Police started a two-day sweep today through about 60 vacant apartments at the Lexington Terrace public housing complex in West Baltimore in attempt to seal the units off from drug dealers.
About 40 city Housing Authority officers went to each vacant apartment at the 700-unit Lexington Terrace complex and the nearby 200-unit Poe Homes complex, checking for illegal drug activities, boarding up windows and replacing locks.
"We're doing a clean sweep," said William H. Matthews, chief of the authority's police department. "This is the only way we know how we can get control."
Housing Authority officials say the vacant units have become "stash houses" for drug dealers who use the apartments for deals and refuge during police raids. Dealers also use windows at the vacant units to shot at residents and police, authorities say.
As officers armed with semiautomatic weapons moved through the buildings, they used an authority's key to each vacant unit. When the keys didn't work, they would bring in locksmiths to open the doors. They then went through the units looking for signs of drug activity.
The operation is the second sweep of its kind by the housing authority this year. In May, officers swept through the Lafayette Courts complex along Fayette Street. Ten people were arrested during a sweep of 109 vacant apartments during the raid.
As of midday, police had not made any arrests.
The sweeps were continuing "peacefully," without incident, said Bill Toohey, spokesman for the housing authority. A status report, including the number of apartments sealed, was to be available tonight.
Since April, two people have been killed and at least two others wounded during shooting incidents at Lexington Terrace, which consists of five high-rise buildings, according to police.
Yesterday morning, city and housing authority officers came under sniper fire during a drug arrest at the Flag House Courts on Lombard Street.
However, authority officials said today's operation was not prompted by the sniper incident. They said the authority has been planning the sweep since shortly after the Lafayette Courts operation.
"Our intent is to turn this community back to its rightful owners and its residents," Chief Matthews said.
Once the sweeps are finished tomorrow, the authority will initiate a "maintenance plan" that includes establishing a station in the apartment building at 770 West Fayette St. for residents to report suspicious activities, Chief Matthews said.
The plan also calls for the authority to set up a community policing program that will allow residents to form their own patrol units -- complete with radios and uniforms -- to keep a watch on crime, he said.
Mr. Toohey said the authority also will improve the complex's security system by installing intercoms and turnstiles at the entrances of each building.
Residents appeared to welcome the efforts.
Ida Shern, who has lived in the 221 N. Fremont Ave. building for two years, said the steps should help alleviate the residents' fears of crime at the complex.
"Everything [about the complex] is all so derogatory," she said. "That's what the drug dealers feed on."