Cutting crime carriescosts at Avenue Market

Loiterers targeted,but some residents allege harassment

April 08, 2000|By Tim Craig | Tim Craig,SUN STAFF

After more than two months of police sweeps and hundreds of arrests, the city's effort to eradicate open-air drug dealing in a 20-block area near West Baltimore's Avenue Market has slashed crime there but divided the community over police tactics.

In one of 10 city drug areas that Mayor Martin O'Malley hopes to clear by June, police report serious crime down 23 percent and drug-related calls down 32 percent this year, compared with the same period last year.

But the scores of Druid Heights and Upton drug addicts who continue to feed their habits and the dealers who pad their wallets with money say the operation has had little effect on them.

The Central Police District campaign has unleashed and empowered dozens of police officers to target and make arrests in crimes ranging from illegal panhandling and loitering to felony drug dealing.

Some of the community's predominantly African-American residents applaud the police presence, but others liken it to an occupying force, which, they say, uses racial, age and sex profiling to intimidate suspected criminals.

"You used to catch them harassing you sometime; now it is all the time," said Corey Gillie, 16. "They stopped me twice [recently] with the same thing: `You look like someone we thought had a gun.'"

Most of the recent criticism has been directed at the Central District plainclothes unit, called CENTAC, which was established in January to fulfill the mayor's goal of ridding streets of drug dealing.

"They are raw, in your face, and that is never necessary," said a patrol officer, who asked not to be named and is alarmed by CENTAC's arrest methods. "That is not the way to convey a professional image. You don't have to treat people bad to get results."

While one expert called the tactics unconstitutional, police maintain the strategy is necessary to curb the scourge.

Acting Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris said he plans to review the Open Air Drug Market Eradication Program, created by Col. Bert Shirey and implemented under former Commissioner Ronald L. Daniel, before expanding it beyond the 10 target zones.

But community activists and some residents credit police with stopping lines of addicts waiting for free drug samples, known as tester lines, and clearing sidewalks of drug syringes and clusters of intimidating youths.

Liberated feeling

Last week, several middle-aged and elderly residents of the 500 block of Robert St., three blocks from the market, gathered on their rowhouse stoops to swap stories of liberation from what had become a drug culture.

"I still cannot believe it looks like we will be able to sit out here this summer," said Diane Taylor, 38, "And we won't get knocked over by addicts running to the tester lines."

But as some older Druid Heights residents prepare for a summer where they can walk the streets unchallenged, many of their children and younger males say police tactics have them expecting a season where officers trample civil rights and use intimidation to keep them inside. "I think the mayor is doing an excellent job, too," said Corey's brother, Donta, 19, who is on probation for a drug conviction. "But if you can't sit on your own steps, if you cannot walk to the store without something said or done to you by the police, I won't even be able to enjoy the safer streets."

Donta and Corey Gillie and about 10 teen-age friends were playing basketball last week at a makeshift wooden hoop on Robert Street, near where their parents were talking.

As they played, the 13- to 19-year-olds exchanged stories of alleged police harassment. With a

ic Sun

nm reporter looking on, an unmarked maroon police cruiser approached and slowed. With a stare, one of four officers in the car shouted, "This [expletive] is not going to last all summer," referring to the youths playing basketball in the street.

The youths and some patrol officers said CENTAC units often turn the popular "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" television quiz show into a veiled threat as they drive around. With a dozen plastic handcuffs stacked on their forearms, they shout: "Who wants to go to jail today?"

The youths, most of whom have no criminal record, said that among them, they have been stopped or searched more than a dozen times since Christmas, including several times on their own steps.

Norris, pressured by African-Americans who fear his support of zero-tolerance policing, said he was dismayed by the alleged verbal intimidation and promised his administration will institute thorough training and oversight procedures.

Maj. Steve McMahon, Central District commander, said the department has received no complaints in the targeted area since the operation began.

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