Baltimore faces new beachheads in war on drugs; In Park Heights, trade flourishes despite police focus; 'It has just shifted'

THE BALTIMORE SUN

George Johnson and his friends like to talk about the futility of the drug war, about how the street pushers and the addicts are at the bottom of a flourishing business for which they go to jail and other people make the money.

But the 54-year-old briefly stopped his discussion outside the Pimlico library branch on Park Heights Avenue to direct the driver of a silver car to the street where crack cocaine and heroin were being sold yesterday morning.

Go down Garrison Avenue and turn left on Denmore Avenue, behind Park Heights Elementary School, five blocks from the Pimlico Race Course.

"I don't mind telling people where to get drugs," Johnson said, returning to his small group watching traffic on the busy thoroughfare, in the heart of one of the city's oldest narcotics markets.

"You ain't going to stop the drugs."

This is life one block from the open-air drug area targeted by Mayor Martin O'Malley as part of his campaign pledge to clear 10 such zones across the city within six months of taking office.

The mayor proclaimed his promise largely fulfilled Wednesday. While O'Malley admitted that the 10 drug corners represent a small fraction of the city's vast problems, he said, "We have to start somewhere."

Officials said they have reduced crime on streets around the drug zone and limited the displacement. Even in areas such as Park Heights, where drugs have been a part of everyday life for years, police said their aggressive attack is paying off.

"Crime numbers are down in double digits across the board," said Northwestern District's Lt. Thomas J. Cassella.

Victory, he said, is coming "slowly but surely."

But if Park Heights is an example of a victory in the making, it also is an example of how far the city has to go before ending its 300-plus yearly homicide tally fueled by the desires of 55,000 addicts.

Many residents complain that the police action has simply forced the addicts and dealers to move from one corner to another.

The Park Heights drug zone designated by police is the smallest of the 10, a square block bordered by Garrison, Queensberry, Oakley and Palmer avenues.

Jean Yarborough, president of the Park Heights Community Association, said the area police picked is too small "and is not where the drugs are concentrated."

Yarborough said she believes police "are trying to do a good job."

"They just don't have enough police to do it," she said. "We have to get police into the neighborhoods that are being destroyed."

The city admitted as much.

In their own assessment summary, city officials concluded that "police could have found a much 'hotter' area as it relates to drug dealing."

The result, Yarborough and other residents said, is not so much that police displaced the dealers, but that they missed the biggest targets.

Police said they chose a small area because the saturation of drugs in the area created an overwhelming challenge. They noted that they received 670 drug complaints from residents in the block they chose.

Cindy Taylor, 45, said the drug trade is centered along Park Heights Avenue. She describes Pimlico Road as the "demarcation line," with stable blocks with majority homeownership to the east and blighted drug-infested neighborhoods to the west.

"It is like two different countries," she said. "It is like crossing an armed border.

Jason Smith, a 65-year-old retired city police officer, moved from his cramped trailer in Edgewood to a $31,000, three-story rowhouse on Woodland Avenue in 1994 at a time when city officials were encouraging officers to move back to Baltimore.

He arrived with hope and promise that his generation - which fled the city in droves to raise their families - could reinstate the pride of homeownership, community, work and family in the next generation of struggling communities.

Yesterday, the 33-year police veteran described his faltering dream.

He lives next door to a vacant house that he fears will catch fire that will spread to his home. When he moved in, Smith said, on some days he could not leave his house because so many people were standing in front of his steps.

But he said he noticed changes immediately after O'Malley named Edward T. Norris police commissioner and promised a return to aggressive patrols to eradicate violence.

"The big change was when Norris got into the seat," Smith said. "It seems like some of the corners immediately evaporated."

Nathaniel Hill, 59, remembers moving to Park Heights 24 years ago when the community held picnics and children's bike races. Then drug dealers took over in the late 1980s, when crack cocaine hit Baltimore.

Hill said life has improved since late last year after several police sweeps. But while the open-air drug market on his block of Woodland Avenue has been closed, the drug trade has moved one block to Park Heights Avenue.

"They have it cleared," he said, "but it has just shifted."

Johnson and his friends outside the Pimlico library said the neighborhood's corner crowds might be gone, but the drugs remain.

"They need to get the people who are bringing it to us," said Johnson's friend, Calvin Barrett, 44, who said he has a felony conviction for armed robbery that keeps him from getting steady work.

"The establishment gives drugs to us, and then arrests us for selling it."

A few minutes later, a stream of police cars raced to Garrison and Denmore, where Johnson had directed people looking for heroin. A man had beaten his girlfriend with a bat.

As officers handcuffed their suspect, Sgt. Scott M. Mezan noted that dealers had been selling drugs "as we were pulling up to the call."

But, he noted, "usually, it's a lot worse."

Two former drug market participants are pessimistic.

Charles Douglas, 52, who lives on Park Heights Avenue, said he sold drugs in the community in the 1970s and 1980s, but stopped when violence escalated.

"They don't respect life anymore, so I could not see myself getting killed over $10, so the time came to get out," he said.

Members of his crew are still on the streets, he said, and he warned they will not stop until they face stricter jail sentences or get killed.

"They have got to be caught and prosecuted," Douglas said. "It seems I can get more time for stealing a candy bar than for killing somebody."

Robert Boyd, 37, said he moved to Baltimore from rural Virginia in 1975 and immediately became involved in the drug trade.

At the age of 12, he says, he started transporting drugs from location to location for neighborhood dealers.

At 15, he began selling drugs for the dealers, including deals worth $37,000 for 1 kilo of cocaine. And at 20 he began using drugs. First he tried marijuana, then cocaine, then crack and heroin.

"I could have been a professional football player or a basketball player or a boxer," Boyd said as he stiffened his shoulders and pushed out his chest. "But with drugs I got lazy, and it all went downhill."

Yesterday, he stood on a friend's porch in Park Heights and proclaimed himself four days clean.

When asked how long it takes to find drugs, Boyd snapped his fingers. "Drugs are everywhere. I can go anywhere and get drugs."

When pressed, Boyd stopped, put his hand to his head and paused.

"They don't sell drugs on Pimlico Road," he said, "but they damn sure sell them on Park Heights."

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