Baltimore police have launched an investigation of the city's work force amid anonymous reports that employees are buying and selling drugs while on the job, police and city officials said yesterday.
"We had numerous complaints that a number of employees in various city agencies are using, buying and selling drugs while working," said Col. Ronald L. Daniel, chief of the Criminal Investigation Bureau.
Four city employees have been arrested in connection with the drug probe, including three Department of Parks and Recreation workers on Friday, and police said additional arrests will follow.
The undercover police operation follows an agreement between the city and unions representing workers last fall that allows for employee drug testing if reasonable suspicion exists.
An undisclosed number of police officers have been assigned to the investigation, which includes detectives watching known drug areas, specifically targeting city workers, and using informants to help catch suspects.
Colonel Daniel said he witnessed five city workers buy drugs on Friday as he drove through West Baltimore, on his way to where the three employees were arrested.
"We know how to find drugs," he said. "We are going to those same places. They are just putting their jobs in jeopardy if they show up. . . . If someone alleges that city employees are using drugs while they are working, the city has an obligation to investigate. We just can't ignore it."
Friday's arrests occurred around lunchtime, when undercover officers staked out Lafayette Market, a popular lunch spot for city workers two blocks away from the intersection of Riggs and Carrollton avenues, which police say is a hot spot for drug sales.
After waiting about 45 minutes, Colonel Daniel said, a city truck carrying three workers pulled up to a street near the market, and detectives watched the occupants buy small amounts of cocaine and marijuana.
On Dec. 20, police arrested a 38-year-old highway maintenance worker, who was suspected of using drugs, after three months of surveillance at the Department of Public Works' Falls Road highway maintenance yard.
Police did not find drugs during the sting, but seized a .380-caliber handgun and $740. Gregory Smith, a resident of the 2000 block of Cecil Ave., was charged with illegal possession of a handgun.
"It is not clear at this point how widespread the [drug] problem is," said Clinton R. Coleman, a spokesman for Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke. "It is a problem, and we are being made aware of how big it is by the numbers of complaints."
The spokesman said most of the tips are coming from other city employees, who he said are complaining of a wide range of illicit activity, from employees selling drugs to each other to city workers stopping by liquor stores in the middle of their shift to buy alcohol.
'Cannot be tolerated'
"We are vigorously looking into it," said Mr. Coleman, adding that the mayor has made it clear at staff meetings with employees and union leaders "that this is a problem that cannot be tolerated."
In October, the city and the unions agreed to begin drug testing of some employees, as long as reasonable suspicion exists. The city also started to randomly test some workers who hold commercial drivers licenses -- an activity permitted by new federal regulations. There are 26,000 city workers.
"We simply do not agree that employees who we represent should be involved in drugs," said Chester D. Wilton, the newly elected president of the City Union of Baltimore, which represents about 7,000 city employees.
"Our position is very clear. We are against drugs on the job."
Mr. Wilton said that no city agency is immune from the problem, which he said includes workers up to the supervisory level.
Department heads for Parks and Recreation and Public Works admitted there is a problem, but said it was not pervasive in their departments.
"Do I think the majority of our 6,000 employees are taking drugs?" asked George G. Balog, director of Public Works. "The answer is no. . . . There are some who are probably taking it, but we are taking the necessary steps to correct the problem."
Alma Bell, spokeswoman for Parks and Recreation, said drug use is not isolated to one agency.
"I think all of society recognizes that using drugs is a problem," Ms. Bell said. "The city does make it clear that is has zero tolerance for drugs, alcohol, or any other substance during the workday, and the city employees are made aware of this on a continuing basis."
The Park and Recreation employees arrested on Friday were identified as David Wayne Smith, 39, of the 100 block of S. Exeter St.; Robert Lee McClinton, age unknown, of the 2100 block of Homewood Ave.; and Vernon Lee Crowder, 45, of the 500 block of N. Calhoun St.
Mr. Smith, a pipe fitter for Parks and Recreation for nine years, was charged with possession of drug paraphernalia -- a pipe.
Mr. McClinton, a 20-year building repair worker, was charged with possession of cocaine, and Mr. Crowder, a 19-year building repair worker, was charged with possession of marijuana. Mr. Crowder had just finished a year's probation on drug charges three weeks ago before his arrest, court records show.
Ms. Bell would not comment on the future of the three employees.
"That's a police matter, and we'll look into the details," she said. "Nothing happens until [they are convicted]. They are not fired for being arrested. If they are convicted, they will no longer be working for the city."