War on the east side


A white police car slides along a narrow East Baltimore street lined with forsaken three-story rowhouses, every other one splashed with graffiti. Several youths, their eyes slits against the afternoon sunlight, lounge in matching white T-shirts, sneakers and jeans in front of a vacant house.

The car pauses and the driver dips his head slightly toward the young man perched on the top step. He glares back, then gathers his hooded jacket and shuffles off with his companions.

Seemingly insignificant, the officer's action is part of a strategy to retake the city's worst streets.

In the year since Commissioner Edward T. Norris established a New York-style policing initiative in East Baltimore, a battalion of officers has made the corner-clearing nod ubiquitous. Officers vigorously disperse loiterers, spill out open containers of liquor and search pedestrians for contraband near crime hot spots.

The crackdown on minor illegal activity and debriefing petty criminals about serious crimes are key to achieving Norris' larger goals: curbing the drug trade, getting guns off the street and suppressing violence.

The commissioner didn't expect the effort to be popular, and officials braced for a flood of complaints from residents.

But the number of complaints from East Baltimoreans dropped as the incidence of crime in their neighborhoods plummeted, prompting Norris to make the initiative permanent last month.

"We were not being very successful [there] before the initiative," Norris said recently. "I wanted to prove that you could reduce crime in the worst part, the most dangerous part of Baltimore."

So far, the results appear to vindicate the campaign.

In the first six months of this year, 19 people were killed in the Police Department's Eastern District, 11 fewer than during the same period last year, before the initiative began. Shootings were down 15 percent; robberies fell 39 percent. Aggravated assaults dropped 24 percent. Incidents of rape decreased 18 percent. And the clearance rate for shootings has more than tripled, from about 20 percent a year ago to 65 percent.

Norris says the initiative was also critical to reducing the citywide number of homicides last year below the notorious benchmark of 300 that held for more than a decade.

Still, the 29 percent overall crime drop in East Baltimore has come at the expense of some residents who feel needlessly harried by the police tactics.

Vernadette and Ramone Copeland, who live near a former crime hot spot in the 2200 block of Prentiss Place, say the more visible police presence makes them uncomfortable.

Sitting on their front step enjoying a breeze on a warm afternoon, Ramone Copeland says they can't shake the feeling that they are being constantly watched.

"You know, since that cop got shot they've been more vigilant," Copeland, 26, says, referring to a killing in March. "I try not to be around too much. Best thing to do is not be on the corner in the first place."

The Copelands fall midway between the extremes of citizen reaction to the initiative. They're not as hostile as those who complain about harassment, or as welcoming as others pleased by the omnipresent squad cars. Both camps agree that black men, who make up the majority of the 93,188 people stopped by police citywide during the first six months of the year, feel targeted by the initiative.

A reporter and photographer for The Sun observed the initiative over several days, rode with officers in their cars and returned to interview residents.

On a map, the Eastern District resembles a child's toy locomotive headed east: It extends from the Jones Falls Expressway on the west to Erdman Avenue and Pulaski Highway at its eastern point, to 25th Street on the north and Orleans Street on the south.

A sixth of all city residents called the area home in 1990, according to the most recent available population data.

Two large cemeteries anchor the north: Green Mount Cemetery, the sloping 68-acre resting place of some of the city's most famous statesmen, artists and philanthropists, and the 100- acre Baltimore Cemetery, where ordinary residents have been interred for 150 years.

To the west is the state penal system complex, home of central booking, the city jail and the Maryland Correctional Adjustment Center, known as Super-Max. The grounds of Johns Hopkins Hospital take up a large chunk of the district near its center.

Norris decided to focus on the Eastern District last summer after a man was fatally shot at a corner the commissioner had patrolled minutes earlier. He gave a youthful pool of 120 officers a Sisyphean mission: Roust people committing nuisance and drug crimes. Compile intelligence data to map out where crimes occur and suspects gather. Pressure those suspects and saturate those areas with police. Push criminals and their crimes out of the Eastern.

Criminals haven't taken the initiative sitting down.

Despite 7,000 arrests since August of last year, when the campaign began, the drug trade that drives the violence continues to thrive. Organized drug shops operate out of rowhouses around the 600 block of E. Biddle St. Open-air dealing continues in the seemingly residential 2400 block of N. Milton Ave., where juvenile lookouts murmur "Five-Oh" at the first sight of police.

The crossroads of East North Avenue and North Chester Street remains a dangerous nexus of heroin stash houses and vengeful rival gangs. Gunmen shot 12 people there on Memorial Day, one fatally, at a party honoring the memory of another victim of violence, a young man killed at his aunt's home. Bursts of vigilante justice flourish.

Hundreds of drug users line up in alley hideaways for periodic Tester Days, when dealers offer free samples.

Dealers wall off alleys with garbage to make it harder for police to chase them. Everybody in the drug business seems to dress alike - sellers, buyers, lookouts, decoys - stymieing easy identification of suspects.

Even the elderly have roles in the action. Potential drug buyers driving along East Madison Street in the shadow of Johns Hopkins might notice an old woman, a conduit in the trade, discreetly motioning them toward a local gel cap enterprise.

The police effort has cost one officer his life. Police suspect the fatal shooting of plainclothes initiative Agent Michael J. Cowdery in March occurred because he had been questioning operators of an illegal Harford Road drug market and was mistaken for a rival dealer harassing the crew.

Still, auspicious signs are cropping up more often in East Baltimore. Fewer people are dying as a result of homicide. Only one person was killed in May in the 3.7-square-mile police district - 24-year-old Lakeisha Moten, at the Memorial Day mass shooting. Two people were shot and killed there in June - exceptional statistics in an area that has averaged more than four homicides a month for the past three years.

Residents of a formerly violent section of Cokesbury Street now sleep through the night without being awakened by gunfire. In the 800 block of N. Collington St., where a drive-through drug market flourished last summer, children now ride bikes and couples sit outdoors on warm nights with less fear that a transaction will turn deadly.

Alleys where patrol officers rarely ventured now log as many as 50 passes a day.

Norris regards the Eastern as nothing less than the front line in the battle to reclaim Baltimore for its law-abiding citizens. At stake: taxpayers like Sheila Johnson, 69, a 48-year resident of Oak Hill Avenue, who sweeps the sidewalks clean with the broom she named "Trusty."

And Maria Tserkis, 48, who has grown frustrated with a band of insolent teens who hang out at a vacant property next door to her 80-year-old rowhouse in the 1500 block of E. Chase St.

And Andrew "Sonny" Turner, 66, whose all-male gardening club anchors a green patch at a rough intersection on Greenmount Avenue where stolen items can't be fenced and drug use is forbidden.

Julius Sneed Sr., also 66, lives in a rowhouse with a tiny National Rifle Association sticker in the front window. He routinely calls police dispatchers to report sidewalk drug transactions.

Crack dealers slash his car tires in return, and the drugs persist, but Sneed is hopeful that the police initiative will restore his home of 24 years to "a very decent and respectable neighborhood."

The Rocky Point, N.C., native wrote a letter in April to Mayor Martin O'Malley, City Council members, State House representatives and Maryland's congressional delegation describing life in the 2700 block of E. Madison St.:

"I cannot sit and relax in my own yard and enjoy my retirement in peace and quiet without looking at drug addicts and drug activities every day and night. ... What I have worked for all my life, property wise, is being destroyed."

Sneed welcomes officers such as John W. Dennison, who patrols the district night after night. Dennison, 30, was assigned to the Eastern District initiative late last summer, after spending six years in patrol.

On a night in May, Dennison drove his partner, John O. Webb, around two sections of the district where computer crime statistics showed a recent spike in shootings, including the shooting April 27 of a toddler in the 1800 block of N. Chapel St. While regular patrol officers respond to radio calls of domestic violence, officers assigned to the initiative, and now the Mobile Enforcement Team, spend their days and nights learning to recognize what is the status quo on Eastern District streets.

Many of the faces they pass become familiar, as witnesses, as suspects and, sometimes, as victims. Roaming the district allows the officers to spot the telltale signs of crime and head off trouble.

"One advantage is we're not 911-driven," Dennison says, "so you look for stuff that's out of the ordinary."

Heading north on Luzerne Avenue, he spots a regular occupant of the squad car's rear seat, walking a bike.

"That's the same kid got in a fight with [an officer]. Got a couple of vials off of him," Dennison says to his partner. The teen was arrested and jailed in April for drug dealing, along with an alleged crack buyer and another individual suspected of acting as the money man.

"Got out the next day," Dennison adds wryly.

"Shake him up a little bit," Webb says as Dennison approaches Llewelyn Avenue on a muggy May evening.

A sentry notices the squad car and mouths, "Five-Oh." The word flies up the block and around the corner ahead of the car, barely audible above the carnival music from an ice cream truck.

By the time the officers turn into the 2400 block of Llewelyn, the teen is nowhere in sight.

"Gone. Gave up his bike though," Dennison says, driving slowly now through the block of high porch-front rowhouses.

As they pass, Webb eyes two dozen young men, suddenly frozen in place and glowering. A woman in brown corduroy pants and a teal shirt that doesn't cover the needle scabs on her forearms leans against 2423, nervously dragging on a cigarette.

The officers ask where she scored. When she professes ignorance, she is instructed to move on, which she does, shuffling away while singing a fast, improvisational take on a Luther Vandross love song, "If Only You Knew."

At the end of the block, the officers spot the teen.

"If he had something on him, it's gone now," Webb says, staring out the passenger window at a youth with gold caps on his teeth and a baseball cap worn backward over a shiny black head scarf. He's dressed in what police call "the uniform" of the Eastern District: long white T-shirt, dark pants, white sneakers.

In an hour that night Dennison and Webb drive past 122 youths dressed in identical outfits, according to a reporter's count.

The clothing acts as effective camouflage, police say, making it nearly impossible to identify an individual suspect from among scores of those similarly dressed. Police grouse that anonymous callers offer 911 dispatchers little more than a recitation of "the uniform" when reporting street dealing or an armed person.

Often, the white T-shirt is worn over a black one, or under a hooded black sweatshirt. When chased, suspects discard the outer shirt, making it even harder for police to identify them.

Listening to their radio, Webb and Dennison hear a more-detailed description of a man who might be dealing drugs in the 1600 block of E. Lafayette Ave. Within seconds, the officers spy a man fitting the description sitting on the steps of 1602, across from Shiloh United Church.

He is wearing a gray Pelle Pelle sweat suit with the right pant leg rolled up, white sneakers and, around his neck, dog tags and two woven leather crosses. He is sitting with a friend on the steps of a house with lace curtains in the window.

"He matches the description, so we get to do a field interview," Webb explains before stepping from the car to question the man.

The field interview, during which information is gathered about people who frequent a certain area, is among a handful of old police tactics given new life by the initiative. Officers transcribe the information into a computer database that will be used to track who has been stopped - and where.

The man says his name is Milton and gives his age as 32. He is polite but sounds weary as he answers the officers' questions about why he is where he is and what he is doing there.

He explains that he is visiting a friend at the house behind him, that his grandmother lives a block to the east, that he owns a rowhouse in the neighborhood.

No, he has not been arrested, he says. No, he isn't up to anything this evening. Dennison issues Milton a yellow receipt documenting the field interview.

Speaking in a low voice that doesn't carry to the officers in the squad car, Milton later tells a reporter obliquely: "I ain't gonna say that I haven't done what I done. People around here sling [sell drugs].

"I'm not doing nothing right now, just enjoying the evening like everybody else," he adds. "Regardless of where you live at, it doesn't mean you're a part of what's going on around you."

Dennison is unmoved when he hears about the exchange.

"If they're breaking the law, I tell them every time: 'I'm the cat; you're the mouse,'" says Dennison. "But you also have to have some humanity. People here don't have a back yard to sit in and hang out with their friends."

Earl S. Fields, 76, has owned a white rowhouse in the 1800 block of N. Collington St. for 50 years. He joined a neighborhood effort a few summers ago to help beautify his two-block stretch, which explains the blooms in tire planters and red-painted picket fences dotting both sides of the street.

Neighbors chat from their steps after work and have come to recognize who belongs on the street and who doesn't.

At a City Council hearing five years ago, the retired Bethlehem Steel worker told officials he wished police would arrest the drug peddlers who posted themselves near East North Avenue and hassled residents walking to and from the convenience store.

His wish has come true. But Fields doesn't relish seeing police order young loiterers to move along. When he tries to intervene on their behalf, he says, officers tell him to go home and mind his own business.

"To me, I don't see where the police are helping us," Fields says indignantly. "Looks to me like they're harassing people."

Terrance D. Brown, 28, leans against a friend's sedan parked in front of a Monument Street clothing shop and says he feels the same way.

A senior studying mass communications at Towson University and an East Baltimore native, Brown says he tries to avoid the police. But he has occasionally been stopped for loitering, questioned, searched and debriefed.

"Some days, I'm the problem. I'm standing on the corner or I might be sitting over there reading the paper," he says, pointing to a building at 2406 E. Monument St. whose doorway is filled with concrete blocks.

"You might just be coming from taking a shower, on your way someplace, and they prejudge you. And I'm like, 'Why you-all messing with me?'"

Police officials say the gripes are familiar, but a 10 percent drop in the number of formal citizen complaints over the past year tells a different story.

"It was something that was tracked very carefully," Maj. Donald E. Healy says. "The department and the mayor's office were looking, asking, 'Was this causing undue grief from citizens?' There were hardly any complaints."

The tactics, Norris says, are "a necessity."

"Until we get the city where we need it to be, where people aren't shot on the corner, you need this kind of police work. For every person you hear complain, you get 10 more people who are locked behind their doors who are saying they want us to clear the corners of heroin users and loiterers so they can be free in their own neighborhoods," he says.

Agent Frank A. Golimowski hears the complaints, too.

"You hear all these people talking about violations of rights. ... We're looking for who is carrying" drugs and guns, he says.

When Golimowski and Agent Greg M. Boris swing their car suddenly into the path of a 28-year-old man in the 700 block of Curley St., they believe they have startled an addict who has just purchased crack, having noticed him suddenly tuck something beneath a porch.

He twitches nervously and an empty yellow vial top lies on the ground 5 feet behind him. But the agents find no drugs when they search him, the ground nearby or the porch. When he is released, the man disappears around the nearest corner.

"Probably looking for more drugs," says Golimowski, an upstate New Yorker who moved to the city and joined the police force three years ago. He recently got his wish to be reassigned from the Southern District.

Still, Golimowski, who frequently patrols the worst sections of the district on foot, maintains a newcomer's optimism about what the initiative has accomplished.

"Walk down those alleys, and who knows how many homicides and rapes we're preventing," he says.

The alleys are part of the battleground, places where drug dealers, buyers and slothful residents routinely pile up garbage, keeping squad cars out.

When a suspect chase sent officers into the 900 block of N. Durham St. one night this spring, they lost their prey at the alley that bisects it. A gold couch, damp cardboard boxes, tires, branches, broken toys and brooms were in the mounds of junk blocking the narrow alley.

City workers eventually cleared the trash, but the tactic survives: On Tuesday, a similar pile, held in place by a wilted floral loveseat, closed off an alley one block away.

One night in mid-May, Golimowski and Boris take part in a carefully planned raid of a house on East Biddle Street where officers had been observing drug activity. The raid ends successfully - police arrest three people they believe are key players in the business and seize more than 176 grams of rock cocaine.

But several women pour out of a house nearby, taunting police and saying they had never seen any dealing going on.

Julius Sneed doesn't suffer such naysayers easily.

"Honestly, in our neighborhood, the ones who are getting it are the ones who deserve it," Sneed declares.

A retired trucker and blues music lover, Sneed collects sports cars, like a spicy red '89 Corvette he parks on the street and a classic 1956 Mercury Montclair he keeps in a nearby garage.

He is keen on what Norris is trying to do in East Baltimore. He'd like to see the effort taken even further.

Still, he isn't much impressed with Police Department statistics that show diminished crime in a place where shootings, robbery, assault and drug dealing still occur far too frequently.

"Wait till the end of the year to claim victory," he says. "I'd like to see [police] just walk the neighborhood. Get out of the car and get identification from everybody on the corner. If they're not working, they have no reason to be there.

"I want to stay here, without having to see people drink liquor and throw trash in the storm drains, addicts and drug dealers ... and they look at you like you're crazy," he adds.

Sneed's blunt testimony against the local trade has made him a target of death threats as well as vandalism: Sugar poured in his gas tanks. Acid dumped on a new paint job.

"They feel they can intimidate you to keep you from opening your mouth," Sneed declares, his lips set in a line that suggests the effort has failed. As he speaks, Buddy Guy rumbles from a digital cable TV blues station, singing this line of "I Smell Trouble:" "Lord knows I've tried to do what's right."

Sneed and other residents like him motivate Healy to restore order to East Baltimore streets.

Last month, Norris tapped Healy, commander of the department's tactical unit, to turn the temporary initiative strategy into permanent police policy.

One of his first actions was to give the initiative a name, the Mobile Enforcement Team - known as MET. Then he expanded the effort to West Baltimore, where crime had spiked earlier this year. In the past month, five shootings have occurred in the area, compared with 20 during the same period last year. Violent crime has fallen 22 percent - a hopeful statistic as Norris' command staff strives to meet the mayor's goal of reducing homicides citywide to 175 by the end of next year.

Healy harbored a 28-year department veteran's natural skepticism about change when the initiative began last August. He became a convert after reading a letter from a woman in the 1600 block of Rutland Ave. The woman gratefully explained that since the initiative began, she felt safe enough to sit on her front porch for the first time in a decade.

"It was so sincere. I could see it was working," Healy says.

The signs are subtle.

Tattoo artist China Dyson, 23, sits on the porch of a house in the 600 block of Cokesbury, putting the finishing touches on a design on the inside of a man's arm. A half-dozen kids are playing a lazy game of tag nearby, enjoying a mild evening.

A pair of young boys ride down the white line in the middle of another street, popping wheelies for what seems an eternity.

Three little girls and an even smaller boy skip across the intersection of Preston and Bond. The oldest child, wearing flip-flops and balls at the ends of her ponytails, waves at two officers, then scampers away.

From the open window of their squad car, the sight of playing children reminds Officers Webb and Dennison of their reason for taking on a daunting assignment in sections of town many residents avoid.

"See all them little kids: It's nice ... when you see all the kids out and the elderly people," Webb says.

Officer Dennison adds laconically: "Four innocents."

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