Crackdown on drugs will curb killings

Sweeping corners: Mayor O'Malley is right to be impatient about city Police Department's lack of action.

January 22, 2000

IS BALTIMORE Mayor Martin O'Malley being too harsh when he blasts the city Police Department even before the new commissioner, Ronald L. Daniel, has been confirmed by the City Council?

The answer is a resounding no.

Homicides are happening at a faster pace than last year's near-record rate. Open-air drug markets operate brazenly. Late this week, a 19-year veteran of the force was arrested and charged with delivering a 2-pound cocaine shipment for a drug organization.

No wonder the mayor is hot under the collar.

During his campaign, Mr. O'Malley pledged to close 10 open-air drug markets within six months of his Dec. 7 swearing in. By 2002, he also promised to bring the city's annual murder tally down to 175 from the frightening total that has exceeded 300 for the past decade. Those goals can be achieved only if the Police Department comes out of its long coma and gets aggressive.

The Police Department must better define its mission and priorities. With vengeance, it has to go after chronic violent offenders, who have long criminal records and often can be prosecuted for parole or probation violations.

Attacking the violence of open-air drug markets is a no-brainer.

Study after study has confirmed a high correlation between drugs and lethal violence in Baltimore. In 1997, for example, 46 percent of homicide suspects and 35 percent of victims were part of the drug trade. More than half of all killings occurred in a street drug market.

Yet the Police Department and other city officials have done little to curb these obvious flash points.

One of the busiest 24-hour open-air drug markets, at Monroe and Fayette streets, was closed last year only after repeated Sun editorials demanded action.

The 1997 book "The Corner" immortalized the spot and triggered thousands of telephone complaints. Still, officers did nothing to shut it down until they were publicly embarrassed.

Similarly, authorities dragged their heels in cracking down on concentrations of illegal pay telephones at drug corners -- even though it was obvious they were used by dealers and addicts to conduct business.

Yesterday, as Mr. O'Malley met with Gov. Parris N. Glendening to discuss anti-drug measures, a dozen touts and lookouts braved the freezing cold and beckoned customers just a few blocks away, at Argyle and Lafayette streets.

Ever since the nearby Murphy Homes were vacated two years ago, that has been a hot corner. Sometimes more than a hundred addicts and dealers mill around as if it were a street festival. Yet the police have failed to take any sustained action.

This kind of torpor has eroded public confidence in the police. If ordinary people have no trouble detecting prolonged criminal activity, why aren't police seeing it and cracking down? Are cops just incompetent, or is there something more sinister -- corrupt, even -- at hand?

Suspicions about systematic corruption have been expressed for years. And Jack Maple, a former New York deputy police commissioner who is serving as a consultant to Mayor O'Malley, recently said there was widespread corruption in the police department.

Nearly seven years ago, a special grand jury called for an independent prosecutor to investigate the Police Department's drug enforcement effort.

Even though the grand jury's conclusions were widely discredited, doesn't the preponderance of opinion on this matter warrant an investigation?

There have been few arrests of kingpins, their backers and protectors. Meanwhile, prosecution guidelines have been so relaxed that street-level dealers can operate with impunity. No wonder an estimated one out of every eight adults in Baltimore is addicted to heroin or cocaine.

Baltimore must launch an all-out attack to stamp out drugs and killings. Mayor O'Malley must allocate more money to sharpen the bite of the state's attorney's office. Circuit Court judges must get tougher on repeat offenders. Governor Glendening must recognize that Maryland's biggest city is suffering a public safety emergency and requires help.

For starters, Governor Glendening should provide contingency funding for Baltimore's drug court. Even though it has forged a record of successes, it has been forced to suspend new admissions for two months. The reason: There simply are not enough probation agents, treatment slots or money.

This makes no sense, when the drug curse is a key reason for Baltimore's shocking killing rate.

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