Police unit targets drug deals in public housing

Team's mission is part of larger plan to disrupt city's open-air trafficking

December 02, 2003|By Del Quentin Wilber | Del Quentin Wilber,SUN STAFF

A plainclothes police officer trained his binoculars on a drug deal going down in the courtyard of a West Baltimore public housing complex. Hidden hundreds of feet away, he barked out a description of the seller and buyers over his radio.

In an instant, other officers rushed the courtyard and arrested the unsuspecting customer and her dealer. The police operation, which took just a few seconds, was typical of how a small unit of officers is trying to root out narcotics trafficking in the city's 14 public housing complexes, known as spawning grounds for crime and violence.

"You have to go where the crime is," said Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin P. Clark. "We'll go wherever the criminals are, wherever the crime is. ... A lot of it is to keep [dealers] disrupted. That would be helpful to cutting down gunplay on the streets."

Clark created the unit -- a joint venture between Baltimore and Housing Authority of Baltimore City police -- in July as part of his strategy to lower crime by aggressively targeting open-air drug markets.

The 13-member unit, known as the Neighborhood Enforcement Team, focuses on catching drug sales as they occur and arresting buyers and dealers. The team has made more than 450 arrests -- 201 of which involve felony charges -- recovered 23 ounces of drugs and seized 10 handguns.

The team's supervisor, Sgt. Kelvin Sewell of the city police, says his officers' efforts have begun to reduce crime by discouraging people from journeying to the complexes to buy drugs while also limiting the supply.

Police statistics show that the number of shootings and homicides have dropped in public housing complexes since the unit was formed. From July through the middle of last month, the city reported four shootings in the complexes, compared with 16 during the same period last year; homicides fell from six to two.

"We're having an effect on the crime," Sewell said. "Most of the people who don't live there are finally being taken to jail. ... Before we came into existence, there wasn't a lot of enforcement activity in public housing. Now we have a presence in the area."

The unit's work is relatively simple in principle, police say.

An undercover officer drives to a housing complex in an unmarked car or finds a hidden spot -- sometimes in an apartment or on top of a building -- and spies on dealers. The officer then relays information about the suspects to officers who swoop in to make arrests.

In practice, however, the job is far more difficult.

Many of the residents of public housing and the dealers who work those neighborhoods can spot an unfamiliar surveillance car or an undercover officer. And since the housing complexes are compact -- with enclosed courtyards and dark alleys -- they present difficult terrain for police to penetrate and catch dealers in the act.

"Everything is set up like a maze," said Officer Michael Moran, a unit member. "It's tough getting in there."

To arrest higher-up drug dealers, officers are using informants to find larger stockpiles of drugs, which are often stashed in the complexes' apartments.

Still, much of the police effort concentrates on arresting buyers and dealers on the streets through secret observations -- known as "rips."

On a recent afternoon, a team officer, Sgt. Steven Evans of the housing authority police, set up near the Douglass Homes in an undercover car.

In minutes, he started calling in suspicious activity to several officers who were roaming the area in small teams.

Evans had spotted a man in a gray sweat suit getting out of a silver Mazda 626 and walking into the courtyard of the project. The man appeared to make a transaction with another man, and Evans radioed the man's description to waiting teams.

Officers boxed in the man's Mazda as he drove down Central Avenue near East Fayette Street, and saw that the driver was trying to swallow the suspected drugs.

Sewell broke one of the Mazda's windows with the butt of his handgun, opened the door and, with the help of other officers, dragged the driver to the street.

Police recovered two vials of suspected cocaine that they said the man had tried to toss away before being arrested and more than $1,000 in cash from his pockets.

The man, whom police identified as Ronald M. Cox, 37, of the first block of Solar Circle in Parkville, was charged with drug possession.

As officers waited for a police van to take Cox to the city jail for processing, Evans continued to watch for drug sales and spotted suspected dealers retrieving items from an apartment in the 1400 block of Mullikin Way.

A half-hour later, worried that the men would have an opportunity to get rid of any drugs, officers stormed into the house and recovered a bag of 204 heroin capsules as it swirled in a toilet bowl -- just seconds before it vanished down the drain.

Police later obtained a search warrant and said they recovered a 9 mm pistol and a half-ounce of cocaine from a back bedroom, along with $767 in cash.

Inside the apartment, police found Cox's brother, Gregory, 39, of the 2800 block of Evergreen St. in Northeast Baltimore. He was charged with possessing and intending to distribute heroin and cocaine.

Police arrested four other men inside the apartment, including the tenant, Howard Dabney, 56, and charged them with drug distribution. Dabney will likely be evicted from public housing for the arrest, police said.

"By getting the individual out of that house, we no longer have a problem of them selling out of that house," Evans said. "That is one less house we have to worry about. ... By locking up the buyers, we're saying, `Don't come back here anymore.' By locking up the dealers, that gets rid of the main problem."

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