Drug sweeps cut both ways in the Other City

October 27, 2005|By DAN RODRICKS

A good number of the low-level drug dealers I've interviewed over the last five months mentioned police pressure on Baltimore street corners as a reason why they now seek other employment. This was particularly true in the first wave of phone calls received in summer from young men - 25 to 35 years of age - who said they were interested in finding a legitimate job and getting out of the drug life.

These men also spoke of the dangers of the street - competition for corners, the threat of homicide - and a general burnout from years of selling dope, using it, or both.

But police pressure and the threat of more jail time were high on the list of reasons for calling The Sun for help in getting work.

Baltimore police set a record for arrests in August. It was Arrest Fest month, with prosecutors reviewing 8,964 new cases.

The O'Malley administration's sweep-the-corners approach to law enforcement has been criticized in some corners. Civil rights groups say it results in the jailing of a few thousand people each month for minor offenses, though many are never officially charged. (Of all the August arrests, prosecutors dropped 2,961 cases, about 33 percent.) Last month, a city circuit judge suggested that the arrest policies might have contributed to crowding at the Central Booking and Intake Center.

Fair-minded Baltimoreans hold a certain ambivalence about all this - we want police to respect citizens' rights, but we're eager to see a continual reduction in crime, for the general good of the city, in the old, drug-infested neighborhoods left out of the Baltimore Renaissance. You can't live and invest in Baltimore, or any community near Baltimore, and turn a blind eye to what happens in this Other Baltimore.

What I heard from the many guys who contacted me - admittedly, a relatively narrow focus group - was that this kind of aggressive policing forces them to get off the corners and to think about alternatives.

Of course, it would be nice if we could accomplish this without the wholesale sweeps. It would be nice if Baltimore police expanded their Get Out of the Game unit and conducted life-changing outreach among the corner guys without the jackboot tactics.

One big underappreciated downside of all this is that arrests on minor charges - in some instances, just being on the street with your friends - can knock people like Harry Calloway, an ex-offender trying to go straight, off the path to a better life.

Maureen Rowland, a public defender in the felony trial division of the Baltimore Circuit Court, was not surprised to read in this space last week of Calloway's arrest on a trespassing charge in early September. At least for 30 days, it pulled him out of Moveable Feast's culinary training class and night courses at Sojourner-Douglass College.

Rowland sees a lot of cases like Calloway's - men who sit in jail because they can't afford an attorney or bail.

"Regardless of how innocent a person may be - and there are many," Rowland wrote in an e-mail to The Sun, "by the time they get to their third trial date they'll plead guilty to anything to get out of jail. Now they have a felony drug conviction and ... "

And having a felony conviction complicates the efforts of ex-offenders looking for jobs. Many employers just won't hire them.

"Mr. Calloway took his situation in stride because he is so used to it," wrote Rowland. "He expects to be arrested for nothing - it happens all the time. ... Young people in the poor neighborhoods in the city know they can be arrested for no reason. They are afraid not to have an ID card because if they don't, they will be arrested. That sounds like the Polish ghettos during the Nazi occupation. We are dangerously close to that now.

"Mr. Calloway and the people like him who want to get out [of the criminal life] will be constantly harassed and detained by the police. They may spend short periods of time in jail or they may spend as long as a year or 18 months. Regardless of how long it is, the effect is the same: they lose their job, they lose their apartment, and they are set back in their educational goals."

We might be arresting our way to cleaner, safer street corners. But in the process, we're making it harder for men and women who want to change - and there are many - to get on track for something better in their lives.

We're arresting them in sweeps, putting them in jail, adding convictions to their records, then refusing to give them a second chance when they go clean and straight. "The great potential that is thrown away every day is mind boggling," Rowland wrote. "I have already met a few people that, if they only had a chance, could make such a significant difference in our society."

dan.rodricks@baltsun.com

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