Squabbling over The Block

March 17, 1994

The Maryland State Police raid on The Block last January needs to be examined as a law enforcement operation, not a political issue or least of all as another episode in the squabbling between City Hall and the State House. Once again, Gov. William Donald Schaefer has appeared to take any criticism of a state action as a personal affront. His assertion that, by reporting problems with the operation, The Baltimore Sun is abetting drug dealers and prostitutes reflects discredit on him, not us.

The question is not whether there should have been a raid on The Block. It's how the raid was carried out. Mr. Schaefer can snipe all he wants at Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and other city officials for their reasoned criticisms. But why not stop the public caterwauling and get down to the real issues?

Whatever romanticized memories they may have of its past, no one familiar with what The Block has become can deny that it is now a sleazy anachronism. Without question, laws and Liquor Board regulations are violated there every night. Despite the governor's professed shock at discovering prostitution there the night of the raid, that ancient practice continues to flourish on The Block as it has for decades. The sale of illegal drugs is a contemporary addition to the long-standing hustling of watered-down liquor, overpriced pseudo-champagne and $20 glasses of iced tea for the B-girls. A police raid was amply justified. But that's not the issue.

The raid was a grossly overblown operation mounted as much for publicity as for law enforcement purposes. It didn't require some 500 state troopers to search the handful of bars and porno shops on and around Baltimore Street. Cooperation between the state police and Baltimore's overburdened police force is welcome, but not in order to mount spectacles designed for the 11 o'clock news.

There are other serious questions that seem not to be getting the high-level attention they deserve. What sort of reasoning lay behind the diversion of one-third of the state police force to this operation? What does it tell us about the command competence of Superintendent Larry W. Tolliver, the governor's chief bodyguard who was elevated from captain to colonel over the heads of officers with far more executive experience? Were the rights of innocent bystanders trampled during the raid?

Mr. Schaefer can brandish all the hyped-up arrest statistics he wishes. The serious ones boil down to a handful of drug arrests that could have been handled just as effectively with less fanfare. Baltimore would welcome professional assistance from the state police, on The Block or elsewhere. Just let it be old-fashioned, effective police work.

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