundreds arrested on drug #F charges at the corner of Mount and Fayette last year, the neighborhood and the city have little to show for the effort. The intersection is as bloated with dealers, touts and addicts as ever.

Curtis personifies the futility of the department's drug enforcement effort. In 1992, 18,779 arrests costing hundreds of thousands of dollars in police work and court time resulted in 956 adult offenders going to prison for any time at all.

There is simply no prison or jail space available for Baltimore's street-level drug offenders, and given the realities of Maryland's fiscal condition, little likelihood that more prison space will soon become available.

Nevertheless, much of the Baltimore Police Department's effort in the war on drugs remains geared to arresting street-level violators. The rate of drug arrests in Baltimore remained nearly three times the national average for cities of comparable size in 1991, the last year in which such statistics are available.

Why? Many reasons, say veteran commanders and officers, not the least of which is the simple, overriding fact that no arrest is easier than a street-level lock-up for drugs.

Patrol officers can ride through any one of 75 or 80 open-air drug markets and, using minimal or nonexistent probable cause, jack up a tout or junkie for an arrest statistic. One or two such cases and that officer will get his court-time pay up at the District Court, where the entire event will, most likely, be rendered meaningless. Ten caps of cocaine or two, one bag of heroin or 20 -- it hardly matters, say many critics in the department.

In 1989, for example, the year in which city police commanders dedicated themselves to arresting a record number of drug suspects, Baltimore officers for the first time arrested more than 18,000. Week after week, according to detectives, narcotics commanders posted the daily count, telling subordinates that 52 citywide arrests a day would more than guarantee an all-time mark.

Yet in that banner year, exactly 908 drug defendants were sent to prison and less than half that number served more than a year; the rest received court dismissals or probation, according to state corrections data. Nonetheless, department officials continued to pursue the same strategy.

By contrast, other U.S. cities managed to reduce overall crime by de-emphasizing street-level drug work and concentrating instead on felony investigation and the targeting of violent offenders. In New York, for example, former Police Commissioner Lee Brown ordered the department to reduce 90,000 annual drug arrests by a third, freeing officers for other things. Crime fell by 4 percent.

In Baltimore, however, police were busy arresting a larger percentage of the population for drugs than any other major American city, save for Atlanta -- but to little ultimate effect. Few were jailed, and no established drug market was cleared or closed for more than a day or two. In fact, the number of drug corners began to multiply.

Yet police commanders proudly stuck to their policy. "The department is responding to the drug crisis by significantly increasing the arrest rate," then-Police Commissioner Edward V. Woods told the governor's commission on drugs and alcohol in 1989.

'Next case'

In neighborhoods under siege, few are fooled.

"You sit there and watch two, or three or four officers, with four cars and a wagon and the helicopter and everything else running out on a corner to lock someone up for a couple bags of dope," declared taxi driver James Mears, president of West Baltimore's Winchester Improvement Association, at a community meeting last fall. "They're spending all that money and the guy will be back on that corner in a day or two. It doesn't make sense."

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