Trying to turn the corner, again

Old battle, new plan: Police vow to persist in clearing drug areas

January 25, 2000|By Peter Hermann,Kurt Streeter and Laurie Willis | Peter Hermann,Kurt Streeter and Laurie Willis,SUN STAFF

Baltimore police identified yesterday the first two of 10 drug corners they plan to reclaim in an ambitious effort to reduce crime and fulfill a campaign promise by Mayor Martin O'Malley.

Residents around the two corners -- North Monroe and West Baltimore streets, and North Highland Avenue and East Baltimore Street -- responded with a mixture of hope and pessimism to the city's plans.

"We've been down this road before," said George Buettner, who works at a liquor store near the east-side corner. City leaders have toured before, he said, "and told us we'd be taken care of. What a joke. It was good for two days after they left, then it's back to the same old stuff."

Police know they are in for a tough fight. "Taking the corner is going to be easy," said Col. Bert L. Shirey, chief of the patrol bureau. "Maintaining it is going to be the proof of its effectiveness."

Residents met with police and other officials last night to discuss specific problems. Officers will tour each area before deciding when and how to crack down on drugs, abandoned houses, trash and other neighborhood ills.

O'Malley made clearing open-air drug markets a centerpiece of his mayoral campaign and was propelled into office by promises to reduce the city's high homicide rate.

"Hear me, Baltimore," the mayor shouted on June 23 as he began his campaign while standing at Harford Road and The Alameda. "Six months after I take office, the open-air drug market on this corner and nine others will be things of our city's past."

O'Malley went on to promise that an additional 10 corners would be cleared within two years of his Dec. 7 swearing-in. "And thus will the people of this city easily measure our success or failure," he said.

Three weeks after he named Ronald L. Daniel police commissioner, he has grown impatient with the department, which is adjusting to new management and a rash of slayings that claimed 21 lives in the first 23 days of this month. "I want them to get rolling," O'Malley said Thursday.

The operation will not look like past police actions, with hundreds of heavily armed officers descending on rowhouses and knocking down doors.

"It's not going to be one of those big spectacles," Shirey said. "It's like going on a diet. Slow but steady gives you the best results. ... We're going to well announce this thing. If the drug dealers want to go away, that's fine with me."

Whatever it takes, frustrated residents said yesterday, is fine with them.

"Thank God," said Julius Finch, a 49-year-old railroad conductor who lives near Monroe and Baltimore streets, when told of the pending police action. "This area has been infested for the past 10 years."

Finch said the neighborhood once had thriving businesses, including a doctor's office. Now, buildings are boarded, trash litters the streets, and used drug needles are all too easy to find.

While Finch talked, an officer in a jeep pulled up to the corner of Baltimore and Monroe, got out and frisked two young men. Finding nothing on them, he got back in his cruiser and drove off.

Finch seemed unfazed. "Nobody's going to run me away from here, because I've been here a long time," the Vietnam veteran said.

The bleak corner is one block south of Monroe and Fayette streets, depicted in "The Corner," a book that chronicles generations of drug addicts and the cycle of violence and despair that results. The book also is the basis for an HBO television special.

Spurred by the book, police mounted a raid in 1997 that targeted 52 square blocks that city officials said had been long neglected. Residents said yesterday that those raids accomplished nothing.

"I wish they do clean it up so I can get off it," said Gertrude Forney, 28, who said she had been using drugs for seven years.

Four miles to the east, where Baltimore Street meets Highland Avenue -- a community crossroads for a liquor store, pharmacy, tavern and pizza joint -- hopes were far from high.

Pinakin Patel's store, just off Baltimore Street and Highland Avenue, sits next to a police substation that opened in February in an old dentist's office.

Patel, who owns Andy's Subs and Pizza, thought the police office would attract more officers and help cut down on crime.

"Hope became disappointment," Patel said yesterday as he stood at the door of the substation, near an alley strewn with leaking trash bags, toilet paper and beer bottles.

Police "come in to write reports, then they leave," Patel said. "The business owners on the block hardly know the police here because they don't come in and make themselves known. What we thought would help us is pretty much a waste of space."

Asked about their neighborhood, residents focus on the drug trade, a business so brisk that it is brazenly conducted during the day. "It's like the dealers don't even care who sees them," said Carol Czajkowski, 46.

Police raids and other initiatives on drug corners are common practice. Former Baltimore police commissioner Thomas C. Frazier used frequent, high-profile televised drug sweeps.

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