Three months on the job, Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin P. Clark is poised to launch the largest piece of his two-pronged assault on the city's chronic narcotics problem when detectives in an organized crime division begin to target drug gangs in coming weeks.
The commissioner has begun to carry out the first part of his campaign by encouraging his officers to constantly harass those suspected of being involved in drugs on offenses as petty as loitering by issuing them criminal citations.
By hammering at both groups, Clark hopes to drive drug dealers off the streets - indoors and away from trouble.
Clark's efforts occur as Baltimore is enduring a spike in homicides, recording 100 killings two weeks sooner than it did last year, and union officials complain of low morale, mis management and a lack of direction being given to officers.
Clark and his boss, Mayor Martin O'Malley, say they have the right plan in place. They also acknowledge that they have to work quickly to get things under control.
"This is like changing tires on a moving car." O'Malley said.
Clark's new organized-crime division consists of 162 detectives and is scheduled to begin hitting the streets May 26. Anthony Romano, chief of the division and a former narcotics sergeant from New York City, said he and other commanders searched the department for the best drug detectives to join the team, mostly from other specialized units.
The majority of organized-crime detectives will target street-level dealing. About 50 will work on major investigations, many on federal and state task forces. The division replaces the narcotics unit, which had nearly 100 detectives assigned to major cases and the task forces, Romano said.
Under the past administration, street-level enforcement was left to detectives in the city's nine police districts. Those district units will continue to respond to local problems.
Clark is scaling back the Mobile Enforcement Team, a roving band of officers who targeted the city's most violent areas. The unit's 40 remaining officers will focus mostly on seizing guns, Clark said. He has also expanded the city's vice unit from five officers to 18.
On the street, Clark is de-emphasizing arrests for petty crimes, and instead he is pushing officers to write criminal citations for those minor offenses. The tactic keeps officers on the street more because they don't have to spend time transporting those arrested to the station or jail.
And by keeping officers on patrol and constantly engaging those involved in drugs, Clark expects that the dealers, and even users, will become so annoyed that they will move indoors. That improves neighborhood life, Clark said, and reduces the chances that the drug traffickers become victims of violence or resort to shooting or robbing people on the street.
During a tour through the city Tuesday night with a Sun reporter, Clark urged a group of plainclothes officers to give citations to a group of young men sitting against the wall of a vacant building.
Clark was convinced that they were drug dealers or associated with the trade all were wearing the same style of white T-shirt, and most did not live in the block.
The officers did not want to give the men criminal citations for loitering because they had not warned them earlier that night to get off the corner. Prosecutors have long told police that officers must warn loiterers before charging them.
Clark grew impatient. "Write the violation!" he yelled.
He told the officers that the department had warned dealers Jan. 1 to get off the corners.
Clark also is pushing his commanders to target liquor stores and late-night food establishments that attract crowds of people, especially at night.
He has urged them to enlist the help of other city agencies. During a weekly crime trend meeting last week, Clark grilled the Eastern District's commander, Maj. Michael Andrew, about a series of homicides this year.
The police commissioner wanted to know whether the killings had occurred near liquor stores or bars. He told Andrew to have his officers write citations to people loitering in front of the stores. He also told the commander to get the health department involved to scrutinize restaurant practices. That, in turn, would put pressure on restaurants to help police.
"Let's make sure the food is cooked." Clark said, referring to possible health code violations. "This should be relentless."
Union officials complain about Clark's approach, saying they feel left in the dark about his plans. They also think the department is not properly managing its resources.
"Our morale is down the hopper." said Dan Fickus, president of the city police union, the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 3. "The morale is bad. No one knows what is going on in the structure of the department."
Fickus said many districts are sending out shifts of officers well below authorized strength.
Police officials say they have about 146 vacancies from attrition, sick leave and military callups out of 1,491 patrol positions.