22 charged as police begin new anti-violence effort

Neighborhoods targeted in criminologist's plan

July 30, 1999|By Gary Dorsey | Gary Dorsey,SUN STAFF

Two drug organizations in East Baltimore began to collapse yesterday as 22 people were charged with drug and weapons-related offenses in a new effort to curtail violence in the city, authorities said.

"This is the arrest phase," said Lt. Jon Foster, who heads the Youth Violence Strike Force, which helped lead the sweep.

Yesterday's effort, called Operation Cease Fire, marked the first move in a much larger plan by Harvard University criminologist David Kennedy, who has been studying Baltimore's drug culture for the past 18 months and trying to devise a plan to help curtail violence.

A similar project created by Kennedy for Boston -- also called Operation Cease Fire -- has been widely praised for bringing a dramatic reduction to that city's homicide rate. City, state and federal agencies are expected to combine efforts, target a select group of violent offenders and create a strong web of enforcement.

Sgt. Scott Rowe, a police spokesman, said the idea is to attack specific neighborhoods prone to a high degree of gun violence and open-air drug markets. Police not only obtained grand jury indictments, but they obtained advance bails from judges to ensure those arrested will remain jailed longer.

Preset bails, set by Circuit Court judges, are typically higher than usual. The lowest bail yesterday was $250,000; the highest was $1.5 million.

Police said they also have obtained arrest warrants for several juveniles, charging them with drug distribution.

The two groups targeted in yesterday's effort are known as "The Big Boyz" and "The Starz," loosely knit groups that work street corners and neighborhoods.

The target area was bordered by East Baltimore Street, East Biddle Street, North Highland Avenue and North Wolfe Street.

The 22 suspects were charged with felony drug distribution. Two were also charged with illegal transfer of firearms, and eight with violation of probation or parole.

As of yesterday afternoon, police said they had arrested eight of the 22 suspects.

Police have conducted similar campaigns over the past five years, including several larger in scope than yesterday's operation. Last year, the Youth Violence Task Force arrested 29 members of the Veronica Avenue Boys in Cherry Hill, then called the city's most violent drug gang. Most are still in prison.

But yesterday's operation marked the first implementation of the Kennedy plan, which calls for a cooperative effort from every facet of law enforcement -- from police to probation agents to social workers -- to target a specific group of individuals.

Officials had planned to formally announce the plan July 15 by showcasing police efforts and allowing Kennedy to explain how his plan will keep the offenders off the streets. But the news conference -- which was on Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend's public schedule -- was abruptly canceled amid disagreements about whether every agency was on board.

U.S. Attorney Lynne A. Battaglia had objected to a public presentation at a time when the city's court system was under attack for a series of blunders, some of which allowed murder defendants to walk free, and officials debated whether gun cases would be prosecuted by local or federal authorities.

Those differences appear to be weeks, or even months, from being settled. Officials say no announcement is forthcoming.

Requests from The Sun to interview Kennedy have repeatedly been denied.

Officials said they continue to meet to work out their differences and implement a new crime-fighting strategy to bring down Baltimore's homicide rate, which last year was the fourth highest in the nation.

Documents obtained by The Sun show that Kennedy has discovered what many police officials suspected for years: A small number of criminals are responsible for a vast amount of crime in Baltimore.

But Boston, where Operation Cease Fire was credited with significantly lowering violent crime and homicides involving juveniles, has a marketedly different drug culture. Kennedy found structured gangs operating in two distinct city neighborhoods.

In Baltimore, police say drug groups are fragmented and operate across the city, with loose-knit neighborhood groups running what amounts to mom-and-pop heroin and cocaine stores on city street corners -- creating more violence that is difficult to understand and thwart.

Sun staff writer Peter Hermann contributed to this article.

Pub Date: 7/30/99

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