The New York drug gangsters call it "moving to Mayberry" -- and more than a few Maryland police departments are concerned about getting caught in the role of Barney Fife.
Bearing cautionary tales of overwhelmed law enforcers and neighborhoods laid to waste, a team of national experts warned a group of 110 Maryland police officers at Fort Meade yesterday that their state is ripe territory for violent drug rings in search of new markets.
"We have gang killings today that are being solved as individual homicides when they are actually the work of organized groups," said Detective Sgt. Terry Katz of the Maryland State Police.
That message echoed against a backdrop of spiraling drug-related killings in Baltimore and a much-disputed special grand jury report in March that accused police leaders of failing to act as out-of-town drug gangs were infiltrating the city.
The first-ever statewide survey to determine the breadth of gang crime in the state is under way by the Governor's Executive Advisory Council.
But Baltimore police in the audience of officers from 28 state agencies could take some consolation in the fact that recognizing the new enemy is no small trick. The very question of what constitutes a gang was debated all day.
"If they walk like a duck," Sergeant Katz said, "they are a duck."
And that's about as good as the description gets in an age when traditional neighborhood and ethnic gangs are being joined by less clearly defined "drug crews," said Special Agent Alan C. Brantley, an FBI gang specialist.
"It can be very fluid," he said. "It can be three people. And who gets to be the leader can be as simple as who's got the gun or who's got the drugs or who's got the roll of cash.
"But it's a mistake to think that's not a gang. Give them time and they will suck others in. When you finally turn to face them, you're looking at an L.A.-style street gang like the Crips or Bloods."
By that definition, the state has a serious problem that will only get worse as gangs in neighboring metropolitan areas go in search of new "backwater territories," said Officer Tony Avendorph of the Prince George's County police.
"There is a direct correlation between homicide rates and gang activities," said Officer Avendorph, who worked gang details in the Illinois State Police and the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department before coming to Maryland.
"When you see the kinds of violence and the variety of sophisticated weapons that are cropping up now in certain parts of the state, that only means one thing. They are here."
Yet few police departments in the state, Baltimore among them, have gang units.
"They check to see if your police have a gang unit," said Agent Brantley of the FBI. "They ask around to see if gangs are a hot issue in the local media. They look to see if there's any local competition. They call it 'going to Mayberry.' "
All of which leaves cash-strapped police in Maryland on the horns of a fiscal dilemma.
"We are not seeing a lot of activities traditionally associated with organized gangs," said Lt. Diane Dutton of the Baltimore Police Crime Prevention unit. "Then again, there's a lot of disagreement about what even constitutes a gang anymore.
"We want to be prepared for the future, but resources are limited. It's not an easy question."