Drug sweep targets East Baltimore

March 20, 1994|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,Sun Staff Writer

More than 100 police officers swept through a drug-ridden, midtown neighborhood off North Avenue yesterday afternoon, arresting people described as major cocaine dealers -- and saying the sweep was just the first of many.

Undercover and uniformed officers fanned out in the Barclay-East Baltimore Midway neighborhood and detained residents and visitors as they searched for 49 people indicted last week on charges ranging from drug dealing to gun possession.

Officers raided 14 houses -- four in the 700 block of E. 21st St. -- and confiscated weapons and drugs in an area of the city that has been particularly violent in recent years.

Police said the effort was the culmination of a six-week undercover investigation dubbed "Operation Midway" in which officers said they bought drugs in the community.

The sweep came nearly one year after a shooting in the 500 block of E. 21st St. that left 12 people injured after a dice game and brought national television coverage to Baltimore's inner-city woes.

"This is one of the heaviest drug-infested areas in Baltimore," said Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, who toured alleys and talked to residents as police officers continued to frisk and arrest suspects.

"I think the message we are trying to convey is that we want this area back for the neighbors and not the drug dealers," the mayor said. "The idea is take the corners and to send a signal that we are going to have a lot of different tactics in going after these guys."

The operation came two months after 500 state troopers raided The Block -- a police action that has been criticized by city officials as overkill and for not concentrating on other areas of the city where violence and drug dealing are more prevalent.

Yesterday, Mayor Schmoke declined to compare the two police actions, saying The Block raid "is history as far as I'm concerned," and emphasizing that yesterday's raid was unlike other police actions in the city.

"This is not just your blanket kind of street sweep where you get a lot of low-level guys," he said, adding later: "It's different than what I've seen in the past. If this is what people want, they are going to see more of this."

Last year, police said eight slayings and 48 shootings occurred inthe area targeted by yesterday's raid. In the first three months of this year, three more slayings and eight shootings have occurred.

Baltimore's police commissioner, Thomas C. Frazier, who was confirmed by the City Council last month, had promised "to take back the drug corners and hold them," a statement he has repeated in interviews and to community groups.

Yesterday, standing at East 20th Street and Greenmount Avenue, Commissioner Frazier said he has begun keeping his word.

"We have got to get the gun violence off the street," he said. "This is how we decided to do it . . . we will stay here on the corner as long as we need to do it."

The commissioner said that in many cases, bail had been preset because suspects already had been indicted by a grand jury. It is an important point, he said, because it means the alleged dealers will not be back on the street the next day -- a complaint that echoes through communities after high-profile arrests that result in only minor charges.

"These dealers will not get out of jail until after trial, unless they can make their bail," Commissioner Frazier said, adding that bail has been set for $50,000 to $1 million for the people indicted.

Police started serving the arrest warrants about 2 p.m. and simultaneously hit 14 homes that they described as either stash houses where drugs were kept or as places from which drugs were dealt.

Sam Ringgold, a police spokesman, said 120 officers participated in the raids, including uniformed members of the Eastern District and undercover officers with the Violent Crimes Task Force. No shots were fired, and no injuries were reported. Police concentrated yesterday on an area from North Avenue to East 25th Street and from Homewood Avenue to Guilford Avenue.

Mr. Ringgold said 10 of the 49 people indicted were arrested in yesterday's sweep. An additional 20 people were arrested on drug or weapons charges because they either were inside raided homes or allegedly found to be carrying drugs while on the street.

Names were not available yesterday evening because police were processing complaints and writing charging documents for those not already under indictment.

Mr. Ringgold said $50,000 worth of drugs were seized, mostly cocaine. He said police found half a pound of cocaine at one location.

Police also said they seized eight handguns -- seven of them semiautomatic -- $5,000, drug packaging material and police scanners programmed to the Eastern District. Mr. Ringgold said a rowhouse in the 2000 block of Greenmount Ave. was heavily fortified -- police were unable to break down the front door with a battering ram and had to enter through the back.

Authorities reported that people threw guns from the back of homes as police crashed through front doors. Thirty minutes after the raid began, police were stopping and searching people along Greenmount Avenue.

The high-profile police presence was welcomed by many residents.

Mary Sue Johnson, 67, who has lived all her life a block from where the dozen people were shot last year, called the raid "beautiful."

"I love it," she said. "I hope they come back this afternoon. Sure, it will help. If they come back and give us the services they are promising, it is not going to take too long for this to work."

Maj. Alvin A. Winkler, the Eastern District commander, said his troops will keep drug dealers away from the corners.

"We think we are penetrating enough of the drug problem here so they are forced to go underground," he said.

"They will not come back out and have open air drug markets on our streets. Not in this neighborhood."

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