Police plan clampdown on Baltimore youth gangs No-nonsense initiative to use talk, big stick

January 23, 1998|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

Saying that juvenile crime has spiraled out of control, Baltimore police are launching today an ambitious initiative to reach out to teen-agers and gangs with a one-two punch of law enforcement and street counseling.

Police promise to clamp down on children who terrorize neighborhoods with drug dealing and shootings.

But authorities want to assure young suspects that they will not get lost in a bureaucratic entanglement of the criminal justice system.

Using as a model a Boston program that is credited with that city's plummeting juvenile crime rates, police in Baltimore say criminal cases involving teen-agers will be closely monitored from arrest to prosecution to parole and probation.

"We want to deal with violent juvenile offenders on the front end of the justice system, not after they have had six or eight encounters" without any real punishment, said Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier.

"We're talking about kids who go to court for auto theft and they can't remember which one they're in there for."

Frazier and other law enforcement officials are scheduled to announce the initiative, run by a new Youth Violence Task Force, at a news conference today. It includes not only stepping up arrests, but calling in street gangs for stern lectures with police, preachers, counselors and parents.

"We are not going to play around," said Col. John E. Gavrilis, who heads the department's Criminal Investigation Division. "We know who they are, where they hang out and what criminal activity they are involved in."

Police said they are planning to arrest members of one particularly violent street gang soon to send a message.

"We will use that group as an example," Gavrilis said. "What we are saying is that we won't tolerate the violence anymore. We are going to ask them to drop their guns. If they don't go along, then the full wrath of law enforcement from the federal, state and local level will come down on these groups."

But police stressed that they must go further. A raid may temporarily stop dealing and violence, but has little long-term effect. So officers will saturate neighborhoods where gangs and violence are prevalent and use informants to ferret out young law breakers.

For example, if a shooting is attributed to one group, police will target that group for special attention, from daily visits by probation officers to sustained misdemeanor arrests by beat officers.

"There are people on parole who don't want to see officers in their community every day watching everything they do," said Maj. Eugene Yeager, who heads the Violent Crime Task Force. "They know who is doing the shooting and selling the drugs.

"We want them to put pressure on the others to stop the violence," the major said, offering a not too subtle warning: "If you don't want us looking at you, lay down your guns and peddle your drugs indoors and leave the neighborhood alone."

Boston started "Operation Cease Fire" at the end of 1993 -- a year in which a record 16 juveniles were killed. Police in that city started an aggressive anti-gang task force to target the estimated 30 hard-core groups.

Since then, the number of juveniles -- defined by Boston authorities as those under 17 -- charged with violent crime has been cut in half. The city recently ended a 29-month run without a youth being slain -- an achievement noted during visits by Attorney General Janet Reno and President Clinton.

Eric Paulding, 16, was gunned down Dec. 11 while walking to his girlfriend's house, the first person under 17 to be slain in Boston since July 1995. His death brought responses from ministers, the police chief and the mayor.

Police in Boston learned that most of the city's shootings were the result of disputes among 400 hard-core gang members. Another study showed that the victim and suspect in the typical city homicide had each been charged with nine previous crimes.

Boston officials tried a three-pronged approach: offer alternatives to youths stuck in gangs; intervene with youths already in trouble with the law; and crack down on violent crime.

Criminologists are studying Boston as a model, but it is difficult to compare the New England city with Baltimore. Boston is a smaller and wealthier city that has never had more than 160 homicides in a single year. Baltimore has recorded more than 300 slayings each year since 1990.

Boston also had identifiable West Coast-style gangs that were concentrated in two city neighborhoods. Baltimore has loose-knit groups of juveniles spread throughout the city who often name themselves after neighborhood streets and lack a strict structure that includes initiation rights. Most, Frazier says, have staked out street corners as turf and battle with neighboring groups for drug profits.

Some of the more notable Baltimore gangs, according to federal authorities who keep a database, are the C. B. S group, named after the streets of Calhoun, Baker and Stricker; the Dutch Village Boys, the Old York and Cator Boys; the Pigtown Gang; and the Westport Boys.

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