City police to study Rotterdam officers Dutch town is liberal on drugs, prostitution

February 19, 1996|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

Hoping to find answers to problems that plague Baltimore, two city police officers will leave for Rotterdam today to spend a month learning how their European colleagues police a society with liberal attitudes toward drugs and prostitution.

The officers will study a range of police tactics and operations, and city leaders want the officers to bring back specific ideas, from how Rotterdam officers interact with citizens to how they deal with the infiltration of Russian organized crime.

As in other cities in the Netherlands, hashish and marijuana are bought openly -- in small quantities -- and smoked in so-called coffee houses. Prostitution is legal and regulated.

Although Baltimore police commanders say that drug decriminalization is not coming to this city, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke doesn't want the officers to shut out any idea.

"They should keep their minds open to new approaches," said Mr. Schmoke, who has visited Rotterdam and supports the Netherlands' approach of emphasizing health over law enforcement when dealing with drug issues.

Addicts are placed in treatment programs rather than jail. Rotterdam officials believe their policies are succeeding and cite as evidence a decline in the number of new, young heroin addicts.

"I could see that not everything that they were doing in Rotterdam could be applied here," Mr. Schmoke said. "But there were some interesting ideas they had -- a close involvement of health officials and the police department in the drug problem is something that we could learn from."

The Baltimore Police Department signed last year a sister-city agreement with Rotterdam. The two cities have many similarities.

Rotterdam is a manufacturing city with about 600,000 residents and boasts the world's busiest port. But it has far less crime. And despite its lax rules on drugs, it has only 3,500 addicts.

Baltimore has about 700,000 residents and an estimated 50,000 addicts.

Sgt. Wesley Ormrod and Officer David Childs will leave for Rotterdam today. Two other officers, Martin Young and Stephanie Drew, are scheduled to go in May. Rotterdam is housing the officers; air fare is being funded by a private foundation. Rotterdam officers are expected to visit Baltimore soon.

"The fact that Holland as a nation has a somewhat more liberal drug policy than other Western European countries is a fact, but certainly is not a major focus of this officer exchange," said Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier.

But each officer has been directed to have "an in-depth discussion concerning drug and prostitution enforcement," according to a checklist given to each of the officers.

The Netherlands allows people to possess small amounts of "soft drugs" -- marijuana and hashish -- but does not allow drugs to be sold. Yet police tolerate "coffee houses" where people buy and use up to 30 grams of drugs at a time. Selling cocaine and heroin can bring stiff penalties.

In Baltimore, the mayor, police commissioner and health commissioner have repeatedly said that we "cannot arrest our way out of the drug problem." They have talked about the need for more treatment centers and more funding to help addicts break their addictions.

Mr. Frazier has ordered his officers to go after guns and violent drug dealers and de-emphasize arrests of petty drug users -- arguing that targeting people holding small amounts of drugs does little to solve the overall problem and takes officers off the street for too long.

But the commissioner opposes outright decriminalization of drugs.

Mr. Frazier's decision to de-emphasize petty drug arrests is controversial.

Other cities, such as New York, have adopted "zero-tolerance" policies in which officers target every crime, from gun possession to jaywalking, to send a message that lawlessness will not be tolerated.

Councilman Martin O'Malley is opposed to the commissioner's policy. "It is a terrible tragedy that so many people are behind bars," he said. "But legalizing the stuff and looking the other way doesn't make residents feel any safer and attract people back to a shrinking city."

Lee Brown, former White House drug czar and now a sociology professor at Rice University, said he has "learned not to do what they've done" in the Netherlands. "I don't know of any success stories where tolerance to drug use has been successful," he said. "The experience from what I see suggests that decriminalization of drugs leads to more and not less drug use."

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