Drug roundup from past holds lesson for Clinton

April 19, 1994|By MICHAEL OLESKER

His name was James Watkins, and he was a police lieutenant colonel who sometimes came disguised as an earth force.

It's instructive to remember Watkins on a morning such as this, a morning when we're all reminded how lovely it is not to be poor, a morning when the man in the White House is asking poor people to choose between crime in their neighborhoods and the casting aside of various civil liberties considered annoying in times of crisis.

The man in the White House, named Clinton, wishes to give public housing back to law-abiding people. Currently, it is

believed to be largely in the control of those dealing in drugs and weapons. To turn this around, the president wants to permit police to raid and search apartments even when the police have no have warrants to do this.

This president is no dummy. He's read the Constitution and knows about the dangers of unlawful searches, but he also knows about residents suffering "bloodshed and terror." He believes he has struck a workable balance. And this brings us to James Watkins of the Baltimore city police.

Go back maybe 20 years. It's a summer afternoon in West Baltimore, when Watkins is running the police Tactical Unit. He's got his officers sweeping across Pennsylvania Avenue, grabbing people off the street quite randomly. The police believe these people are drug traffickers, mainly because they're standing in an area known to be frequented by such people.

So they're tossing them into cruising vans, hauling 35 of them to Central District for the next several hours until they go through various records and discover a slight problem: They don't exactly have anything on most of these people, and they're going to have to let them go.

But Watkins seems only slightly deterred. He stands in front of these detainees, looking like a man handing out the wrath of God, if not precisely the law of the land.

"All of you," he tells the detainees, defying every presumption of innocence, "are up there on The Avenue for one thing. Dealing that dope. If you want to take a chance, be back out there. But you better tell your friends. You better not be dealing that stuff. No use being out there at two or three in the morning, either, because sometimes I get out of bed and come down then."

It was tough to get a fix on all of this. Watkins, later to leave the police force after beating various charges of being too cozy with certain drug traffickers, seemed to have good intentions that day. He assumed he'd grabbed a bunch of bad people off the street, and he'd assembled enough reporters to make sure everybody saw him in his moment of triumph.

It hadn't occurred to him not to do what he'd done. Civil liberties? These people were poor, they were black and they weren't within shouting distance of an attorney who knew his way around civil procedure. Who was going to complain?

(Also, to be fair, some of them truly were hustlers of various kinds and wouldn't complain because they didn't want to press their luck.)

But, inevitably, there were innocent people swept up for the crime of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. And we approach that predicament once again. The president wants public housing where "suspicious" people can be frisked, where lobbies and hallways and vacant apartments can be searched, and where warrantless searches of occupied apartments can be conducted in certain "emergency" situations.

This is tricky territory. Those in public housing find themselves in a dilemma based less on legal philosophies than on practicalities: They're caught in a frightening web of criminal activities. Their children are at risk. And now they've got the president talking of "consent clauses," in which they'd agree in leases to allow police to conduct unannounced searches of their apartments.

On mornings such as this, we're reminded how nice it is if we're not poor. We don't have to make certain painful choices, not yet, anyway. On mornings such as this, it's nice not to wonder if the next time the door opens, it'll be the cops with weapons drawn, even though you're sitting there with nothing but your children and your innocence.

On mornings such as this, it's instructive to remember a man named Watkins on Pennsylvania Avenue, when he seemed to have good intentions but still rounded up a bunch of people who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

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