Police begin operation to eradicate drug traffic in several areas of city

Community concerned that short-term programs, old tactics not effective

February 12, 2000|By Tim Craig | Tim Craig,SUN STAFF

Most of Baltimore's police districts have begun attacking 10 city drug areas slated for cleanup under an extensive enforcement operation, even as some police officials acknowledge it is based on stale tactics and strategies.

The program, called the Open Air Drug Market Eradication Program, has given patrol officers a new mandate to make arrests in neighborhoods afflicted by drug trafficking and violence.

"It is a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week commitment," said Maj. John L. Bergbower, the Southwestern District police commander. "It will work as long as no one drops the ball."

But while most are confident that the plan will curtail nightly gunfire and brazen open-air drug dealing, others hope police Commissioner Ronald L. Daniel and his deputy, Edward T. Norris, will amend the plan with fresh crime-fighting concepts.

The program, created to fulfill Mayor Martin O'Malley's pledge to eradicate 10 drug areas in his first six months in office, designated one area each in eight of the city's police districts, and two in the Southwestern District.

Police hope that increased patrols, city services and community pride will replace drug dealers and users by summer in the targeted areas, which range in size from three blocks to more than 30.

Seven of the nine districts have begun an aggressive crackdown -- including the Southern District, which began its operation Thursday night when police made 14 arrests and seized more than three pounds of marijuana, 65 vials of crack and cocaine, and 16 guns in five hours.

Two districts, the Eastern and Northwestern, are meeting with community groups in preparation for their law-enforcement operations.

Police plan to make hundreds of arrests over several days, and follow up with increased patrols. The raids -- which target all criminals, including petty thieves and drug users -- will be followed by an influx of city workers who will board up vacant houses, offer drug treatment, clean streets and monitor nuisance houses.

The approach resembles that of a Housing Department program, Extraordinary Comprehensive Housekeeping Operations (ECHO), which targets several neighborhoods a year with a weeklong effort to eradicate blight.

Community leaders said ECHO has had limited success, and hope the police department is not repeating past mistakes. "Anything mammoth like that is so short-term, it has very little impact on a community that is so extremely blighted," said Sharon Duncan-Jones, a Park Heights community leader.

Daniel replied: "This is not the same old-fashioned `Let's lock up some people in the community [and leave].' We are making a commitment to stay there."

Some police commanders -- who will be held accountable for the operation's success in their districts' targeted neighborhoods -- acknowledge the plan is made up of old ideas, which brought limited success in the past.

"We are really waiting to see what type of other strategies develop," said one police official. "These strategies are not new to us."

The official, and others, applaud the new police administration for ensuring that additional officers are provided for the operation.

District commanders expect Norris, who oversaw New York's dramatic crime reduction in the late 1990s, to decentralize units and fill 400 patrol vacancies.

The expected changes cannot come soon enough for some residents of Pigtown in the Southern District's targeted drug area, where men and women huddle in front of corner stores.

"I go out two, three times a day to chase them off the corner," said Cathy Worley, 70, a cashier at Stencil's Food Mart on West Cross Street. "They don't care who sees them or what you say to them."

When told Thursday that police are targeting her area, Worley said: "Good. Lock 'em up and throw away the keys."

Sun staff writer Allison Klein contributed to this article.

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