Dawsons not forgotten

October 13, 2003

LAST OCTOBER, as they worked through their shock and grief at a family's burning to death for speaking out against drug crime, many people in the city wondered if the Dawsons' unwilling sacrifice would be in vain. The prayer was that it would not.

But Baltimore often seems to be a city of endless promises - lots of talk, little action, no apologies. It is a culture that seems to accept that more than 200 people have been killed here every year for more than a generation - and not by some invading army but by one another. This time, though, there already has been action.

City Hall has done the most obvious, most critical thing it could do: flood the streets with light and cops, target the local drug chiefs and guarantee that a 911 call gets a speedy response. And in most of these battered blocks of the city, one can see a difference.

A year ago this Thursday, in the dark early morning, Darrell L. Brooks splashed gasoline on the stairs of an Oliver rowhouse, setting a blaze that killed parents Angela and Carnell Dawson and children LaWanda, Juan, Carnell Jr., Keith and Kevin.

Now on a sunny fall afternoon, regular folks are on the street, shopping at Danny's or the corner market, picking up their kids from school. Faces peer from windows and half-opened doors. More people are looking out for one another again, not rushing into their homes and barricading themselves from the community. Neighbors' tips continue to feed the city Police Department, proving false the fear that drug dealers' violent bullying would silence them.

Since January, Eastern District police have taken more than 4,000 calls for help from community members. Officers have arrested 94 people and cited another 112. Their colleagues in the narcotics division have made another 425 arrests in just the past four months. The department says the additional police patrols and federal and city coordination on narcotics probes since the deadly fire have helped greatly to boost this year's figures in the neighborhood, as well as offered reassurance to the residents.

The Dawson family's name has brought more than $3 million in federal money for extra crimefighting equipment and officers' time. It pulled $1.15 million in federal money to add 200 drug treatment slots citywide. And it has pushed people to reach outside their comfort zones.

Oliver residents organized a successful appeal to Annapolis to restore state money to retain the much-needed Child First after-school program at the school.

City and state justice agencies worked together steadily to make real the idea of a "war room." There, prosecutors, pretrial planners and probation officers can find in one place all the records for career criminals newly rearrested so these repeat offenders don't quickly turn up back on the streets.

These agencies, along with those that aid the city's children, enlarged programs to aid the riskiest kids and better monitor those on curfews and community detention. The goal is to head off the next potential Darrell Brooks.

Of course, Oliver still is far from an idyllic neighborhood, and the extra protection and city services remain a necessity. There are recalcitrant corners, alleys and dead ends of crime and grime, blocks full of boarded-up or burned-out rowhouses, and broken glass and trash in the park next to the elementary school.

The city so far has been slower on the next big pieces of the puzzle: helping people find work and improving the housing stock. Employment development officers helped 208 people get jobs so far this year, a dent in an unemployment rate that has been 13 percent, according to recent Census figures.

Buildings on a few blocks have been razed and cleared, and seven vacant houses have been rehabbed and bought, but they constitute a fraction of the blight. The Great Blacks in Wax expansion, taking the space left from razing four-dozen houses, would take care of another block, and neighborhood churches have been working to buy up scores of parcels for redevelopment.

For these plans to succeed, neighbors and their protectors cannot ease up on arresting and prosecuting those who bring drugs into their midst. As long as the trade persists, the streets won't truly be owned by those who live there, but by those who deal there.

Perhaps the greatest legacy of the Dawsons, suggested but not yet realized, would be that extra dose of persistence - the kind that led parents Angela and Carnell Dawson to call the police three dozen times for help. For the living, it's the push to keep on keeping on in such a hardscrabble community, and not to stop until there is lasting change. And not to stop then, either.

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