Baltimore police used battering rams to smash their way into suspected drug dens in a series of pre-dawn raids Tuesday that netted a half-dozen arrests, continuing what authorities describe as aggressive campaign to "dismantle" the Black Guerrilla Family gang.
It was the second such strike in less than a week. Officials sharpened their rhetoric against the one-time prison gang they say has been spreading across the city and taking over drug territories through force and intimidation.
The gang has proved a tough adversary, maintaining a significant presence in Baltimore despite a series of law enforcement offensives that have hit the group both behind bars and on the streets.
"This is part of our continued effort to dismantle the Black Guerrilla Family," Deputy Police Commissioner Dean Palmere said Tuesday. "We are going to keep talking about them. We are going to keep arresting them. We are going to dismantle BGF operations across the city."
But some say police and prosecutors are exaggerating the BGF connections of some suspects and using the gang as a catch-all to explain away broader public safety problems. None of the charges leveled against defendants this week describe specific ties to organized crime.
"The state's attorney's position seems to be whoever they arrest, they seem to be linked to BGF," said Natasha Moody, an assistant public defender who has represented one of the suspects arrested this week. "I think the BGF is the gang du jour. … I think a lot of it is scaring the community and bringing fear to the citizens."
Palmere didn't put a number on how many of the 20 felons police sought Tuesday were alleged BGF members. He said only that "several associates in today's efforts" are linked to the gang. Prosecutors said police made good arrests to stop "open-air drug markets" in East Baltimore's Oliver neighborhood.
Twelve suspected heroin dealers and eight suspected cocaine dealers were targeted, said Mark Cheshire, a spokesman for the city state's attorney's office. Police said all of the people sought Tuesday had criminal records and five are suspected in homicides or shootings — though police did not identify any suspects charged with such crimes.
The raids followed another operation in East Baltimore last week that targeted 48 indicted BGF gang members and associates who prosecutors said dealt drugs, robbed residents and killed rivals over eight years along the Greenmount Avenue corridor.
Prosecutors relied on a rarely used state gang statute to indict 38 of the suspects in that case, which they said will help them show jurors the connections between gang members.
On Tuesday, 150 city tactical and special enforcement police got help from Baltimore County SWAT officers as they hit 11 homes.
Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts said the group at the center of the investigation was headed up by a "shot caller" — a leader — with close ties to the BGF. He eluded arrest Tuesday morning after police searched the homes of his family and girlfriend.
"This is a BGF bubble that's out here," Batts said as he monitored the operation in person.
Palmere said police will continue to target the gang with similar "quick-hit" investigations and coordinated raids. He said it took about a month for Baltimore police and state prosecutors to secure enough evidence to launch Tuesday's dragnet.
Police did not identify the suspects arrested Tuesday, but indictments show that two of the men charged were Keefe Spence and Kevin Townsend. Both face multiple counts of drug distribution.
Neither a relative or attorney for Townsend could be found. Moody, who represented Spence in a drug case earlier this year that was not prosecuted, said she was unfamiliar with the current case. But she said authorities sometimes unfairly label cases as gang-related because suspects live in areas that police say have gang activity.
Police said they seized heroin and cocaine during the raids but did not find any guns.
John Hagedorn, a University of Illinois at Chicago professor who studies gangs, said they have proved nearly impossible to dismantle. The best way to attack them, he said, is through in-depth investigations that prove conspiracies.
But he added that the investigations and sweeping indictments can also create vacuums on the street that are filled by instability and more violence.
"All over the U.S., prison gangs are controlling to some degree, profitable operations within cities," said Hagedorn, author of "A World of Gangs: Armed Young Men and Gangsta Culture."
"Often when dominant players are eliminated through law enforcement, a violent contest for control of a now-open drug market results."
Oliver has been a major focus this year of the city government's efforts to rebuild blighted neighborhoods. Eleven people have been killed since 2010 and 16 wounded in shootings in Oliver, where nearly half of residents live below the poverty line.
In March, the city sent transportation workers into the neighborhood to look for ways to make improvements and deployed public works employees to work with residents on clearing debris and fixing property damages.
Residents were offered health and legal advice, while State's Attorney Gregg L. Bernstein assigned a prosecutor to focus on Oliver crimes. In September, the city razed an entire block of crumbling Lansing Avenue.
A block away from the demolition, SWAT members on Tuesday bashed in a door but did not find a man in his 20s whom Batts called the neighborhood "shot caller" — a BGF member who allegedly ran a small network of neighborhood drug sales.
Maj. Sean Miller, the Special Enforcement Section commander who led Tuesday's raids, said investigators are noticing more incursions by the BGF into new neighborhoods, where he says they are taking over drug territories from independent street dealers or members of other gangs.
Raids police conducted on Rutland Avenue a month ago and along Greenmount Avenue last week show just how prevalent the gang has grown in Baltimore.
"A lot of gang members of different groups go into jail and come out BGF," Miller said.
Many of the arrests Tuesday focused on breaking what Batts called the "bubble": a network of gang members running neighborhood drug corners near the 1600 block of E. Lanvale St.
"Hopefully, we catch them in the morning and snatch them out of their shorts," Batts said.
A few blocks away on North Caroline Street, Oliver resident Darryl Jones said he doesn't think the gang figures much into neighborhood violence.
"People in this neighborhood all get along," said Jones, 54, said as he sat on front steps and smoked. "It's outside people coming in and causing trouble."