Making the City Crime-Free, One Neighborhood at a Time

More news from the front:

Last month, Baltimore city buried a six-year-old girl, killed as she walked near her home by a stray bullet. A young man loitering in an area known as an open-air drug market was later charged with firing the shot.


That same day, politicians gathered at a press conference to announce the latest in a series of drug enforcement task forces. This one, dubbed Project Achilles, involved local police and federal agents. Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke cautioned that the new task force "will not be any quick magic-wand solution" to Baltimore's crime problem.

Last week, city residents gathered on lawns and street corners for one evening to symbolically retrieve their neighborhoods from drugs and crime as part of the annual National Night Out celebration. After some speeches, residents returned to their homes and within hours, two young city men were shot to death in unrelated incidents.


It may look like a war on drugs and violence from on high, but at street-level it seems little more than a sham. That, in essence, is the view not only of inner-city residents who have lived through more anti-drug initiatives than they can count, but of many veteran police officers who know with certainty that they are losing ground.

Privately, in radio cars and district roll-call rooms, more and more officers seem willing to admit that the current strategies are ineffective. "We've lost our credibility in the community," says one veteran cop.

There are now as many as 50,000 heroin and cocaine users in Baltimore, but only 17,000 prison beds in the state. Street-level narcotics traffickers and users are locked up with regularity, only to be returned from a swollen city jail to the street. Police department commanders are judged not by the quality of the arrests that they make -- by violence reduced, or by real estate reclaimed from drug dealers -- but by the quantity. For his part, the mayor continues to note that the city has 100,000 registered "block watchers," though the significance of such a number in the wake of rising crime rates seems unclear.

Last month, an editorial in this newspaper -- written in frustration after the meaningless death of 6-year-old Tiffany Smith -- suggested something rather remarkable. It asked city police officials to consider "a turf battle that will pit the police and law-abiding citizens on one side and the criminal element on the other."

In brief, the editorial urged the city to do this: "Designate a major thoroughfare like Edmondson Avenue or North Avenue and reclaim it and the surrounding neighborhoods from drug pushers and addicts."

What better way could there be to re-establish the credibility of Baltimore's anti-drug effort? If the city permanently reclaimed one of its worst neighborhoods, that fact alone could be regarded as the most tangible victory in two decades of drug enforcement. If City Hall and the police department cannot do even that, then at least we are left with answers to larger questions about our drug enforcement policies.

"Community-based policing" is the current national watch-phrase among law officers, who say that the future belongs to those police departments that manage to integrate fully their officers with local residents, rather than simply use them to handle emergency calls.

It's hardly a new concept -- good patrolmen are supposed to know the people on their posts -- but it's one that has been lost by the majority of city police officers, who amid the rising violence have come to regard ghetto neighborhoods not as turf to be defended, but merely as hunting ground for daily arrests.


As part of its ongoing self-assessment, the city department is looking toward community-based policing as an alternative, but how such programs are to be implemented is still up in the air. No one can successfully explain where a 2,800-person department that has lost 500 positions in 15 years is going to find the manpower to both respond to crime and enhance its community role.

"Not only do you have questions of manpower to consider," says Maj. Ronald Daniels, director of personnel and an ex-tactical commander, "but you have to think about training. If these officers are going to be responsible for greater variety of things, then they need to be trained to a greater degree."

"We don't have the tools to try to do this properly on a city-wide basis," says one veteran detective, who asks not to be named. "If we try it across-the-board, it'll be a mess."

Instead, veteran detectives and prosecutors suggest a pilot program workable with existing resources. What follows is a cumulative suggestion from some of this city's best cops -- many of whom do not want to be identified as critical of their own department.

Their plan: Plant the flag.

Designate one long-suffering neighborhood as the chief priority of the city's anti-drug effort. A good candidate might indeed be the 10-block stretch of Edmondson Avenue from Monroe Street to Poplar Grove Street, with Franklin Street and Lafayette Avenue the southern and northern boundaries. On any given night, more than 200 people can be seen milling around in "the gully," as that stretch of Edmondson is known. Drug trafficking there is a 24-hour phenomenon, and at night, the neighborhood is owned by street dealers, enforcers, touts, runners and addicts.


Why not claim one of the battered, boarded-up rowhouses in the 1900 or 2000 block of Edmondson Avenue and turn it into a police department substation staffed by a half dozen officers assigned solely to that neighborhood?

The officers selected for the project could and should be committed volunteers who know both the neighborhood and the drug trade -- and to distinguish them from the regular patrol officers, one cop actually suggests a change of uniform. Slowly, methodically, the officers learn the neighborhood, going door-to-door to identify predators, victims, informants and -- most important -- potential leaders in the community.

"It's important to screen your people for this, because there are ,, cops who don't know how to interact with the community and aren't going to be able to do what you need them to do," says Det. Harry Edgerton, a veteran narcotics and homicide investigator. "You can't just wear blue and ride around in your car anymore. You're going to have to get out on the street and convince people that you're there to do this job."

The raw intelligence and personal contact is essential, say veteran investigators. When street dealers are locked up, they should be fully interrogated rather than simply shipped to the city jail, so that suppliers can then be pursued. When shootings occur, one of the officers assigned to the substation should assist detectives by providing information and identifying witnesses, so more crimes are actually solved.

At the same time, district officers and those assigned to the substation continually harass and clear the street dealers and addicts off their usual corners, making it clear that the rules have changed. Eventually, the drug trade migrates.

"I know it can work, because I did it," says homicide Det. Sgt. Steve Lehmann, who as a Southern District officer made a concentrated effort on the Pigtown drug markets. "But it can take months before they finally get the picture, realize that this is a hot corner and go elsewhere."


Given the history to be overcome, it can take that long before a neighborhood begins to believe the police presence is something permanent, rather than an election-year initiative. Slowly, however, a community leadership may emerge to sustain some of the changes in the neighborhood.

Nor is the police department the only necessary resource; it's there merely to re-establish control. City Hall needs to follow up by making the target neighborhood a priority in every sense: Addicts from Edmondson Avenue are given priority for treatment; the parks department funds a full-time, fully equipped recreation center; Johns Hopkins is convinced to open a health-care clinic; local ministers are engaged.

Why all of this for Edmondson Avenue?

"Why not? You have to start somewhere," replies Det. Edgerton, "but the bottom line is that it would be a pilot program, a model that you're testing."

On at least one level, success is inevitable. If the cost of dealing drugs in one neighborhood becomes too high, even the most resilient traffickers move elsewhere. What then? Does it make sense to transfer the problem from one neighborhood to another?

No, not in the long run. The trick for the city is to build on the ## initial victory.


If neighborhood residents ever do walk down Edmondson Avenue night after night without witnessing drug deals, a real message will have been sent to other, equally beleaguered communities. If it works, people on Woodland Avenue or North Dallas Street might want to be next.

True, the police department does not have the resources to staff substations in every high-crime area. The hope is that a concerted effort by the police department and other city agencies might transform a neighborhood to a point where community leaders assert control. The rowhouse substation is converted to a neighborhood center; the detailed officers move on.

Realistically, no addict is likely to miss a single injection; the economics of the drug trade are too firm for that. But at the same time, if neighborhoods are restored, drug trafficking might be quarantined to smaller tracts of the city, or better still, certain non-residential areas.

Locally, the concept is no longer novel. Baltimore County police used similar methods to regain control of the Garden Village area, where drug abuse and violent crimes had become dTC common. Annapolis police recently opened a substation in one of that city's most drug-ridden housing projects.

"It can be done. There are people in the city who are waiting for something like that. There are cops who are sick of business-as-usual and would want to be part of it," says one veteran drug investigator. "But you need the leadership to act."

David Simon, a reporter for The Sun, is the author of "Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets."