Frustrated police say enough is enough Arrests replace loitering warnings near drug hangouts

September 25, 1996|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

Maj. Wendell M. France took over the crime-weary Eastern District police station a month ago and promised more aggressive patrols in the city's most violent and drug-torn neighborhoods.

Yesterday, the former homicide commander showed what he meant. Angry and frustrated by more than 150 people who police said gathered about noon to buy drugs and refused to leave, France sent in his troops.

Twenty-seven were arrested. Most, police said, had been accustomed to only warnings for loitering. "We decided that is not the way it's going to work," France said. "It's a new day over here."

France took over the district command one month ago from Maj. Odis L. Sistrunk Jr., a popular leader whose departure sparked protests from community leaders. Sistrunk was moved, a top commander said, because the district's homicide rate was consistently the highest in the city.

Loiterers, France said, are a constant problem. "We've got priests calling -- they can't sleep at night," he said. "I've got nuns over on Brentwood Avenue who can't walk to the school they teach at. I'm not going to have it."

France doesn't mince words -- either about the amount of crime or about his role in solving it. "In East Baltimore," he said, "we are the last frontier before we are overrun."

Yesterday, frustrated police said enough was enough. On Bethel Street, just north of East Oliver Street, scores of people packed a street where vacant homes strewn with debris far outnumber those where people live.

Lt. Glenn Williams swarmed in with 20 officers. They arrested 27 people on charges of loitering and failure to obey police.

The suspects were escorted out of the Eastern District station in handcuffs and put into three waiting police vans. Four television cameras recorded the prisoner parade -- helping spread the word that even a trivial offense can bring notoriety.

Williams said the crowd of people was waiting to buy drugs. Dealers have a new technique in which they wait for a large group to gather, then quickly sell to everyone before closing up shop -- repeating the exercise every half-hour in an attempt to deceive undercover police into thinking no transactions are occurring.

Police use the laws forbidding loitering in a "drug-free zone" -- areas around churches and schools -- to stop and search people and to disrupt drug deals. But the charges rarely are prosecuted, because some judges have questioned the constitutionality of setting up a designated area where people are forbidden from hanging out.

"Unfortunately, there is a very good chance that most of these people will be right back in the area tomorrow," Williams said.

About two hours after the initial arrests, another resident in the 1800 block of Bethel St. called the station house to complain that, once again, people were gathering on her street using and buying drugs.

Within minutes, a dozen police officers pulled up to a vacant, city-owned rowhouse and rounded up six people running from the house. Five were arrested.

A 68-year-old woman who has lived nearby for 20 years said the drug dealing goes on "all day and all night. I really don't pay attention. What is out there is out there. I stay right here in my house."

The vacant rowhouse was filled with drug needles, empty beer and wine bottles, human feces and other trash. Upstairs had been used to house pit bulls; half-filled food dishes and dog excrement covered the floor.

"Stay out of vacant buildings," Sgt. Richard Hite warned the arrestees, who offered varying excuses for being inside. "If we find you in one, you are going to jail."

A few minutes later, Hite pulled near several youths in front of another vacant house on East Oliver Street, where a bag of empty crack vials was found on the first floor and a dead dog on the second. He sternly warned one young man.

"You have been through this before, I can tell, because you are running your mouth too much," Hite said. "But one way or another, we will get you to understand. Now, do you have any place else you'd rather be right now than on your knees?"

"My house," the detained youth answered.

"Then go there," Hite replied, releasing the young man.

Pub Date: 9/25/96

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