Vietnamizing the city streets

November 18, 1995|By Antero Pietila

WE USE the precautions that once guided lives in the ''safe zones'' of Vietnam. After nightfall, we seldom proceed beyond certain streets. We hear the fluttering rotors of helicopters on patrol. We hear the bursts of automatic gunfire and know a war is going on.

Our Vietnam is not in Southeast Asia decades ago; it is right here in Baltimore's inner city. But we know that this war, too, is being lost. Not to guerrillas trying to replace one political system with another but to the Vicious Crowd of drug peddlers that spreads death and destruction into once-stable neighborhoods.

In Vietnam, officials tried to hide the hopelessness of the situation by using inflated body counts and other meaningless indexes. Meanwhile, the VC kept adding to the areas it controlled.

In Baltimore, officials seldom use body counts. They refer to drug arrest and conviction figures. When the situation gets out of control, they alter the criteria.

This is what happened recently. City State's Attorney Patricia Jessamy announced that the Circuit Court was so overwhelmed that she was doubling the amount of drugs a suspect had to carry to qualify for a felony charge. Instead of 15 items, a person can now be caught with up to 30 rocks of crack cocaine -- or 30 bags of heroin or powdered cocaine -- and still be charged with a misdemeanor.

At the practical level, this may indeed decrease Circuit Court backlogs. But at the intellectual level it is nothing but fraud and deception. The result is totally predictable: more dope, more dealers and more violence in Baltimore. Dope dealers and addicts are not stupid. They know prosecution guidelines in all other metropolitan jurisdictions are harsher.

While Ms. Jessamy may have good bureaucratic reasons for trying to free the Circuit Court from run-of-the-mill drug possession cases, she is merely passing the buck to the District Court system.

''We know that the District Court is already in shambles. They don't need any more cases,'' says Francis Rahl, a neighborhood activist.

Cases evaporate

Over a recent dinner, two leading jurists -- one of them a former judge -- talked about the bedlam in the city's District Courts, where files often do not match, defendants, witnesses or case officers do not show up and postponements are granted so routinely and so often that cases simply evaporate.

Whether the District Court system is ''near the breaking point,'' as these jurists insisted, or past that point, is immaterial. Any offender -- from a drug criminal to traffic violator -- knows that a case assigned to a District Court effectively dissolves if it can be made to drag on long enough.

This charade makes mockery of the fear of punishment. It also destroys the morale of the police officers. Or as Mr. Rahl puts it: ''Why would the cops arrest these people? I don't know what we are going to get from the cops if we denigrate their effort?''

State's Attorney Jessamy can prove doubters like Mr. Rahl and me wrong by showing that her strategy indeed leads to `f successful prosecution of the major kingpins and behind-the-scenes moneymen of Baltimore's drug scene.

We remain skeptical, however, and for a good reason: We have been through all this too many times in the past.

The fact is the police and the state's attorney's office do not have enough money, accountants or investigators to go after such big fish. We are back in Vietnam, where the rhetoric is upbeat but real victories are not won. The war is being lost because the politicians think it is unwinnable and don't support the troops.

Antero Pietila is an editorial writer for The Sun.

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