Aggressive policing brings reply of gunfire

Drug dealers, police fighting turf war on city's street corners

March 28, 2001|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

The street runners and corner boys complain that police are hassling them and say they've had enough. Big guns make them big men, they say, and they're simply trying to protect their turf.

Teens and young men interviewed at drug corners on the city's east side say the recent spate of shootings of and by police is a consequence of a Police Department that suddenly seems to be playing by new rules.

"People are testing the police," said Steven Scott, 16, as he stood in the courtyard of an East Baltimore housing project, yards from where an officer was shot Monday. The recent violence, Scott said, "is the result."

Police officials counter that the recent shootings of officers resulted from their determined efforts to disrupt the city's multimillion-dollar drug trade that flourishes on street corners. Seven incidents in the past two weeks have left one officer dead, three wounded and two suspects killed by police gunfire.

"People live and die off the drug business," said LaMont W. Flanagan, commissioner of the city detention center. "They pay their rent and feed their children off the drug business. And police are a nuisance. They are in the middle, between the consumer and the merchant. That's a dangerous place to be."

In recent months, criminals have turned to powerful, large-caliber guns that surprise even veterans of the police force.

Officer Anthony R. Molesky was shot in both legs early Monday with a .44-caliber Ruger Blackhawk before he and two other officers shot and killed the suspect. Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris called the revolver a "cannon."

Shotguns and .38-caliber revolvers top the list of gun seizures in Baltimore, but the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms said that more powerful .380s and .357 Magnums are creeping up fast. In the past two months, 24 guns seized at city crime scenes were turned over to ATF for testing. Half were of .40 caliber or larger, including a .50-caliber handgun and an AK-47 assault rifle.

"The bigger guns are in right now," said Lt. Edward M. Frost III, a 24-year veteran who conducts firearms training at the police academy.

Rico Jones, 18, of Somerset Homes, a public housing complex in East Baltimore, says he stays away from firearms but friends in the drug trade "think big guns are the thing."

Jones and Scott were among nearly two dozen people interviewed yesterday and Monday about the recent shootings. Most refused to give their names, even as some acknowledged their involvement in the drug trade.

One 16-year-old wearing a shirt emblazoned with "Deaky Land" - a reference, he said, to a neighborhood off East Eager Street, but with no apparent meaning - said he spent 30 days this year at Boy's Village, a youth detention center, for selling drugs.

"The police have this all shut down," he said of his neighborhood off North Caroline Street. "This is the real deal."

Police have focused on a 3.7-square-mile area of East Baltimore that they describe as one of the most dangerous in the city. In August, police sent a task force of 120 extra officers to the area. In the past seven months, task force officers have made more than 4,300 arrests, three-fourths on drug charges, and area crime dropped 30 percent.

The effort has not gone unnoticed.

"You mind your business and police ask you questions you know nothing about," said Scott, who lives in Somerset Homes public housing near Johns Hopkins Hospital.

Scott said he served time in a juvenile detention facility on a charge of dealing drugs. He denied that he sold drugs or carried a gun.

"The police harass us and feel they can do anything because they got a badge," Scott said.

Police offer a different view. New strategies imported from New York by Commissioner Norris have upset the status quo - a steady pace of more than 300 homicides a year for a decade. The number of killings fell below 300 last year for the first time since 1989.

Officers now track crime during stress-filled meetings in a high-tech auditorium at police headquarters. They plot shootings, robberies and car thefts on computer maps and dispatch officers to high-crime areas.

"We put cops where the problems are," said Officer Gary McLhinney, president of the Fraternal Order of Police, Lodge 3. "That wasn't done before. It places officers more directly in harm's way. We're no longer satisfied with taking a report after a crime."

Added Sgt. Thomas J. Joyce, a supervisor on the Eastside Initiative, "I expect anything. We've been shaking the trees out here."

A central part of the policing plan is to put officers where they are needed most. Molesky was shot in front of the Crossroads Bar & Grill as he checked a suspicious car. Six taverns in the Highlandtown neighborhood have been held up in the past two months.

Bang Warren, co-owner of the bar, said a Lincoln Town Car had been parked in front of the tavern for 20 minutes. She said a woman came in and used the restroom while a man ordered a malt liquor.

"My bartender said it looked like they were casing the place," Warren said.

Police saw the Lincoln double-parked, called in the license plate and were told that the car had been stolen.

Molesky was shot as he tried to pull a man from the car. Hit in both legs with a gun powerful enough to take down a deer, he became a casualty in the department's stepped-up fight against drugs.

"The police are getting in the way," said Flanagan. "And nothing gets in the way of the commerce of drugs."

Sun staff writer Kimberly A. C. Wilson contributed to this article.

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