Drug Task Force Sells More Illusions

COMMENT

May 01, 1994|By BRIAN SULLAM

.TC Carroll State's Attorney Thomas E. Hickman and Assistant State's Attorney Barton F. Walker III delivered a bravura performance before the last monthly meeting of the county chapter of the Maryland Municipal League.

L Too bad many of their statements didn't square with reality.

The prosecutors put the best possible face on the operations of the county's Narcotics Task Force, a group of law enforcement officers whose charge is to repel the county's drug trade. By their account, Carroll doesn't have much of a drug problem because there is widespread fear among criminals of the task force.

Certainly the dealers operating on South Center Street in Westminster in early 1993 didn't fear the task force. Just about any hour of the day, anyone seeking to score some crack, downers or marijuana could have found a willing dealer in the parking lots and playgrounds openly hawking his goods.

The activities of the dealers were so blatant and disruptive to the neighborhood that back in the fall of 1992, the Carroll County Times editorialized that it was time to shut down the open-air market. In response, a few arrests were made, but the drug dealing continued unimpeded by the supposedly much-feared narcotics task force.

The failure to close that market cost Gregory Lamont Howard his life.

The three men responsible for his death -- Samuel Allen Miller, Daniel Justin Leonard and Timothy Cumberland -- came up from Reisterstown to buy dope, apparently oblivious to the fearsome task force. The drug pusher who sold them a bag of soap powder instead of cocaine apparently didn't have much to fear either. And neither did Mr. Howard, who frequently hung out with the hustlers and the dealers, and felt it was his duty on Jan. 28, 1993, to arbitrate this consumer dispute. For his efforts, he received a shotgun blast at point-blank range; his murder was the county's first related to drug dealing.

For Mr. Hickman and Mr. Walker to say that dealers are afraid of the task force is revisionist history. The truth is that drug dealers were operating on Westminster streets with impunity for a long time. At the time of this murder, the task force had been in operation for nearly three years; it had done virtually nothing to stop the dealing.

Mr. Walker told the municipal officials at last month's meeting that the purpose of the task force was "to take action before it [drug selling] consumes the community . . . and prevent things from happening."

To the contrary, even though the drug cancer was long eating away at this Westminster neighborhood, it took the task force and city police until last January -- nearly a year after Mr. Howard's murder -- to close one of the few flourishing mercantile operations in downtown Westminster.

Granted, running drug dealers out of business isn't easy. If it were, drug dealing wouldn't be the national nemesis that it is. But it took far too long for the task force to pay attention to the obvious problem on the streets of Westminster. If Mr. Howard hadn't been murdered, how long would the task force have continued to ignore the drug dealing in this part of Westminster?

The problem with the task force is that it seems to hone in on small-time dealers and users and then uses the possession of minute quantities of drugs to justify the seizing of cars, cash and other property.

Mr. Walker told the municipal leaders that forfeiture is a useful tool to get people's "attention." Depriving people of their cars and cash may deter some drug users, but the zeal with which the task force employs this device suggests it has other motives.

The task force retains all the revenue from the seizures. Therefore, it is in its interest to seize as much property and cash as possible. What this money is spent on is anybody's guess because the task force has resisted any type of public disclosure.

Mr. Walker also said that seizures weren't intended to be fair. He is right, fairness is not the issue; obeying the Constitution is. The Carroll task force has run into more problems in the courts with its seizures than similar police operations around the state. That fact alone suggests there is a problem that requires attention.

Selling and possessing drugs is against the law. We have a right to see those laws enforced. But that also must be done with some intelligence and respect for the basic constitutional rights we are guaranteed.

As Justice Louis Brandeis once wrote, "The greatest dangers to liberty lurk in insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well-meaning, but without understanding."

Certainly, an open air drug market should have been a higher priority than persecuting, say, a first-time drug offender who smokes marijuana. Yet self-proclaimed "marijuana mama" Pam Davis became an obsession for task force members when she decided to fight their seizure of her business computer and records. Why else would Mr. Walker and the task force have spent so much time scouting her counterculture clothing and jewelry store and testing the sterilized marijuana seeds she displayed on the counter?

If the task force is to be of real value to this community, it has to attack the most corrosive aspects of the drug trade, the open air drug markets.

Drug dealers hanging out on corners do more damage to any community than the small-time users that the task force has specialized in arresting.

Brian Sullam is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.

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