Drugs: A war with futile tactics


A photo caption in yesterday's Sun incorrectly described the assignment of several police officers seen making a street sweep. The officers, shown arresting a man wanted on a warrant, were from the Northwestern District.

The Sun regrets the errors.

In assessing the Baltimore Police Department's war on drugs, consider the case of Rodney Curtis, who inhabits one drug corner in one neighborhood of a beleaguered city.

Arrested at Fayette and Mount streets in July, Curtis, 19, was soon released and then arrested again for loitering at the West Baltimore corner a month later. Released on his own recognizance, he was within days rearrested for possession of heroin.

In October, he failed to show up in court and was promptly arrested for drug possession. In December, he finally went to trial and was sentenced to six months' probation.

Two weeks ago, Curtis was arrested yet again for loitering on the same drug corner. That's five petty arrests, thousands of dollars in court time, jail costs and police overtime -- with the grand result that Rodney Curtis has yet another court date.

And while Mr. Curtis is one of hundreds arrested on drug #F charges at the corner of Mount and Fayette last year, the neighborhood and the city have little to show for the effort. The intersection is as bloated with dealers, touts and addicts as ever.

Curtis personifies the futility of the department's drug enforcement effort. In 1992, 18,779 arrests costing hundreds of thousands of dollars in police work and court time resulted in 956 adult offenders going to prison for any time at all.

There is simply no prison or jail space available for Baltimore's street-level drug offenders, and given the realities of Maryland's fiscal condition, little likelihood that more prison space will soon become available.

Nevertheless, much of the Baltimore Police Department's effort in the war on drugs remains geared to arresting street-level violators. The rate of drug arrests in Baltimore remained nearly three times the national average for cities of comparable size in 1991, the last year in which such statistics are available.

Why? Many reasons, say veteran commanders and officers, not the least of which is the simple, overriding fact that no arrest is easier than a street-level lock-up for drugs.

Patrol officers can ride through any one of 75 or 80 open-air drug markets and, using minimal or nonexistent probable cause, jack up a tout or junkie for an arrest statistic. One or two such cases and that officer will get his court-time pay up at the District Court, where the entire event will, most likely, be rendered meaningless. Ten caps of cocaine or two, one bag of heroin or 20 -- it hardly matters, say many critics in the department.

In 1989, for example, the year in which city police commanders dedicated themselves to arresting a record number of drug suspects, Baltimore officers for the first time arrested more than 18,000. Week after week, according to detectives, narcotics commanders posted the daily count, telling subordinates that 52 citywide arrests a day would more than guarantee an all-time mark.

Yet in that banner year, exactly 908 drug defendants were sent to prison and less than half that number served more than a year; the rest received court dismissals or probation, according to state corrections data. Nonetheless, department officials continued to pursue the same strategy.

By contrast, other U.S. cities managed to reduce overall crime by de-emphasizing street-level drug work and concentrating instead on felony investigation and the targeting of violent offenders. In New York, for example, former Police Commissioner Lee Brown ordered the department to reduce 90,000 annual drug arrests by a third, freeing officers for other things. Crime fell by 4 percent.

In Baltimore, however, police were busy arresting a larger percentage of the population for drugs than any other major American city, save for Atlanta -- but to little ultimate effect. Few were jailed, and no established drug market was cleared or closed for more than a day or two. In fact, the number of drug corners began to multiply.

Yet police commanders proudly stuck to their policy. "The department is responding to the drug crisis by significantly increasing the arrest rate," then-Police Commissioner Edward V. Woods told the governor's commission on drugs and alcohol in 1989.

'Next case'

In neighborhoods under siege, few are fooled.

"You sit there and watch two, or three or four officers, with four cars and a wagon and the helicopter and everything else running out on a corner to lock someone up for a couple bags of dope," declared taxi driver James Mears, president of West Baltimore's Winchester Improvement Association, at a community meeting last fall. "They're spending all that money and the guy will be back on that corner in a day or two. It doesn't make sense."

While the arrest statistics climbed, inner-city residents watched the growth of drug markets from the Flag House projects to the back streets of Edmondson Village. Now, instead of a handful of older dealers who once risked the corners, scores of teen-aged touts and runners offer up "blue-and-whites" and "yellow tops" and "jumbos," shouting the names of cocaine and heroin as if they were legal.

Coupled with an enduring base of heroin addicts, a new generation of cocaine and crack users has strained the criminal justice system at all points -- crowded prisons, bloated courtroom dockets, unmanageable caseloads for parole and probation workers.

In the district courtrooms up on Wabash Avenue, the deluge translates to dockets full of cases. Many judges sympathize with officers about the senselessness of it all, noting that in most cases, a drug defendant faces no punishment greater than loose supervision by a probation agent.

"It's frustrating for these officers, but there is no place to put [drug defendants]," says District Judge Kathleen Sweeney. The most oft-spoken line of her career: "Drug evaluation and treatment with random urinalysis as directed by parole and probation."

And yet the machine grinds on. On a Tuesday morning last summer, District Judge Gary Bass played the role of patient shepherd, his courtroom overrun with petty cases.

"So you were just walking out of the alley and they grabbed you," he asked one West Baltimore man who elected to go to trial on a Riggs Avenue possession arrest, thereby slowing down the proceedings.

"Uh huh," said the defendant.

"Why did they grab you? Why not someone else?" asked the judge.

"I dunno."

"Did you hold the drugs up in the air after you purchased it, the way the officer testified?"

"No. They was in my pocket."

"Then why did they grab you?" asked the judge.

" 'Cause I came out of the alley."

The verdict for such a case, which involved a single $10 capsule of cocaine? Probation before judgment, ruled Judge Bass, who expressed doubts about the officer's testimony: Not too many addicts pay their money, get their dope and then -- with the deal done -- walk out of the alley holding the contraband up in the air.

The defendant shrugged and wandered out. The officer who made the arrest stayed to collect more court pay on a half-dozen similar cases.

"Next case," muttered Judge Bass. Dozens of cases made on weak or nonexistent probable cause are dismissed daily in his courtroom. Rather than perjure themselves, some arresting officers are content to simply "humble" a suspect on a petty charge, then ask prosecutors to drop the case before trial and limit punishment to a day or two in jail.

Likewise, prosecutors routinely dismiss charges of loitering in a drug-free zone because of the dubious constitutionality of the statute. Yet often at the rate of dozens a day, Western officers continue to arrest suspects on the charge.

Other officers have learned to routinely charge small-time violators with drug distribution, then have that charge quietly dropped at arraignment, leaving only the possession case and little likelihood of meaningful punishment.

"You do it that way," explains one veteran. "You get credit for a felony stat."

'I had to let them try'

By 1991, 61 percent of the felony cases brought into Baltimore Circuit Court were drug violations, and of those 55 percent involved defendants with at least one prior conviction. Thirty-seven percent had two prior convictions; 24 percent had three.

On the city streets, say critics, many repeat offenders came to regard a drug charge as an empty threat. As growing numbers of cocaine users flocked to the corners, drug dealing throughout the city became more brazen.

In defense of their drug strategy, police officials have offered two arguments. First, they contend that the Police Department -- the "front end" of the criminal justice system -- can hardly be held to blame for what occurs after arrest.

"By its nature, the Police Department is the most visible law enforcement agency," says Maj. John Reintzell, who heads the department's planning and research division. "As a result, our problems in coping with drugs are going to be more evident than in other areas like courts or prisons."

True enough, yet the city police leadership has known for years that the courts and prison system are capable of prosecuting and detaining only a fraction of the thousands charged with drug offenses. There are only slightly more Maryland prison beds than a single year's total drug arrests in Baltimore alone.

The priority should have remained the punishment of violent offenders and high-level drug traffickers, argue many department commanders. Even the mayor now concedes that the department leadership continued its pursuit of street-level drug arrests with indifference to this reality.

"I had reservations about it at the time," says Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke of the department's street-level drug effort. "But the people in command were sincere and committed to this policy and believed they could make a difference, and I felt I had to let them try."

Having argued for consideration of drug decriminalization in 1988, the mayor says he was loath to impose his controversial views on the Police Department's leadership. Now, however, Mr. Schmoke says he hopes the new commissioner will bring a new vision to the city's drug war.

Mr. Schmoke notes that one of the city's more recent tragedies -- the slaying of 10-year-old Tauris Johnson in East Baltimore -- came after two nights of drug sweeps on the very corner from which the fatal gunshot was fired: "I'm told the Eastern District hit that corner and made 45 arrests," Mr. Schmoke says, "but that didn't prevent what happened."

Department officials also argue that they must commit to street-level drug enforcement because of demands from neighborhoods besieged by drugs.

"When these people call, they're desperate for action," says Capt. Mike Andrew, who heads the narcotics section of the criminal investigation division. "You can't ignore them."

And in his own comments to a reporter in late 1992, Mayor Schmoke made much the same argument, noting that "you're going to have a certain number of street-level arrests because residents don't want the drug dealing on their doorsteps. You have to respond to citizen complaints."

But critics of the department's drug enforcement effort note that the emphasis on small-time arrests and drug sweeps have done little to help any neighborhood.

"Name one drug corner that we took back from drug dealers by doing street rips," says John Hailey, a veteran tactical officer. "You can't. It doesn't work."

'There is no war'

Officer Hailey and others criticize former Commissioner Woods and his subordinates for attempting to simply placate neighborhood groups, rather than gain some control over drugs and violence.

More promising strategies that involved the pursuit of violent drug offenders or major traffickers received little support.

In 1986, for example, a group of homicide detectives successfully targeted a gang responsible for a string of slayings at the George B. Murphy Homes. Two years later, FBI agents and city detectives did the same thing at the Lexington Terrace projects, where a single summer's drug war had produced seven murders and 14 shootings.

While drug dealing continued in the west-side high-rises, the investigations ended the warfare in the projects. Yet when the detectives wrote to commanders asking to form a gang unit to attack violent traffickers citywide, they received no response. When they persisted in the argument, they were transferred.

The department's minimal interest in pursuing major drug targets became the basis for a scathing report issued last spring by a grand jury impaneled by Circuit Judge Kenneth L. Johnson, who said he was concerned about the number of street-level drug cases clogging his arraignment court.

"There is no war on drugs," wrote foreman Robert S. Massey in the report. "The policy makers in the Baltimore Police Department are content to arrest street dealers, to cooperate minimally with occasional federal investigations into higher-level drug organizations, and to create knee-jerk task forces when public outrage becomes too heated."

The grand jury report also suggested that organized corruption or collusion might be at the root of departmental policy. That notion is rejected by those most familiar with the work of Baltimore detectives.

"Many of the points the grand jury made about the performance of CID narcotics are justified," says one U.S. prosecutor. "But what we're talking about here isn't corruption, at least not on the level they're alleging. I haven't seen that, and I don't believe that. What we're really talking about here is competence."

Federal prosecutors, who generally handle the most significant drug cases undertaken by the city department and other agencies, confirm that until relatively recently, Baltimore narcotics detectives seemed preoccupied with statistics, and few cases went beyond a midlevel drug distributor.

"That was a bad time for us," says another U.S. prosecutor. "There was -- and still is, to an extent, some problems with vision in the Baltimore department."

'That's ridiculous'

The grand jury report also noted that the department's rotation policy for narcotics investigators -- four years for detectives, five years for supervisors -- precludes aggressive drug enforcement because talent and experience are consistently transferred out.

Publicly, departmental officials defend the rotation policy by arguing that they don't want to emotionally drain their officers. Privately, everyone of rank concedes that the rotation policy is an attempt to prevent organized corruption.

"The reasoning is that once a detective is in narcotics for three or four years, he knows enough about the game to begin to steal," says one high-ranking commander.

"But by that same token, he also knows enough to bring down a high-level drug dealer. . . . We're so afraid of a scandal that we'd rather let the drug dealer get away."

Another problem, according to drug investigators and supervisors: Until recently, there was no systematic attempt to gather intelligence on drug trends or organizations. Individual units -- homicide, narcotics, the district drug units -- each kept their own case files.

Captain Andrew of the narcotics section notes that even the basic citywide "bulletin board" for drug investigations is a manual card-file system: "No one is more interested than I am in upgrading our intelligence capability," he says.

Absent any coherent intelligence work, warnings about drug trends were often discarded by high-ranking commanders as alarmist reports. As late as September 1991, for example, Commissioner Woods told a reporter that he knew of no significant migration of New York drug dealers to Baltimore.

Told that his detectives estimated that at least 1,500 young dealers from Brooklyn, the Bronx and Upper Manhattan were in Baltimore, Mr. Woods laughed, saying only: "That's ridiculous. Who gave you that number?"

Today, dozens of Baltimore's drug corners are supplied and controlled by New Yorkers and dozens of murders are attributed to them, yet an effort to systematically gather citywide intelligence on the migrants did not even begin 1992.

The grand jury's report -- flawed in its specific allegations of corruption, according to many involved in drug enforcement, but correct in assessing department priorities -- brought only rebuke from Mayor Schmoke and city law enforcement officials, who termed the city's anti-drug effort adequate. State's Attorney Stuart O. Simms cited several major drug cases to the grand jury.

His memo pointed out cases against such major dealers as Linwood "Rudy" Williams and Tommy Lee Canty, as well as Tamara Stanfield and Warren Boardley -- the gang leaders who had terrorized the west-side projects.

Yet the lead investigators in those cases testified before the grand jury, criticizing the department's drug strategy.

"Here's Stu Simms using these cases to tell us what a great job the department is doing, and the detectives who put those cases together are testifying that things are a mess," says one source close to the grand jury.

One improvement, say both state and federal drug prosecutors, is the ascension of Captain Andrew to head the CID narcotics unit. Arriving in 1991, Captain Andrew made a point of removing the myriad statistical charts that had adorned the prior narcotics commander's office.

"Andrew is a breath of fresh air," says one prosecutor, citing as marked improvement two recent drug conspiracy cases against the "China White" and "Murderer's Row" organizations. "As far as I've seen, he's willing to take on a serious target and he'll back you when you get a case."

For his part, Captain Andrew acknowledges that the transition isn't complete: "Like many other units in the department, we have some very good people and we have some people who aren't equipped to take on something like a [federal wiretap] case. There's a limited amount of expertise."

But the narcotics commander also notes that even if the narcotics unit was at the top of its game, there is only sufficient manpower to pursue one or two major conspiracy cases in any given year: "Cases like that eat up resources. And with everybody short on manpower, I can't expect to get more people."

A single encounter

One final complication: While so many drug arrests have accomplished so little, there may be a hidden cost for an agency committed to community policing, in which officers are urged to join with neighborhood residents to fight crime. How can the agency bond with inner-city neighborhoods, some department critics ask, when its officers are busy stopping, searching and harassing so many people?

The point was made at West Baltimore and Gilmor streets a few weeks ago, when Officer Cliff Macer of the Western District grabbed his prey by the neck and shoved him over the trunk of the radio car, demanding that a 33-year-old suspect cough it up -- literally.

"Spit it out, spit it out," muttered the patrolman. "Open your damn mouth."

The touts, the junkies, the New York dealers were on the corner, watching and waiting. The patrolman flipped Ronald Carter around, keeping a hand to his throat. Carter jerked open his mouth. Nothing.

"Where is it?" asked the patrolman. He began rooting through Ronald Carter's pockets, pulling out his wallet and emptying its contents onto Baltimore Street -- ID cards, paper slips, small change as confetti.

But no drugs. The patrolman told Carter not to be on the streets, not even on his front steps. Humiliated, Carter rubbed his neck and slowly picked his possessions out of the street as the crowd murmured bitterly.

It was a single encounter on a single corner in a single inner-city neighborhood, but what passed between Officer Macer and Ronald Carter is hardly unique in Baltimore. The drug war has yet to rid a neighborhood of heroin or cocaine; it has, however,

fostered mutual contempt.

Make no mistake: When he can't find any other kind of work, Carter is a fixture at Fayette and Mount streets, where heroin and cocaine is sold openly. But on that fall day, he happened to be clean. On that day, he was simply on an errand when the patrolman pulled up.

For his part, Officer Macer insists the suspect swallowed drugs and declines to comment further. But Ronald Carter -- and the dozens at Baltimore and Gilmor streets who witnessed the encounter -- are left with questions.

"How can he tell me I can't even sit on my steps?" asks Carter. More to the point, perhaps: Given that this time, Carter had no drugs on him, what does a Western District officer use for probable cause to stop a man, grab his throat, and then go through his pockets?

"There are places in this city," muses one veteran detective, "where probable cause no longer exists."

Adds a Western District officer, laughing: "We call them VCR cases."

Violation of Civil Rights, that is. And to what end?

"The people in these neighborhoods know who the more serious traffickers are and they know who the people doing the shootings are," says the veteran detective. "When they see the police come through and leave those people be while grabbing up some small-time tout or junkie, they lose any faith they ever had."

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