Clark's drug strategy

May 19, 2003

KEVIN P. CLARK, who became Baltimore's police commissioner in January, is putting his professional reputation on the line by pledging to drive drug dealers off the streets. Forcing the drug trade indoors - on the theory that drive-by shootings and other gun violence will decrease as a consequence - has been the stated goal of at least six police commissioners in the past decade. In fact, Martin O'Malley made closing down open-air drug markets his top priority in 1999, when he ran for mayor.

Since then, some of the most visible outdoor drug markets have been eradicated, but the overall problem persists. Little wonder: Baltimore has one of the nation's worst heroin and cocaine addiction problems.

Many details of the new push, which will start later this month, are still murky. Nevertheless, Commissioner Clark's strategy is welcome. Something new and more effective certainly is needed. Baltimore's drug-related homicides, which are among America's highest, have again been rising. That spiral must be stopped.

In Step 1 of his plan, the commissioner wants to curtail run-of-the-mill arrests of addicts and hustlers, which are time-consuming and often go nowhere in courts. Instead, officers will be directed to harass the buyers and sellers away from open-air drug markets, and, if necessary, write tickets that carry a fine.

In Step 2, as the drug trade moves indoors, Commissioner Clark's new organized-crime division will be sent after big-time dealers and their backers. Its 162 detectives will use wiretaps, controlled buys, and other necessary tools.

There is more.

With the mayor's support, Commissioner Clark wants other city agencies, such as the Health Department, to assist the police in preventing taverns and late-night food establishments from becoming magnets for drug dealing. If tickets to loiterers do not help, he wants code enforcement.

"Let's make sure the food is cooked," he said.

This kind of municipal muscle-flexing is old hat in New York and Chicago, but new to Baltimore. Police are walking a very fine line here. They must take extreme care not to violate individuals' rights or turn legitimate enforcement into vendettas - because controversies surrounding any arbitrariness could kill this experiment.

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