City officer strives to help break the cycle

April 10, 2006|By DAN RODRICKS

Alittle more attention must be paid: Keith Harrison, The Sun's Police Officer of the Year for excellence in community service, has been deeply engaged in the effort to get drug dealers and drug addicts out of that miserable game. We kind of missed the story the other day when we reported on Harrison's selection from among dozens of nominees across Maryland. He's done more than "set up an office where citizens can talk privately to officers about their lives." Like street-corner missionaries, Harrison and his colleagues from the Baltimore Police Department's Get Out of the Game unit have been encouraging hard-core drug offenders to change their lives. Their work isn't about arrests; it's about breaking the dreariest of cycles in this drug-infested city.

I hope the mayor of Baltimore pays Harrison a personal visit this week - West Baltimore and Carrollton, next to The Learning Bank, would be good - and that he expresses thanks for Harrison's efforts and joins him in working the corner guys to identify the ones who want out.

Martin O'Malley looks good in a T-shirt. Maybe he could slip on a Get Out of the Game T - fashionably black, with the words, "Stop The Killing" - and distribute leaflets that offer "an alternative to a life of crime and regret" through a 24-hour hot line (443-984- 7217). It would be grand to see the mayor take part in this campaign.

The BPD of the O'Malley era is noted for its crackdowns on drug corners and its ongoing efforts to sweep the streets of all levels of miscreants. The department has set records for arrests and, while some question strategy and statistics, there's no doubt that Baltimore is better off than it was before O'Malley's 1999 election. Now he gets to run for governor as the mayor who tackled the long-festering, drug-induced crime problem that most considered a lost cause.

Still, with all the progress that has been made in the past five years, we have too many heroin and cocaine addicts who can't get treatment, too many offenders returning to Baltimore from prison without jobs or direction, and too much violence among those in the drug life.

Lacking is what gets ridiculed as the "soft side" of policing - the effort to change hearts and minds among the men who keep coming back to the corners. That's where Harrison and his Get Out of the Game unit come in. They've engaged about 200 men and women since the program started last winter, referring drug dealers, addicts and other ex-offenders to agencies that can help them get clean and get straight.

I was glad to see Harrison and his unit garner more recognition. The police commissioner, Leonard Hamm, fully supports this effort. (It was pretty much his idea.) Get Out deserves a significant boost from the O'Malley administration, and even the Ehrlich administration in Annapolis. The recidivism rate statewide is about 50 percent, and more than half of all criminals released annually from Maryland prisons return to Baltimore ZIP codes. You'd think the city and state would want more front-line cops like Harrison spreading the gospel of change at the epicenter of Maryland's drug-and-crime problem.

Congratulations to Officer Harrison and his colleagues. Keep up the good work.

Success stories

I've had a string of good-news messages from guys who've been in the game and got out.

A heroin addict/dealer who called here last summer got himself in residential treatment, then found a job with a property management company and - this is the good part - still has it. "Becoming employed in August has meant everything," he wrote in a recent e-mail. "Obviously, if I made no efforts of my own there would be nothing anyone could do. I just need you to know I truly appreciate everyone's effort and concern. I'm checking in just to let you know all's well ... "

Here's another note from an ex-offender:

"I finally found employment with a Fortune 500 company. I was shocked that they hired me, but they only went back [in criminal record search] seven years, and I have been 16 years crime-free, no convictions. So please tell your readers: NEVER GIVE UP."

Help others out

Several men who volunteered, through The Sun, to serve as mentors for ex-offenders report that they've made the connections, established relationships and found the experience rewarding. Some have helped ex-offenders land jobs. Some can't get enough and asked to extend their mentoring to others. Only a few say they've lost contact with the men or women we assigned to them over the fall and winter. If you are an ex-offender looking for help in landing work, or would like a mentor to work with you, call 410-332-6166, or ...

Help yourself out... you might want to register for the Jericho Prisoner Re-entry Initiative. This faith-based training program, funded with federal dollars, serves men who are within six months of their last incarceration. Only nonviolent offenders allowed. Jericho has 50 jobs (laborers, warehouse and maintenance workers) that pay $8 to $10 a hour. Recruitment will take place Thursday, starting at 10 a.m., at the city's Re-entry Center in Mondawmin Mall. For more information on the training please call: 410-522-3293.

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