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One man's difficult campaign to clean up Belair-Edison

The Baltimore Sun

Anthony Dawson has a list.

It is handwritten and scrawled on a notebook-size piece of paper, and it records his efforts to eradicate drug-dealing and crime from a small part of lower Belair-Edison in Northeast Baltimore.

In February, he wrote, "Created good neighbor walks."

On July 11, Dawson noted a community cookout at which he talked to city police about drug dealing at St. Cloud and Lyndale avenues, in an area known as the "4X4" off Belair Road across from the Lake Clifton school complex.

The next day, on July 12, his entry reads: "Double shooting, 1 homicide."

There were more walks and pleas for new light poles (installed) and surveillance cameras (not installed) and for trash to be picked up and for trees to be cut to eliminate hiding places for drugs.

Then, on Aug. 23, a 6-year-old was hit by a stray bullet. Dawson wrote, "In broad daylight."

Dawson, the past president of the Belair-Edison Community Association and a current board member, is targeting 25 to 30 young men he says are trying to claim the corners to deal their drugs. He wants the police to move them along or take them to jail.

To help officers enforce the law, he made up 200 red "no trespassing" signs for people to hang in their windows or post on their doors. Now houses up and down avenues such as Lyndale, Elmora and St. Cloud display signs that designate brave residents willing to take a stand.

"We still have no enforcement of it," Dawson complained.

The loitering statute has long been troublesome for police. Prosecutors don't like to enforce it, and they rarely do. I've had judges tell me that they think it's unconstitutional. Residents throughout the city want teens off their corners and off their steps. At the same time, police have been criticized for making thousands of arrests under the zero-tolerance strategies of previous administrations.

Officers use the anti-loitering law as a pretext to search for drugs. But that often leads to charges of harassment. The signs in the windows do not give police any more authority to kick someone off your steps than they had before, but they might count as the warning that officers are required to give before making an arrest for loitering.

Dawson is a retired corrections officer who spent 24 years in the prisons at Jessup. And he jokes about seeing his former charges back on the streets. His neighborhood is changing - rowhouses with postage stamp-size plots of grass are just as likely to be occupied by renters as by owners.

And many of the renters, he said, are the displaced poor who moved north after Johns Hopkins bought up large tracts of rundown rowhouses in East Baltimore.

Dawson talks of "young people terrorizing our community." Of "reclaiming our streets."

He talks of wanting police to "know the law and to enforce it." Of a 6-year-old boy "who should have been in school instead of in the hospital."

"It's been an ordeal," Dawson sighed. "It's been one thing after another."

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