Mayor unveils new effort on reporting drug activity

Police vow tip line callers will reach narcotics officer

September 04, 2004|By Ryan Davis | Ryan Davis,SUN STAFF

Standing before an orange billboard in Southwest Baltimore, Mayor Martin O'Malley and police officials unveiled yesterday a new anonymous tip line that they predicted will lead to better investigations of drug dealers.

"We've made a lot of progress over the past year in pushing the open-air drug markets off our streets. ... We still have a long way to go," O'Malley said.

In addition to changing the phone number to 666-DRUG (410-666-3784), the mayor and police said they are changing how it operates. When residents call, police officials promise, callers will speak to experienced narcotics investigators. And officers won't respond by just driving by the troubled area and dispersing the activity for a short while, said Anthony J. Romano, chief of the department's organized crime division.

"If you take the time to call us, we're going to take the time to follow up," Romano said.

Under the previous format, officers answered the tip line during the day, but at other times it was answered by 311 operators who handle a variety of citizen complaints, from potholes to strewn trash to graffiti. The 311 dispatchers have no expertise in controlling drug activity, police said.

Officers who answer the phone will ask callers where and when the dealing is occurring and about other observations they have made, Romano said.

"What we're looking for is good intelligence," said police Commissioner Kevin P. Clark, a former narcotics commander in New York.

Baltimore, once dubbed the heroin capital of the country, has long operated an anonymous drug tip line. That effort has had some notable successes, including a 1991 tip that lead to a million-dollar cocaine bust at a Northeast Baltimore hotel. Efforts to promote anonymous crime tips were renewed after the 2002 arson deaths of the Dawson family, who were killed in a fire after they reported illegal drug activity in their neighborhood.

The city's violence and drugs are often intertwined. Of the nearly 200 homicide victims in Baltimore this year, 55 had been arrested this year on felony drug charges, police said yesterday.

The new anti-crime message will be advertised on three billboards - including one at Bentalou Street and Frederick Avenue, the site of yesterday's news conference. The city will rent space on two more billboards this month. It will cost $5,000 per billboard to display the message for two months, police spokesman Matt Jablow said.

The sign at Bentalou and Frederick displays the slogan "Drug-Free Baltimore is Your Call" and features a picture of a young girl playing with a hula hoop. "All calls are confidential," the billboard ad says.

"Whether there's a billboard in your neighborhood," O'Malley said, "there's a phone in your house."

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