Family woes may have shaped chief's drug policy

Some city leaders link Hamm's outreach bid to stepdaughter's addiction

August 24, 2005|By Doug Donovan and Gus G. Sentementes | Doug Donovan and Gus G. Sentementes,SUN STAFF

When Leonard D. Hamm took the reins of the Baltimore Police Department this year, he assured city leaders that he would adhere to Mayor Martin O'Malley's philosophy of aggressively attacking the drug trade while helping to steer addicts toward help.

To prove his commitment to that balance, Hamm has been busy promoting a tiny pilot community outreach program called "Get Out of the Game."

The initiative aims to provide addicts caught up in nonviolent illegal activities with information on how to get treatment for their addictions - a problem with which the commissioner is intimately familiar.

Hamm knows firsthand how crucial such help can be. His stepdaughter, Nicole Sesker, has struggled with drug addiction and has been arrested several times, according to court records.

Sesker, 36, of Gwynn Oak, told The Sun less than two years ago that she had suffered from heroin withdrawal while being held at the city jail during a pregnancy and that she received no treatment. She was arrested most recently in April - while Hamm was commissioner - for drug possession charges and found not guilty in June, court records state.

In 1999 she was found guilty of drug possession and distribution and sentenced to a 10-year suspended sentence with three years probation, court records show. The records show she violated the terms of her probation at least once and was ordered into treatment at the I Can't We Can and Tuerke House drug rehabilitation center.

She could not be reached for comment yesterday.

Several city leaders said they believe Hamm's personal experiences with his stepdaughter might have conditioned how police officers deal with addicts.

"He's trying to strike a balance," said City Council President Sheila Dixon, whose late elder brother, Phillip Dixon Jr., was a drug addict. "Any public official with personal experience with issues that affect a community" can develop policies that are more "holistic."

Hamm's program, which started in early spring and has recently drawn attention from The New York Times, is run by officers in the Police Department's community affairs section and has referred approximately 50 nonviolent offenders to various drug treatment and job placement programs, a police spokesman said.

The eight officers wear T-shirts that say "Get Out of the Game" and they approach mostly young people between 18 and 24 years old in the city's most troubled neighborhoods.

Matt Jablow, a Police Department spokesman, said that the program "should not be taken as a signal, in any way, that we have shifted our strategy."

"We will remain a very aggressive police department," Jablow said. "We will continue to go after violent criminals as we have since the mayor took office."

Hamm would not comment for this article. He discussed the "Get Out of the Game" program with The Sun in July, saying, "If we don't do this sort of thing, we'll still have this mess 30 years from now."

O'Malley won election in 1999, in part because of his emphasis on zero-tolerance policing. Part of O'Malley's platform was decrying the community policing efforts of past administrations while other cities, such as New York, were using data-driven crime fighting to score record drops in violence.

It was a drastic shift from the years under Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and his police commissioner, Thomas C. Frazier, who ordered his officers to ignore small amounts of drugs, arguing that police "cannot arrest their way out of the drug problem."

But O'Malley also has made increasing the availability of drug treatment a priority. Even former Commissioner Edward T. Norris, Baltimore's face for the New York style of policing, deployed officers at the city's open-air drug markets to help steer nonviolent addicts toward help, said Dr. Peter L. Beilenson, the mayor's former health commissioner.

Norris was O'Malley's zero-tolerance commissioner, Beilenson said, but "he recognized that addicts needed treatment."

He said that what makes Hamm's approach slightly different is that the new commissioner's policy "is informed by his personal experience."

Hamm's "willingness to speak out on his own family issues is laudable," Beilenson said. "It's courageous."

Two members of the city's elected state delegation - State Del. Salima S. Marriott and Del. Nathaniel T. Oaks, Baltimore Democrats - said that Hamm spoke to them this year about his drug strategies and his stepdaughter's struggles.

"He was letting us know that no family is exempt from drugs," Oaks said.

Marriott said the delegation has made drug treatment a priority and that they were moved by Hamm's sensitivity to the issue.

"He made it very clear that he understands the impact of substance abuse as it relates to fighting crime ... because he had a daughter who has suffered with addiction," she said. But Marriott, a frequent critic of the O'Malley administration's high number of arrests, said she is not convinced that Hamm's experience has made the police force any more understanding with addicts.

"I'm not sure the police force is in tune with the sensitivity of the police commissioner," she said.

It may be too early to tell whether Hamm's experience and his foray into outreach toward addicts will filter throughout the department. But Schmoke said Hamm, a lifelong Baltimorean, deserves the benefit of the doubt.

Schmoke said that while Hamm may be sensitive to the plight of drugs on communities, he also has the experience of a tough street officer intolerant of the crime bred by drugs. He also said that Hamm's policies are in line with a national trend.

"It has become more acceptable to talk about drugs as both a criminal justice problem and a public health issue, instead of one or the other," Schmoke said.

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