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Battle lines being redrawn in Baltimore's war on drugs

Battle lines are being redrawn in Baltimore's war on drugs.

As the nation debates the war on drugs, Baltimore has already begun to redraw the battle lines.

Baltimore police have shifted the department's strategy to focus more on large-scale, violent players in the drug trade and less on addicts committing lesser offenses.

The result on the street: Drug arrests dropped by nearly 50 percent last year, according to a data analysis by The Baltimore Sun. Police didn't just arrest fewer people for marijuana — small amounts of which were decriminalized in 2014 — but for other illicit drugs, including heroin and cocaine, and for crimes ranging from possession to distribution.

"We're reinventing a process," said Deputy Police Commissioner Dean Palmere. "Times change, policing strategies change, cultures change within major cities, and you have to continually alter the fluid processes of dealing with crime."

A national cadre of law enforcement officials, including Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin Davis, are espousing a new approach to community policing that's less involved in the lives of individuals in the throes of drug addiction. Davis has said he wants to use limited police resources to go after those who intimidate neighborhoods and commit violent crimes, not people who need medical care.

Palmere said the department has been focusing more on gunmen than heroin users, for instance. He noted that gun arrests have increased significantly in recent months, jumping more than 65 percent so far this year over the same period last year.

The drug strategy shift follows a long-term trend of fewer arrests in Baltimore after law enforcement abandoned zero-tolerance policing that resulted in mass arrests for minor offenses and strained police-community relations.

Police officials have also acknowledged that arrests dropped off after six officers were charged in connection with Freddie Gray's death a week after his April arrest. Gray had suffered spinal injuries while in a police transport van. Prosecutors have questioned whether the officers patrolling in a high drug-trafficking area had reasonable cause to stop Gray, which many say led to uneasiness among many officers about doing their jobs.

But while the total number of arrests in Baltimore dropped by nearly 30 percent to 24,130 in 2015, the number of arrests for "controlled dangerous substances" dropped even more precipitously — by nearly 50 percent to about 6,400. That was almost twice the decline in illicit drug arrests in the previous year.

Critics say the department's new approach is wrong-headed.

Anthony Barksdale, the city's former acting commissioner who helped lead drug enforcement initiatives in the department under past administrations, said drug arrests not only take people involved in violence off the streets but can put people with valuable street intelligence across the table from detectives working homicides and shootings.

A decline in drug arrests means less information — the lifeblood of good police investigations — and could be a contributing factor to the department clearing just 30 percent of homicide cases last year, the deadliest on record, Barksdale said.

"How many opportunities of gathering intelligence are lost now because cops are saying, 'Oh, a joint? That's bull——'?" Barksdale said. "If you don't have the basic intelligence of the drug game coming into the detectives or coming into your specialized units, you're lost in Baltimore. You're done."

The department is reimagining the war on drugs as grass-roots activists, mayoral candidates and state lawmakers continue to debate drug policies and as law enforcement officials and politicians push for change on the national level.

Policymakers are grappling with "the whole notion that our incarceration rate is a national disgrace" and that "drug incarcerations are particularly hard to justify," said Peter Reuter, a University of Maryland public policy and criminology professor who founded the RAND Drug Policy Research Center.

Many feel "there is a better way to solve these problems," he said.

A sharp rise in heroin overdoses statewide and in suburban communities far removed from the traditional heroin corners of Baltimore's urban core has further sharpened the debate about how to combat drugs. Gov. Larry Hogan created a task force that recommended expanded access to treatment. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake also convened a task force, and some leading mayoral candidates are calling for an end to the war on drugs.

"There's strong recognition that we aren't going to arrest our way out of the problem," said Kurt Schmoke, former mayor and now president of the University of Baltimore. "It's no longer a problem of 'those people.' It's everybody's problem."

Schmoke said the nation's drug war has been a "cancer on the body politic" for years, with a focus on more policing that has done little to stem violence. Instead, he said, it has led to mass incarceration, thousands of young Baltimore residents with criminal records and few job prospects, and drug addicts being treated as pariahs rather than as patients capable of rehabilitation.

Some lawmakers, medical professionals and community leaders like Schmoke want to further decriminalize illicit drugs, though the idea is not expected to gain traction in Annapolis this year.

Opponents say such proposals push drug policy in Maryland in the wrong direction.

In a city made famous as a hotbed of heroin abuse by pop-culture depictions of inner-city street life — think HBO's "The Wire" — the idea that police should soften their approach to drug crime is fraught with controversy.

Residents who say police disproportionately target young black men in their neighborhoods also lament the domination of local drug gangs. And last year's spike in violent crime has stoked concerns that failure to take a hard-line approach on all drug crime can lead to violence. Baltimore recorded 344 homicides in 2015, the most ever on a per-capita basis.

In some ways, what's being debated politically is already happening on Baltimore's streets.

As the state decriminalized the possession of less than 10 grams of marijuana, starting in October 2014, the number of arrests for such small amounts dropped from 3,387 in 2013 to 1,884 in 2014, and then to just six in 2015.

But arrests for possession of more than 10 grams of marijuana in Baltimore also declined sharply, from 1,368 in 2014 to 493 arrests in 2015, data show. And police made fewer arrests last year across nearly every other category of drug offense — from simple possession to distribution, misdemeanors to felonies.

That has affected the courts. David Walsh-Little, chief attorney in the felony trial division of the Office of the Public Defender in Baltimore, said the percentage of his attorneys' cases that are drug-related dropped by 10 percent in January, compared to January 2015. In 2011, drug cases represented about 35 percent of all felony cases in the division, he said. So far in 2016, that number is closer to 23 percent, he said.

Baltimore police are working on an experimental program that they hope to launch this year to divert low-level drug offenders to treatment and support services while allowing them to avoid arrest.

Steve Cook, president of the National Association of Assistant United States Attorneys, said a crackdown on drugs in the mid-1980s dramatically reduced violent crime, and that those efforts shouldn't be dismantled now.

Cook said that "common sense would tell you" that Baltimore's decline in drug arrests and increase in homicides last year "are inextricably intertwined," because the drug trade is violent. "Not only is it inherently violent itself, but it perpetuates violence because people go out and commit robberies to get the money to support their drug habits," he said.

"Fundamentally, how do you think most of our gangs are funding their activity? It's largely through drug trafficking, and much of it is territorial, and then that breeds more violent crime," he said. "The notion that the two are unconnected would be a hard sell."

Barksdale said the department should consider reconstituting its Violent Crime Impact Division, a specialized unit that he helped lead and that gained a reputation for taking violent criminals off Baltimore's streets.

While the unit was later dismantled amid allegations of heavy-handedness — it was at the center of many city settlements in police brutality cases — Barksdale said those problems could be fixed and that it worked, pointing to the number of homicides dropping below 200 in 2011.

"Baltimore knows the drug issue fuels violence here, so how can you not get that a decline in drug arrests increases the violence? How can you not get that?" Barksdale asked.

Palmere said the Police Department is combining the best of older drug policing models and the violent crime division, which he used to lead, with new strategies from across the country. He said community-minded approaches are replacing past models, and that this chance actually increases the amount of intelligence coming into the department.

"We've never stopped debriefing or interviewing people to gain information," he said. "In fact, we've actually built a better rapport in the communities to seek information."

The department has not "steered away from the street-level dealers," Palmere said, but rather officers are more strategic about whom they target. The department is using analytics from partnerships with federal law enforcement agencies — enhanced last summer by the department's "War Room" — to prioritize cases against drug organizations with links to violence.

"We're basically able to rank these organizations," he said, pointing out that felony narcotics arrests are up 1 percent compared to this time last year.

Palmere said police are well aware that drugs and violence are deeply intertwined in Baltimore, but neither he nor Davis is worried that the decline in drug arrests drove the increased violence last year.

"We're not going to arrest our way out of a crime crisis," he said. "It's not a numbers game. We've been in a numbers game in the past and, frankly, it didn't get us to where we want to be."

Tessa Hill-Aston, president of the Baltimore chapter of the NAACP, said drugs cannot be ignored, and that police should be going after drug traffickers. But she agreed that focusing solely on "the guys on the corner" and locking up addicts does not help the city move forward, she said.

"Yes it's a nuisance to society, but everybody does not need to go to jail," she said. "Jail is just a holding tank where they aren't getting any help."

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