Rushing to implement a new, violent-crime task force even before planning for the unit is complete, Baltimore police officials last night sent a dozen extra patrol officers into the most crime-ridden areas of East and West Baltimore in an effort to reassure beleagured residents.
"We want citizens to see immediate action. The No. 1 priority is to make people feel safe and give them their neighborhoods back," said Lt. Col. Joseph R. Bolesta, who will command the task force.
But high-ranking departmental sources said planning for the new unit -- tentatively slated to include a lieutenant, three sergeants and 18 to 21 officers -- was still going on earlier this week when Police Commissioner Edward V. Woods announced its existence a news conference, then declined to answer basic questions about the unit's strength, structure or role.
"He was under pressure by City Hall to act quickly," said one commander, who asked not to be named. "He had that press conference and we've been rushing around ever since."
During a walking tour of the Upton area last night, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke denied any such pressure, adding he has full confidence in the city's police leadership. The mayor said the department has responded well to the increase in crime and has done so in accordance to plans fixed months in advance.
As the mayor greeted residents during his tour, newly assigned officers harried the drug corners around Gold and Division streets, a few blocks to the north.
"Keeping the dealers off-balance is a positive thing in the short term," Mr. Schmoke said. "These task forces give neighborhoods a reprieve, but we know there is no panacea."
The commissioner's press conference came after an angry NAACP community meeting last week at which Mayor Schmoke was criticized by NAACP officials and Commissioner Woods was heckled as he talked about the new task force.
Critics at that meeting and at an earlier gathering of Baltimoreans United In Leadership Development (BUILD) contended that the administration hasn't done enough to respond to significant increases in violent crime. Reported felonies have increased by more than 30 percent since 1987.
Two extra squads of officers were assigned to the Eastern and Western Districts last night, but sources acknowledged that the central element of the violent-crime task force did not exist.
Initial plans call for the district-level officers to be an enforcement arm for a squad of downtown detectives who would gather intelligence and target violent offenders.
That downtown unit had not yet been formed last night, although department sources said it, too, was being quickly created by department commanders.
The detectives, taken from a variety of assignments, will be under the command of the special investigations section of the criminal investigations division.
"They've put the body on the street and the brain isn't even working yet," said one commander.
The haste that has followed Commissioner Wood's announcement raised eyebrows within his department. Several commanders described last night's sudden deployment of street-level officers as an effort to highlight a fledgling police initiative in the shortest possible time.
In contrast, some veteran detectives had been trying without success to get approval for a unit to target violent offenders since early 1989.
Twenty "historical drug areas" -- where shootings, homicides and robberies have plagued the neighborhoods -- have been targeted by the unit, Colonel Bolesta said. District-level sources, though, said officers would initially be assigned to a handful of posts.
In the Eastern District, six new officers were to patrol two or three of the district's worst post areas in uniform between 6 p.m. and 2 a.m. Those officers were drawn from other assignments in the department and placed under an Eastern sergeant.
Sources said the initial deployment in the Western District would be similar.
While the additional patrols may reassure local residents, police sources said the essential purpose of the task force -- targeting and arresting specific offenders responsible for repeated violence -- won't begin to be met until the downtown unit takes shape.
City detectives and federal drug agents who worked on successful in vestigations of violent drug offenders in 1988 and 1990 tried without success to interest downtown commanders in a unit that could systematically gather intelligence and target those responsible for repeated acts of drug-related violence.
Twice before, such proposals were sent to the command staff -- once with the support of the Baltimore office of the Drug Enforcement Administration, which offered to seek federal funds support a new unit, sources said. On both occasions, the proposals were shelved.
Now, after a four-year delay, a markedly similar proposal has quickly been resurrected amid the criticism of the police response to inner-city violence. A recently approved $3 million state grant may be used to fund the new task force, though that money has yet to reach the department and could still be reduced in budget cutbacks.
In addition to the program targeting violent offenders, department officials are also hoping to obtain federal grant money by conducting "weed and seed" community-oriented policing projects in neighborhoods near the Johns Hopkins Hospital and a new Rouse housing project just off the west side's Pennsylvania Avenue. The "weed and seed" approach aims to remove chronic offenders while using other initiatives to restore stability to those neighborhood.
Those efforts, under the direct command of the department's drug enforcement section, were also cited by Colonel Bolesta yesterday in his description of task force operations. Colonel Bolesta said his men and women will operate seven days a week and concentrate solely on felonies and crimes of violence: "A lot of guys are out there every night chasing calls. These folks will not be handling anything routine."