Driving dealers indoors

February 26, 2003

WITH FLASHING hands and furtive glances, the young men who congregated recently near the Pennsylvania Avenue post office branch proved a point about the resilience of Baltimore's drug problem.

Calling out to passers-by with the slang names for heroin and cocaine, the dealers overran sidewalks near the post office and other merchants, defying city police to distinguish them from midday shoppers.

Police believe a successful assault on drug trafficking a few blocks away forced the dealers to new ground. Dozens of arrests since then are intended to pressure the dealers to move on, yet again. To where?

This is the dilemma welcoming Kevin P. Clark to Baltimore. Open-air drug markets are a scourge that breeds violence, destroys the fabric of communities and sullies Baltimore as a destination city for industry, tourists and families. By one estimate based on statistical analysis of police data, up to 300 open-air drug markets feed the habits of Baltimore's estimated 60,000 addicts.

The actual number of open-air markets isn't known: Some are dug in and notorious, others form spontaneously. Mayor Martin O'Malley, who took office promising to shut them down, acknowledges that his goals have not been met. Mr. Clark, his police commissioner-designate, inherits his unfinished war on drugs and a young force outnumbered by an addict population that lacks adequate treatment options.

Mr. Clark now has pledged to drive the drug trade indoors -- signaling renewed emphasis on a strategy that New York and other cities use with mixed success.

In theory, driving the drug sellers inside slows illicit sales by making it harder for addicts and dealers to connect. It helps police, who may find a gold mine of evidence instead of just a corpse when drug-related crimes occur indoors. Forfeiture laws and other tools help police fighting drugs on private property. In cities where this approach has been tried, landlords and neighbors play important roles in deterring dealers.

But while driving dealers indoors may make a block look or feel safer, it "does not eliminate the nuisance or the dangers posed to the community," acknowledges Thomas Carr, who manages a federal grant helping Baltimore and other cities curb open-air drug markets.

So when the talk turns to tactics during Mr. Clark's confirmation hearing today, Baltimoreans also need to hear that there's a comprehensive plan for eliminating the plague, not just flushing it off the streets. "We will never arrest our way out of this problem," Philadelphia's police commissioner has said, stressing the value to his city of coordinating police, prosecution, prevention and neighborhood renewal programs to shut down open-air drug markets.

Community policing, no-loitering campaigns, sting operations -- Baltimore is wiser, having learned from Mr. Clark's predecessors that targeting the open-air drug markets may shift rather than solve the problem. Any expertise that Mr. Clark can bring to bear as a former deputy chief overseeing New York City's 2,400-member drug division will be welcomed, but the same old tactics absent a comprehensive plan will not.

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