For the last year, Howard County police officer David A. Francis hasbeen acting like a loser. If he didn't, the people selling him crackcocaine might have recognized him as one of their former classmates from high school.

Francis, 24, bought drugs on 120 different occasions last year, eventually bringing charges against 39 people -- someof whom he remembered from his days as a Howard County student.

"Being an undercover officer where you grew up adds to the challenge, no doubt," Francis said. "One day, I had one guy say to me, 'Hey, I remember you from school. I thought you were going to be a cop.' "

Francis, who as an undercover officer posed as "Rick," a beardeddim-witted laborer, said he stared blankly at the prospective drug dealer and said, "Nah, there was no money in that."

Another man heard through the neighborhood grapevine that Francis was a police officer and confronted him with it. Francis once again denied the claim, to which the man responded, "Well, I've got to make a sale, so I guessit's a chance I'll have to take."

In late 1990, county police assigned Francis, known for his cool-headed style in the drug community,to get a bead on low-level narcotics trafficking. The aim, says county police spokesman Gary L. Gardner, was to get a picture of the day-to-day drug crowd in Columbia.

What Francis found in his one year of undercover travels was that his hometown, where he grew up from the time he was 13, has a crack cocaine problem.

Most of those charged in the sting operation were selling crack from their west Columbiahomes, primarily in the areas of Waverly Winds, Fall River Terrace, Roslyn Rise and Hannibal Grove.

Typically, all that was needed to make contact with a local crack dealer was a beeper number, usually easily obtainable from the bar scene, says Francis, who graduated froma Columbia high school in 1985.

Once he got a beeper number for aparticular suspect, Francis would call the person from a pay phone and arrange a meeting, usually in a parking lot. He would then meet the dealer there, wearing a hidden microphone while two other officers listened in from a distance.

"A lot of these people would ask, as a matter of routine, if I was a cop. Of course I said no, and they almost always trusted me," Francis said. "I mean, did they think I was going to say, 'Yes, I'm a cop?' "

The dealers usually sold grams of crack for about $100, with many of them claiming that "they didn't do the stuff, they only sold it to make money," Francis said.

In almost all of the 39 cases, Francis purchased drugs from the suspect on two or three different occasions, a practice that enables police tobring harder evidence into court.

Most of those arrested have been "small players," Francis said, although one man, Paul Harry Cromwell, 23, of the 5300 block of Harper's Farm Road in Columbia faces a mandatory 10-year sentence for allegedly selling the detective several grams of crack.

Francis said the Columbia drug crowd is not a dangerous one -- hardly any of the suspects were believed to possess weapons of any kind -- and instead seems to be made up of "a lot of young, hard-luck people who don't seem very responsible for themselves."

Francis, who spent the first 13 years of his life in New York City,said he was surprised at the level of crack use going on in an affluent suburb like Columbia.

"A lot of them are kids, coming out of high school selling crack," he said. "Most of them graduated from highschool after I did. It's amazing that they're out there doing this. It's kind of sad, in a way."

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