Anger at police shootings stays hot in Salisbury

Drug war targets black youth, city's residents say

June 19, 1999|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

SALISBURY -- Two weeks after police fired 14 shots into a car at a crowded McDonald's parking lot, anger remains palpable in black neighborhoods throughout this growing Eastern Shore city of 20,000.

African-American residents say the wounding of two unarmed men who police believed were carrying a large quantity of crack cocaine is just the latest and worst example of an escalating drug war that has unfairly targeted them. Police say one suspect tried to run them down in his car; residents insist that the gunfire was unnecessary.

Led by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, local activists have taken to the streets, carrying banners, marching to City Hall and rallying outside the department's fortress-like headquarters just a block from the site where the two men, who had neither drugs nor weapons, were shot on June 4.

Residents say city officers routinely target teen-agers and young men, especially those with previous drug convictions, harassing and roughing up suspects. More disturbing, according to community leaders, is that some of the officers are as discourteous to law-abiding citizens as they are to criminals.

Critics say police appear only in predominantly black neighborhoods to arrest low-level street dealers and drug users. They also fault the department because only eight of 82 officers are African-Americans in a city where 20 percent of the population is black.

"It's becoming a monster in our community," says the Rev. Moor-Hollman, pastor at the Labor of Love Revival Mission.

"It just seems that the officers have the idea that they can pull these young people in on something, anything," she says. "We know there are good people in the system, but they are being overwhelmed by overzealous officers. It'sa sad thing when young people can't trust the police."

City officials counter that they are responding to community concerns, encouraging residents to file formal complaints, organizing weekly meetings with African-American leaders and participating in community forums. But they are not willing to abandon a tough anti-drug effort that the acting chief, Col. Ed Guthrie, says has produced a 92 percent increase in drug arrests and a 200 percent increase in arrests for under-age drinking from 1997 to 1998.

"The Salisbury Police Department has a zero-tolerance approach to the dealing of cocaine or other drugs, and that is not going to change," Guthrie says. "Any complaints that are substantiated will be dealt with severely. We do not tolerate unprofessional behavior, but we strongly feel the methods we use are within moral, legal and constitutional guidelines."

But many residents say they have little faith in the ability of even well-meaning city officials to rein in individual officers who violate policy.

After months of frustration following the arrest last fall of her 17-year-old son on a drug charge -- drugs he says belonged to a passenger in his car -- Sheila Harmon got together with several other women to form Mothers For Equal Justice.

The group meets once a week in a northwest Salisbury church to talk about their problems. With help from local NAACP officials, members are learning how to file formal complaints when they think city police have used excessive force or acted improperly.

"It always seems to be the same cops, and you don't have to be in a bad part of town," Harmon says. "The police show absolutely no respect for parents. I couldn't believe how I was spoken to after my son's arrest. We're God-fearing, hard-working people, and we don't deserve to be treated this way."

Group members and community leaders are pushing city officials to establish a civilian review board that would evaluate all complaints filed against police, an effort that was already in the works before the shooting June 4 touched off protests.

"We are working toward a civilian review board," says Mayor Barrie Parsons Tilghman, who has worked closely with the City Council's only black member, Lavonzella Siggers.

"I'm meeting regularly with the NAACP and others, and I've asked them to document these accusations, to give me dates, times and places. But at the same time, I'm not going to crucify the Salisbury Police Department. We're not going to be satisfied until everyone feels the Police Department is their Police Department," says Tilghman.

Tilghman, who fired the previous police chief a year ago, has been unable to agree with the City Council on a replacement. Among two finalists for the post is Allan Webster, a major in the Baltimore County department's criminal investigation division.

The city is stepping up its effort to recruit more minorities, but retaining experienced officers has proved difficult, says Guthrie, who has recently lost three black officers to higher salaries and better benefits offered by neighboring departments.

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