Taking the emphasis off drugs City police strategy: Looking for guns instead of drugs also poses a risk.

January 27, 1996

POLICE OFFICERS objected in November when State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy announced her office was doubling the amount of drugs a suspect had to possess to be charged with a felony. But the new policy made sense. Cases involving fewer than 30 rocks of crack or bags of heroin helped back up the crowded circuit court docket, but usually ended with the defendant receiving a misdemeanor-level sentence. There's no space in the jails for those convicted of misdemeanors, so they were typically back on the streets in no time. Now the police department has accepted that reality.

Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier says it isn't worth it for an officer to spend four hours of an eight-hour shift trying to book a street-corner pusher caught with a few vials of crack. "Nothing is going to happen anyway," said the chief, in apparent criticism of the courts.

Mr. Frazier says officers will still arrest drug suspects, but they will place more emphasis on seizing guns and preventing violent crimes. The announcement has understandably upset people trying to make a life in Baltimore's most crime-ridden neighborhoods. They know that you can't really separate the violence from the drugs.

The law enforcement steps being taken are pragmatic. They are designed to provide relief to an overburdened court system and overcrowded jails. But they might not reduce crime. These should be considered temporary measures that must be discarded as soon as better solutions are found. The big cities that have recently seen decreases in crime are not de-emphasizing anything; they are stepping up the number of arrests. Baltimore, where crime went up, seems to be taking the opposite tack. It may not work.

According to Mr. Frazier's new guidelines, officers who have probable cause to search a group of people will pat them down in search of a weapon, but won't look into their clothing for drugs. That will make business easier for street dealers. They normally anticipate encounters with the police and already know they risk greater penalties for being found with a weapon, especially if they have a record.

More impact on violence would occur if the city could end the drug trade that leads to turf fights and armed robberies. The stop-gap measures being taken by the police and courts to deal with the volume of drug arrests doesn't mean officials can stop looking for a real solution to the drug crisis that grips this city.

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