Drugs breed familiarity on Upton streets


November 13, 1998|By DAN RODRICKS

YESTERDAY MORNING, in that soft autumnal sunlight that makes the saddest city neighborhoods shine, two men and a woman in sweat suits dropped to the sidewalk of Argyle Avenue in a way that indicated familiarity with the procedure.

A tall, lean police officer in a handsome blue sweater stepped around his patrol car, waved his arms and yelled something. Immediately, the trio dropped to their knees, then to their stomachs. As they did, one craned his neck and spoke to the officer, but he did this in a mild voice inaudible from across the street, which was my vantage.

The "suspects" seemed old for this kind of morning exercise -- in their 30s and 40s. Maybe they just looked older than their years.

No one seemed angry, or even annoyed. The officer appeared at no times threatened. Rather, there seemed to be an instant familiarity between the young officer and the trio on the sidewalk, a kind of been-there, done-that about the whole thing.

A few spectators gawked from a distance, but didn't seem terribly interested in the scene. Maybe they're too familiar with it by now. Maybe they've grown tired of it.

In the next minute, a third man in a sweat suit, hands on top of his head, emerged from a tree-shaded courtyard to the east of Argyle, a second police officer behind him. The man in the sweats joined the others on the sidewalk, dropping to his knees without being told to do so. A second patrol car pulled up, and a third officer stepped into the courtyard. He beckoned to a fifth suspect. Soon there were five bodies on the sidewalk. A fourth police officer arrived.

No guns were drawn. The police officers smiled and seemed to tease the suspects. Police fingers poked into pockets. An officer with a buzz cut addressed all five suspects, asking a question that began with the words, "Does anyone here . . . ," but the rest of it vanished in traffic noise.

In what seemed like the next instant, the whole scene vanished. Just like that.

The police let their five suspects go. The officers got back in their cars and roared off. A city official tells me police have been conducting "zero-tolerance" sweeps of the drug-infested streets hTC of Upton in West Baltimore in recent weeks, and this appeared to be a scene from that particular effort.

Coincidentally -- or maybe not coincidentally at all -- this happened at the corner of Smithson Street, 30 yards from where Shalelah Cook lives with her four kids, and just as I was about to pay her another visit.

Cook's problems with the neighborhood were described in this column Wednesday morning. That day, she said, men who had haunted her corner, camping out to sell drugs, returned after a welcome hiatus of several weeks.

Once again, her daughters were frightened as they returned home after school to the federally subsidized townhouse on Smithson Street. They've acted that way plenty of times before, Cook says.

By now, her kids are familiar with the procedure for coming and going past the drug dealers outside their house. They crowd around their mother as they approach the front door. They huddle next to Cook as she fetches the key and turns the lock. When they hear and see the door come ajar, they push their way into the house and run for their rooms.

It's the most ruinous thing in Baltimore, isn't it?

And there seems to be no end in sight. At last estimate, the city had 55,000 drug addicts. "Drugs have destroyed whole neighborhoods," says Ronald Bailey, a longtime community activist familiar with Upton and other territories of the heroin and cocaine dealers. As bad as it looks some days, Bailey says, it's absolutely vital that law-abiding people keep living in these neighborhoods, and that the police and the city government protect them. Watch the good people leave, watch the lights go out in a block of houses, and pretty soon there's a long row of boarded-up properties, and pretty soon the dealers rule.

It's good that the police fight this fight.

But are they eradicating the problem, or just moving it from block to block?

In one of the city District Courts yesterday morning, you could sit through the long, tedious yawn of drug cases. You could hear young police officers tell stories of arresting dealers in West Baltimore. One defendant, George Martin, was accused of stashing vials of heroin -- an unusual method of packaging heroin, it was pointed out -- in the exhaust pipe of a clothes dryer. Another, one Jamal Chase, was accused of burying dozens of vials of powdered and crack cocaine under shrubs behind a vacant house. A police officer said he had observed Chase digging up his treasure.

Both Martin and Chase asked for jury trials downtown, in the Circuit Court.

Both stretched their arms behind their backs when it was time to return to the lockup.

Both waited patiently as a correctional officer slipped handcuffs around their wrists.

They appeared to be very familiar with the procedure.

Pub Date: 11/13/98

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