High-profile raids show force, carry risks

October 03, 1994|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,Sun Staff Writer

Twice a day, on average, police officers looking for drugs break down someone's door in Baltimore.

Sometimes, it is a simple operation. But more often than not, the people inside are armed. And more than ever, the doors are heavily fortified.

This year, investigators have begun targeting violent drug networks, taking them out in mass strikes where up to a dozen houses are hit simultaneously in a neighborhood.

Police commanders and union officials who represent the officers agree that the show of force is necessary to rescue blighted neighborhoods, but questions remain:

* Residents are cautiously optimistic that the new plan is working, but have complained that police have only forced drug dealers into other neighborhoods. Most people arrested during two high-profile raids are still behind bars.

* The police union complains that proper training for officers engaged in raids only began in July -- four months after the raids began.

* Eleven days ago, a police officer who had completed a course on high-risk entries a week and a half earlier shot three fellow officers after mistaking a colleague for a suspect during a raid at an East Baltimore rowhouse. It was the first time in at least two years that anyone -- officer or suspect -- has been shot during a tactical entry. Last year, police raided 784 houses on drug warrants. As of Wednesday, police had conducted 609 raids.

"We need to do more of them," said Col. Ronald L. Daniel, chief of the Criminal Investigation Bureau. "That is where the drugs are. That's where the things are that we need to seize. . . . The more we do, the risk goes up."

Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier said the raids have a lasting effect on the community.

"When the police cars start rolling in, people know something is about to happen," Mr. Frazier said. "When you need to make a serious impact on a neighborhood, you have to do it all at once."

The police commissioner, who has promised to "take back the drug corners and hold them," started his initiative with Operation Midway in March.

More than 100 police officers swept through two communities off Greenmount Avenue and raided 14 houses. Occupants threw guns out of back windows as police stormed in. One front door was fortified by a metal pole cemented to the basement floor.

Four months later, 200 officers targeted the Middle East community, near Johns Hopkins Hospital, and hit 20 houses.

Then came a raid at the Perkins Homes housing project in August. And a sweep through Druid Heights last month. Police raided a total of 39 houses. In each raid, 150 police officers were used.

For community residents, the raids have meant newfound security. Hundreds of drug dealers and distributors were arrested, many held on preset bails in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Most of the 42 people indicted before the March raid in Midway are still incarcerated, either convicted or awaiting trial, said Assistant State's Attorney Howard B. Gersh, the chief narcotics prosecutor.

"So far, the operation looks very successful," he said.

But in July, after police hit the Middle East neighborhood, some living in Midway complained the drugs were discreetly filtering back.

"It was real clean for maybe the first two or three weeks," resident William D. Wall told a reporter in July. "A lot of it moved off the corners and back indoors. It's not gone, but it's not like it was."

One beat officer predicted that another major raid may be necessary to maintain the relative order achieved the last time.

And neighboring communities have complained that police simply moved the drug activity to another area of the city.

Complaints such as those led to a five-day sweep two weeks ago in Patterson Place and Baltimore-Linwood, where police made arrests in shootings, assaults, prostitution and drugs.

Maj. John E. Gavrilis -- the commander of the Southeastern District, which led the raid two weeks ago and another this summer on Perkins Homes -- said he tries to get as many officers involved in the investigation and arrests as possible.

"They love it," the major said. "They are seeing some of their actions work. . . . We're in a dangerous business. Everyone we go after has guns."

New training

Officer Gary McLhinney, the president of the city's Fraternal Order of Police, said that until the recent course conducted by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration training for such high-risk operations was nonexistent.

"I am utterly amazed that we have never had a problem before," said the union head, who has led hundreds of raids in his seven years as a narcotics investigator.

Training in the past, he said bluntly, "stinks. . . . I've never received any formal training in raid entry, and I've been doing narcotics work for seven years," he said, adding that the new program "is a step in the right direction. We need to have yearly training for all officers involved in raid situations."

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