City police alter tactics on west side

Rise in violent crime, drugs spurs rejection of stationary patrols

Some improvement noted

Strategy designed to make sure officers `go where the action is'

May 19, 2001|By Del Quentin Wilber | Del Quentin Wilber,SUN STAFF

Baltimore police hope a new strategy will reduce crime in the Western District, where a spate of homicides and shootings has threatened to derail the department's crime-fighting goals.

"It's vitally important," police Commissioner Edward T. Norris said yesterday of the Western District effort. "We have to go where the crime is. We have to go where the action is."

Police dispatched 36 extra officers into the district in early April, but weeks later shootings, homicides and other crime skyrocketed. Citywide, nearly 40 people were killed in as many days.

His crime-fighting goals in jeopardy, Norris said last week that he felt it necessary to revamp his command structure, removing his second in command, Deputy Commissioner Barry W. Powell, and three others.

On Thursday, after a high-level crime trend meeting at police headquarters pointed out the problems, police commanders changed the tactics used by Maj. Paula T. Johnson, the former western commander.

Yesterday, he replaced Johnson, who had asked to be reassigned, with Maj. Antonio Williams.

The strategy of flooding a high-crime area with extra officers showed results in the Eastern District after it began in August. Violent crime there has dropped 24 percent.

In the Western District, Johnson used the extra resources differently and was not as successful.

Nine people were killed during nine days beginning in late April. During four weeks in April and May, 13 people were shot, three more than during the corresponding period last year. In several cases, police officers were a block away from shootings. More than 90 homes and businesses were burglarized during the same period, 36 more than last year.

That happened with 36 extra officers on the streets.

The officers weren't prowling for criminals or swarming high-crime areas. Johnson had deployed them in "stationary" positions in hopes of preventing further violence in those locations. Norris has called the tactic "counter" to his philosophy. "Just putting people on corners doesn't get it done," he said yesterday.

Statistics seem to support him. In the two weeks before the violence escalated, officers arrested 217 people. During the following two weeks, while stationed on specific corners, they arrested 118, a decrease of 46 percent.

The new tactics mirror those in the Eastern District, where officers roam the district, constantly attacking problem areas.

Capt. Gary D'Addario, who directs the initiative in the Western District, said he could more effectively battle outbreaks of crime with proven tactics. "This is not rocket science," he said.

The district is also getting nine new police officers who graduated from the academy yesterday.

Even though the Western District endured a rash of violence, residents say they have begun to notice a change.

"There has been some improvement," said Joann Osborne, president of the Carrollton Avenue Community Association. Osborne lives in an area rife with drug dealers and has seen more than 10 arrests during the past month.

Osborne noted a persistent problem encountered by police throughout the city: "They're arresting people, and a lot of them are right back on the street."

Other residents said they hadn't noticed big changes but that the ranks of drug dealers on some streets had thinned.

Police recognize a difficult task ahead. About 10:30 on a recent morning, Lt. James V. Kelly and Sgt. Jack Hergenroeder drove around the district, eyeing trouble spots.

The drug corners were just about to open up shop. The officers pointed out a dozen memorial messages - "RIP" - spray-painted on the sides of buildings, where people had fallen victim to violence. They pointed out an area infested with drug users and dealers that straddles the district's boundary with the Central Police District.

"This is like the net on a tennis court," Hergenroeder said. "You keep lobbing [the dealers and users] back and forth."

On a recent night, given a break from a "stationary" patrol, three police officers roamed the district in a minivan. Crowds were beginning to swell on some streets, where dealers were selling heroin, cocaine and marijuana, the officers said.

Within minutes, they spotted a man they thought was dealing drugs from the steps of a vacant house. The man had been arrested a few weeks earlier on charges that he had tried to run down a police officer with a car.

They chased the man from the house and dug around in a small pile of trash and looked under the front steps, hoping to find a stash of drugs. The man watched them from across the street. The officers didn't find any drugs.

Soon afterward, they arrested another man for dealing drugs and frisked two others whom they suspected of dealing. About 9:30 p.m., Officer Jason Thomas spotted a woman apparently dealing crack cocaine in small bags. Officer Paul McManus jammed on the brakes, and Thomas jumped out and latched his fingers under the woman's jaw.

"Spit it out," Thomas yelled. But Thomas was too late: The woman had swallowed several bags. She began to cough and seemed a little dazed.

"I guess you can't swallow a handful of crack and not at least get a cough," Thomas said.

They let her go.

The next morning, Hergenroeder's squad of plainclothes officers raided a rowhouse and found $10,000 worth of drugs that dealers were stashing there.

The woman from the night before - the one who had swallowed the bags - was standing outside the house. She lived there. Police said she and another woman were holding on to the drugs for a dealer in exchange for a daily fix.

Both were arrested on narcotics charges.

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