Amid shift in drug strategy, police bust Northwest Baltimore heroin operation

Heroin bust shows Baltimore police shifting drug strategy to worst offenders

Based on a tip from a concerned resident, police in Northwest Baltimore recently began staking out the home of a known player in the local drug trade.

When he left his home Tuesday night, police said, officers stopped his car and a drug-sniffing dog found narcotics. A judge granted a search warrant for the man's home, and inside they found four kilograms of heroin, bagged cocaine, $80,000 in cash, drug processing and packaging materials, and a 9 mm handgun stolen from North Carolina, police said Wednesday.

The bust of the accused midlevel dealer in the 4900 block of Greenspring Ave. was a testament to the power of community cooperation, police said. It also represents a strategy shift to target drug operations with a nexus to violence and a reputation for inducing fear, as opposed to low-level street arrests.

Deputy Commissioner Dean M. Palmere said that after the city's most violent year on record, the department decided to use its "limited resources" differently.

"I don't want to give the perception that if you're not in the game of violence, that you have a free card to go sell drugs. That's not what we're saying," Palmere said. "What we are saying is, we are obviously prioritizing who the community fears in their neighborhoods and what our analysis and investigations are telling us.

"Obviously, somebody in the community feared this individual, and rightfully so, and these are the tangible results," Palmere added, nodding toward a display table at police headquarters covered in the seized drugs, stacks of cash, the handgun and two types of bullets.

Two people face charges related to the bust, but they were not identified Wednesday as police were still processing their arrests, said T.J. Smith, a police spokesman. One of the suspects might face federal charges.

Police Commissioner Kevin Davis thanked the tipster, whom he didn't name. He said the bust represented the kind of operation he wants to see more of in 2016 — the type that will save lives and disrupt the flow of addictive and deadly drugs onto Baltimore's streets.

"This heroin was going to fuel someone's drug habit, someone whose life is ruined by drug habit, whose family is impacted by drug habit. So you never know the lives that are saved when a seizure like this takes place," Davis said. "There's more to it than meets the eye."

In October, Davis joined a national coalition of law enforcement leaders calling for police to focus on "trigger pullers" and other violent criminals and while re-evaluating how police handle cases against low-level drug offenders and those whose run-ins with police are driven by mental illness or addiction.

The Law Enforcement Leaders coalition is calling for a shift away from the stop-and-frisk, zero-tolerance policies, which aimed to prevent small crimes that are considered precursors to more serious offenses.

Such policies shaped Baltimore policing in the 2000s under then-Mayor Martin O'Malley. Zero-tolerance tactics led to mass arrests for minor violations, including more than 100,000 arrests in 2005, when the city had 636,000 residents.

In response, the NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union sued the city, alleging the arrests were part of a pattern of abuse in which thousands were routinely arrested without probable cause. The city agreed in 2010 to retrain officers and publicly rejected zero-tolerance policing, and arrests began to drop.

Davis noted Wednesday the decriminalization of marijuana as a factor in the decline in arrests, but also the shift in focus to drug organizations tied to violence and individuals identified as problems by others in their communities.

"The community wants us to go after these folks," he said.

Palmere said the new strategy has a dual purpose.

"We're not going to arrest our way out of a crime battle, so the strategy moving forward is to focus on violent drug organizations," he said. "We're obviously trying to build better community relations, so to go out and do sweeps as was done in the past isn't going to help better our community trust."

krector@baltsun.com

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