Back to basics

February 09, 2004

FOR NEARLY two decades, police have been rousting drug dealers from corners, wiring up for undercover buys and busting down doors to disrupt the narcotics trade in this town. As cocaine and crack joined heroin as the drugs of choice, the violence intensified. The scourge took lives, those in the drug business and those caught in the cross-fire crackling through city streets.

Police commissioners have deployed their troops in various ways over the years, but the focus often returned to the corners because of the public's demand to end the drug violence engulfing neighborhoods, homes and families. Commissioner Kevin P. Clark's emphasis is not that different from his predecessors' except in this respect: He has cast the enforcement net citywide in a relentless drive to disrupt the business of Drug Incorporated.

His organized crime division is arresting more people on drug charges -- 7, 222 adults and juveniles since last June, triple the number from the previous year -- and the majority of those (5,544) are for the more serious felony charges that carry harsher sentences.

But make no mistake: Success can't be measured solely by a deluge of arrests in a city of 40,000 to 60,000 addicts. The targets can't simply be low-level offenders. The suppliers and financiers, the backbone of the business, have to be as great a priority.

And just as important, the police attack has to be met with as focused a commitment from prosecutors, judges and elected officials, who decide whether to spend tax dollars on treatment slots, prison beds or some reasonable combination of both. In the past, competing interests and political agendas brought the criminal justice system to a convulsive halt.

But these days, police and prosecutors under Commissioner Clark and State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy have teamed up to ensure better-trained cops, properly documented cases and timely indictments of felony drug cases. While the conviction rate tops out at 91 percent, it's important to note that only about a third of the 632 defendants who were convicted so far -- 194 -- have received jail time, and the average sentence was 2.6 years, according to prosecutors. That means most of the defendants were low-level guys with small amounts of drugs and addicts selling to support their habits.

An effort should be made to divert more low-level defendants to drug treatment programs if we expect to keep them off the street and out of the business -- which takes us back to the street and the organized crime division's strategy. Anthony J. Romano, a veteran New York narcotics detective and chief of the organized crime division, believes that to "truly get up the ladder, you have to start at the bottom." But the back-to-basics push to disrupt the street traffic will go down as yet another numbers-driven enforcement strategy unless it yields the informants and intelligence to bust the organizers, managers and money men of the drug trade.

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