Showtime on The Block

March 16, 1994

Despite Gov. William Donald Schaefer's heated defense of the state police raid on The Block two months ago, it was an overblown extravaganza for the TV cameras. It didn't produce very much, except for several drug cases that could have been handled differently. And it created some problems for the Maryland State Police. Even if Baltimore police officials did approve the idea under a new cooperative arrangement with the state, it was badly executed, as Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and other officials have insisted.

What was once a raunchy entertainment zone that attracted visitors from out of town has degenerated into a squalid cluster of rip-off joints. A police sweep of what's left is undoubtedly justified from time to time. But did it require one-third of the whole state police force -- so many troopers they had to be transported in rented trucks? No.

Vice investigations are a tricky business. Knowing there's prostitution or drug peddling in a particular place is one thing. Proving it is another. That usually requires undercover police who necessarily take on the sordid personas of the people they're trying to catch. The line between being a good actor and becoming a real participant is a fine one and can be crossed inadvertently or carelessly. That may have happened in the four-month state police probe. Three troopers are under internal investigation as a result.

Distressing as that sort of conduct might be, the real internal investigation should be into the way the operation was mounted by senior state police officials, including Superintendent Larry W. Tolliver. Was a raid on The Block the best use of state police in assisting Baltimore's overburdened force? Did a raid on The Block call for a quasi-military operation that sealed off several blocks? How well was the rest of the state protected while so many troopers were grandstanding for the cameras on Baltimore Street? Were the civil rights of innocent customers and bar employees trampled in the heavy-handed raid? Do senior state police officials know how to mount a large operation of this sort?

Is anyone in Annapolis asking those questions? If not, why not?

Whatever value The Block had to Baltimore 30 years ago -- and time has dimmed memories of the vices prevalent then -- it has none now. Few of its shrinking number of establishments could exist without nightly violations of the law and Liquor Board regulations. Strict, regular police enforcement would clean the neighborhood out in a few months, and downtown would be the better for it. Baltimore does not need circuses orchestrated for the 11 o'clock news, but good old-fashioned police work. Either the Baltimore police or the state police are capable of carrying it out, given the right kind of orders and professional leadership.

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