In a tough new effort to clear inner-city neighborhoods of drug trafficking, Baltimore police are targeting suburban buyers who help keep the street-corner markets in business.
More than 20 professionals, homemakers and students who went to an East Baltimore corner for a fix of cocaine, heroin and Valium were arrested in the first crackdown over a week ago. Their cars also were seized as part of "Operation Stop, Shop and Forfeit."
Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, who announced the initiative at a news conference yesterday, spoke sternly of the risks involved for those who venture into the city to buy drugs.
"People come in, and they don't think there's going to be any negative consequences," Mr. Schmoke said. "Our intent is to try to make life uncomfortable and disrupt activities for these folks."
Mr. Schmoke, however, was caught in an embarrassing mix-up yesterday. The mayor, in toughly worded remarks on the evils of drugs, said the majority arrested were students from a college in Baltimore County, later identified as Towson State University. But it turned out that only one Towson State student and one out-of-town college student were among the 21 charged with drug possession during the Sept. 20-21 sting.
For the past 18 months, city police have conducted a series of highly publicized raids aimed at ridding inner-city neighborhoods violent drug dealers. In the last three months alone, Eastern District police have put 50 dealers behind bars. But the problem continues.
"No matter how many people we lock up on the corner, if customers line up 10 cars deep, someone will sell them drugs," said Maj. Odis L. Sistrunk Jr., commander of the Eastern District.
The department still plans to concentrate on arresting street dealers, but the mayor said he also wants to go after the customers that keep them in business at corners like North Avenue and Washington Street.
Residents of the surrounding Broadway East and South Clifton Park neighborhoods have long been frustrated by the pervasive drug activity there.
For 48 hours, police watched customers buy drugs and stopped them as they drove off in cars and taxis.
The 21 charged with drug possession included several addicts, professionals on lunch break, and one married couple. Six others were charged with dealing. Ten cars were seized, which the owners later reclaimed by paying a fine, and police confiscated 25 vials of cocaine, 44 capsules of heroin, 12 Valium pills and $704 in cash.
"We are trying to convince [buyers] not to come into the city and build upon the problem that already exists," Major Sistrunk said. "Let their drug dollars stay out in the counties."
The North Avenue corner is like many others in the older and poorer sections of Baltimore. More homes and shops stand vacant and boarded each year, but there still is an active church, corner store and hardware shop, and many homeowners keep up their properties.
Yet drug dealers have found a ready market there, selling at all hours to a constant stream of customers, some coming from as far away as Aberdeen.
Community leaders, ministers and city officials in Baltimore say the clientele is not much different than at many other drug corners. It dispels the stereotype "that this is only an inner-city problem," said Carl Stokes, a councilman who represents the east side.
The Rev. Milton E. Williams, pastor of the New Life Baptist Church four blocks from the corner of the sting, agrees. "We have our internal problems," he said, but added: "I think the folks coming in make a bad situation even worse."
Indeed, the Towson State student who was charged with drug possession told police that the corner is well-known in the suburbs.
Major Sistrunk said the woman claimed "the drug users at the university all know that the best drugs out here are at North and Washington."
It was that comment that led to the mayor's confusion on Towson State.
At his weekly morning news conference, Mr. Schmoke announced to a bank of television cameras that the drug initiative had resulted mostly in the arrests of college students from Baltimore County. As he spoke, his office called to alert the president of Towson State.
No sooner had he concluded his news conference than City Hall scrambled to correct the error. Police spokesman Sam Ringgold blamed the mayor's comments about college students on miscommunication with the Eastern District.
Mr. Schmoke called Towson State to apologize and smooth relations. Nonetheless, the mayor said he wants to conduct similar stings elsewhere in the city.
"Clearly this is not the only answer to the problem," he said, "but I think the point still remains the same that you have all these people from other areas way outside the neighborhood coming in and allowing these open-air drug markets to thrive."