Lessons of Police Sweeps

March 27, 1995

After 15 months on the job, Baltimore City Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier is a controversial man. He was brought here from California to revamp and revitalize a demoralized department. His record so far is mixed: Many taxpayers welcome the changes he has initiated; the Fraternal Order of Police remains a critic.

Among Mr. Frazier's first moves in Baltimore was to initiate a series of high-profile sweeps in neighborhoods troubled by violence and drug trafficking. In doing so, he hoped to send a clear signal to communities that had been repeatedly complaining that police were ignoring obvious open-air drug markets.

The first sweep was conducted a year ago -- March 19 -- in the Barclay and East Baltimore Midway neighborhoods. It was preceded by months of undercover surveillance so that raiding officers did not have to rely only on the contraband they happened to discover but could count on accumulated evidence, including arrest warrants with pre-set bails.

After the raiding police officers left the community, trash haulers and bulldozers moved in. The goal was to make everyone -- from residents to motorists on busy Greenmount Avenue -- see that the community had changed and that the police meant business.

Unfortunately, many of the subsequent raids have not had a lasting effect. In some cases the target areas have been too large. In others, the criminal element has been more organized.

The police also can be faulted. More recent sweeps have come under the responsibility of individual police districts, which simply do not have the staffing to conduct the same kind of RTC thorough preparatory investigations as was done in the Barclay and Midway neighborhoods.

Mr. Frazier's raids served a purpose. They introduced him to an apathetic and skeptical community as a top cop who was determined to make a difference. Now that this message has been delivered, the department ought to be more selective in conducting sweeps. If the proper surveillance groundwork cannot be done and major drug traffickers and violent offenders identified and arrested, large-scale sweeps become pointless.

This viewpoint is buttressed by available statistical evidence. Drugs have not been suppressed; the number of homicides so far this year is running ahead of last year's toll. Effective new strategies are needed.

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