In the cold drizzle of a dimly lighted Essex corner, three men chatted, even sang a bit, and tended to business as a steady stream of men and women walked up to exchange wrinkled bills for packets of what looked like crack cocaine.
But appearances -- and the police -- can be deceiving.
The crack was phony, the men were officers, and their customers were about to be arrested. Buyer beware!
"We want people to know that, 'Hey, this is not the place to buy your drugs,' " said Lt. Jimmy Powers, a supervisor in the Essex Precinct's investigative services unit. "We want dealers to know they can't do this in our community."
As part of a community conservation initiative, Baltimore County police have been staging a series of drug operations in Essex -- posing as buyers in some cases to arrest traffickers, and as dealers to make customers uneasy and decrease the local drug trade.
The attack is going on in the nine precincts across Baltimore County, aided by a federal grant that earlier this year enabled the police department to increase manpower and form Community Drug and Violence Interdiction Teams (CDVIT). The program targets small-time dealers in embattled neighborhoods.
But nowhere in the Baltimore suburbs has the drug problem been more prevalent, the police say, than in Essex's Villages of Tall Trees apartments, where the 200 drug arrests made during a similar enforcement program last year represented an eighth of such cases countywide.
This year, according to police statistics, reported crime there has shown a 25 percent decline.
Preliminary figures gathered last week show, on average, that each precinct's CDVIT team is serving two search warrants and making 14 arrests per month. Officers are also seizing at least one weapon every month during their drug operations, according to Maj. Kevin L. Sanzenbacher, executive officer of the police community services division.
Police believe there is a direct correlation between their drug enforcement and a reduction in crime, but say that the improvement can't be sustained without help from the community.
"The community needs to step in and acknowledge the problem," said Capt. James W. Johnson, commander of operations in the Essex Precinct. "This is something the police can't do themselves."
Although police say their presence is the result of complaints from the community, they noted that no one called to report drug activity on the night when their undercover team was dealing openly at the well-traveled corner of Rickenbacker Road and Seversky Court last month.
Rickenbacker is one of the main streets through Tall Trees, and close to two dozen people came looking for drugs there -- among them a gray-haired man on a late-night stroll with two grandchildren. He bought two tiny plastic bags of the phony crack that the police call "pro-caine."
Later, a tall, thin man with bare feet stumbled toward the dealers to bargain a $20 hit down to $11 and change. Then a woman first inquired about prices and returned later to buy drugs.
As the undercover team was making sales, several people walked by to casually warn of "Five-O crawling through the streets" -- a tip that police officers were nearby. Two of them were arrested for hindering the police operation, and 20 others from Tall Trees and elsewhere were in custody by night's end for buying the fake cocaine.
One buyer on a bicycle tried furiously to pedal away and avoid arrest, only to run his bike into the side of a van full of officers.
A fairly successful night, the police say -- except for Captain Johnson's incredulity that the operation brought not a single call of complaint from the neighborhood about drug dealers in their streets.
"Can you believe it?" he said, watching from a nearby apartment as other officers filmed and recorded the drug transactions. "We're here all night and not one call. If that's not community apathy for you, I don't know what is. It's frustrating."
The operation was the third step in a three-part operation.
Two weeks earlier, the police had pursued people dealing from their homes through raids on apartments in Tall Trees and nearby Kingsley Park, another low-income complex. Eleven arrests were made and 60 packs of suspected crack cocaine seized.
Then, two days before "going into business" themselves, the police rounded up 14 suspected street-level dealers in Tall Trees, Kingsley Park and the Riverdale apartments -- the precinct's top three drug areas.
The third stage dealt with the buyers. Without demand, police say, there is no need for suppliers.
"Years ago, we targeted major drug dealers instead of the little, street-level drug dealers," said Lt. Melvin L. Blizzard of the county's criminal investigations division, who works with the CDVIT teams in each precinct. "We can't afford to ignore them anymore."