Looks like a drug dealer, must be a drug dealer?


May 16, 1999|By Norris West

HERE'S A challenge: Drive through the Annapolis' Robinwood housing development in the midafternoon or early evening on a pleasant day and take a good look at the teen-agers and young men who will undoubtedly be standing or milling about.

Now, try telling the difference between those who are dealing drugs or otherwise making trouble and those who are not.

But wait. Before you take up that challenge, try this one: Look at those loiterers without presuming that all of them are up to no good.

I took the same test myself. I couldn't tell what was going on as some of the loiterers sitting on a bench at a bus stop on Tyler Avenue watched me as I cruised by.

Were some -- or all -- of them drug dealers? How about the two teens engaging in horseplay half a block away?

Beats me.

But I do know that not everyone fitting a certain profile and loitering in Robinwood is committing a crime or trying to.

Police officers in Annapolis and in much larger cities such as Baltimore and Chicago face that challenge daily. They try to tell the good from the bad while patrolling streets that have become open-air drug markets.

Charm City, Windy City

Charm City and the Windy City have taken different approaches to keep troublemakers off the streets to prevent crime and violence.

The efforts seem to be fizzling in both places.

Baltimore's "drug-free" school zones have proven to be ineffective because prosecutors and the courts have given them a no-confidence vote.

In a limited survey by Baltimore City Councilman Keiffer Mitchell, 25 of 26 misdemeanor loitering arrests were not prosecuted.

Now the City Council is considering rescinding that law and replacing it with a measure that gives police authority to issue civil, not criminal, loitering citations.

In Chicago, lawmakers enacted an ordinance that gives police sweeping power to remove loiterers who stand around "for no apparent reason" to help get a handle on an enormous gang problem.

But the U.S. Supreme Court is about to rule on whether that law violates civil liberties.

"There are no standards for police," Justice Anthony M. Kennedy said during a hearing on the measure last December.

"Some people just like to watch the cars go by. I'm bothered about the open-ended purpose of this statute," added Justice David H. Souter.

Drugs on the campaign trail

Against this backdrop, Alderman Herbert H. McMillan introduced a bill in Annapolis City Council to prohibit groups of people from standing in such places as Robinwood and nine other Annapolis Housing Authority developments for the purpose of dealing drugs.

Mr. McMillan said he sponsored the bill after being approached by drug dealers while campaigning for the council last year and after receiving complaints from residents who feel menaced.

He insists that the wording of his ordinance would not face the legal hurdles that Chicago's has, but it, too, runs the risk of casting suspicion on normal, law-abiding activity that does indeed exist in public housing.

Inexact science

Police who patrol communities should be familiar with them. They should have built ample relationships with residents to make them partners in fighting crime.

But asking them to distinguish the good guys from the bad ones remains an inexact science, and innocent people could be hassled because of their neighbors' offenses.

One Robinwood resident, a man in his 30s, said police don't need an anti-loitering law to hassle innocent people. It's already happened to him, he said.

Other young men and women say the same. Not to be dismissed, however, are the legitimate concerns of residents who feel threatened.

Croslan's mixed feelings

This is why Annapolis Housing Authority Director Patricia Croslan has mixed feelings about Mr. McMillan's law.

"We actively work to reduce drug activity in any way we can, so we would have to be in favor of something like this that would help," Ms. Croslan says.

But she also voices skepticism that some of her law-abiding residents will become unfair targets. She knows that being treated like a criminal isn't a good feeling.

Before we pass laws aimed at stopping this powerful force of drug dealing, we should examine what has worked best for other communities.

A stronger police presence that means better police-community relations.

That would do more than a loitering law that makes criminals out of a whole generation.

Norris P. West is The Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County. He can be reached by e-mail at norris.west@baltsun.com.

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