Understanding the game

August 29, 2005

BALTIMORE CAN'T arrest its way out of the drug problem. Police Commissioner Leonard D. Hamm knows that -- from experience. He learned it on the street as a young cop and later as a district commander. When his stepdaughter became ensnared in the drug world more than a decade ago, her experience reinforced his own -- although in a heartbreakingly personal way. The city Police Department's drug enforcement strategy reflects the commissioner's 30-plus years of experience, his homegrown knowledge of the city, his instincts, his humanity. The latter may seem out of place in that list, but a small pilot project dubbed "Get Out of the Game" and run by the police community-relations unit represents the human side of this epidemic that is a public health crisis as much as it is a criminal one.

The initiative helps addicts (nonviolent offenders) get out of the maddening trap of selling nickel and dime bags or themselves to feed a habit. It refers to treatment and job centers a handful of foot soldiers in this army of thousands. It tracks about 50 addicts in their journey toward renewal -- a big assumption. It's a small part of the department's multitiered enforcement effort to attack the drug trade any way it can, implementing traditional as well as innovative methods to disrupt a violent killing game.

This department not only rousts dealers from corners, it illuminates violent drug areas with all-night floodlights. It busts midlevel dealers. It helps take down drug organizations with international ties. It produces promotional videos to counter the latest drug rap. The "Get Out of the Game" initiative is not unlike what's happening in corrections nationally -- prisons are offering inmates treatment and job training in an effort to reverse a decade of high reincarceration rates.

The pervasive violence of the drug culture requires tough policing on the local, state and federal levels, available treatment, community initiatives and follow-through. Policing this ruthless business requires law enforcement to adapt and respond to the drug culture's latest permutation. The department's effort looks beyond containment, as it must. Baltimore's problem extends beyond the troubles of a child of a prominent citizen; it is her addiction multiplied thousands of times.

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