Police alone can't fix the corner

May 08, 2000|By Ed Burns

THERE IS much ado about the police department. It is only natural.

For 30 years, the thin blue line has been in the forefront of our war on drugs -- 30 years littered with tired and failed policies. That should be a hint. Unfortunately, we are addicted to the quick fix. So when the charge was sounded recently, we geared up once more to go into the breach. True, this time our leaders talk about a different, more focused approach -- a war whose singular purpose is to reduce violence.

The effort is woefully overdue.

For too many years, the police department has been forced to grapple with issues beyond the logic of its duty. The result is an agency that has operated without a clear and consistent mission, becoming for many little more than an arbitrary and deadly army of occupation. If our leadership can do anything in this area, it is to allow the police to return to doing what they do best -- lock up bad guys. In Baltimore, that's no mean trick.

With drugs the only viable economy in many of our neighborhoods, there are plenty of bad guys who need locking up. Go after the gunslingers. Those angry men and women know only one way to channel their hate, and that's through the gun barrel. Get them off the corners and the police will go a long way toward protecting the people.

It won't happen overnight. It will take time to bring back the precision of good police work, with its reliance on information, patience and, above all, probable cause. Too many years of harvesting a swarm of corner folk has dulled the department's investigative skills. But with dedicated and insightful leadership and a renewal of effort, all that can change.

The real and present danger is to succumb to the external pressures that will call for the police to do more, as if the solution to our failed social policy can be had with handcuffs.

It will take an act of will to let the police do what they need to do. It won't be easy to turn a deaf ear to the voices that will clamor to reclaim the corners, beg for relief from the street-level drug dealers and their minions. Heed this call, take on the thousands who serve the corners' drug market and still try to go after the gunslingers, makes what is difficult, absurd. Bend just once, and the scope of the operation will soon include the tens of thousands of drug addicts. Toss those numbers into the mix, and we are back to where we began.

The police are agents of control, not change. No matter how many murders they solve, no matter how many shootings they prevent, no matter how many gunslingers they take down, there will be no fundamental change to the corner culture. Free them to contribute to the solution, but don't stop there.

There is so little ado about those who struggle for the lives of the young who are at risk of falling into the corner life. Be it a federally sponsored program, a nonprofit effort, a religious-based community outreach, or a couple of dedicated adults working from a basement on a shoestring and a prayer, this woeful patchwork cannot begin to cope with the vagaries of corner life.

Down here, children do not grow to adulthood but survive to adulthood. Often an after-thought of drugged and desperate parents, they are the victims of the inconsistencies, the lies, the backbiting and that seething, crippling anger that not only wrenches an arm but tears at the very spirit. Is it little wonder that any of them find the floor for the cracks? By the time the school bell begins to chime, many are already lost.

Think about it: Thirty years of bone-weary struggle, and in this town we have yet to come up with a program that amounts to anything more than culling the herd.

It is not easy to find the political will, much less the continuing support, to put into motion what others will claim as their success; it is only human nature to want to reap what one sows. But for once our leadership needs to look beyond the present for a solution that will have a lasting impact.

We lament the legacy of the past 12 years that left nothing to build on. What will the next four or eight years leave? Of course, we need to confront the violence, but will that alone provide a footing to build toward a lasting solution? Or are we to settle for another illusion? If so, perhaps we should think about another title for our war on drugs. After all, wars end.

Ed Burns is a writer and teacher living in Baltimore and co-author of "The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner City Neighborhood."

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