In Bal­ti­more’s drug war, still ten­sions within com­mu­nity

Request to use Ur­ban League site for po­lice sur­veil­lance is re­buffed

Baltimore Sun - - FRONT PAGE - By Kevin Rec­tor

City Coun­cil­man Eric Costello called Greater Bal­ti­more Ur­ban League pres­i­dent Tif­fany Ma­jors last week to ask a fa­vor on be­half of the Bal­ti­more Po­lice: Could de­tec­tives use the non­profit’s West Side head­quar­ters to con­duct covert sur­veil­lance of sus­pected drug deal­ing in an ad­ja­cent apart­ment com­plex?

Ma­jors said she was taken aback by the pro­posal — and quickly shot it down.

“I’m not in­ter­ested what­so­ever in us­ing our space, which is a safe space for marginal­ized com­mu­ni­ties, for your po­lice hub,” Ma­jors said she told the

coun­cil­man.

Ma­jors ar­gued the pro­posal badly con­fused the mis­sion of her his­toric or­ga­ni­za­tion — serv­ing the com­mu­nity through ed­u­ca­tional and job train­ing pro­grams — and threat­ened its hard­earned trust among lo­cal res­i­dents.

It was also strange, she said, that the request came from Costello.

“I’ve never heard of the po­lice reach­ing out to a politi­cian to ask a non­profit agency if po­lice could use their facility for sur­veil­lance,” Ma­jors said.

In neigh­bor­hoods strug­gling with drug deal­ing and the vi­o­lence that of­ten comes with it, po­lice con­stantly look for al­lies in their ef­forts to make arrests and in­ter­face with the broader com­mu­nity. With trust in po­lice badly de­te­ri­o­rated, the depart­ment some­times seeks those al­liances

“I’m not in­ter­ested what­so­ever in us­ing our space, which is a safe space for marginal­ized com­mu­ni­ties, for your po­lice hub.”

— Greater Bal­ti­more Ur­ban League pres­i­dent Tif­fany Ma­jors

with elected of­fi­cials, pas­tors, non­profit heads and other in­sti­tu­tional lead­ers, who are some­times more re­cep­tive to part­ner­ing.

“It’s al­ways hard when you come into a com­mu­nity and there has been a re­cent his­tory of mis­trust,” said Chuck Wexler, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Po­lice Ex­ec­u­tive Re­search Fo­rum, a law en­force­ment think tank that has groomed many of the na­tion’s po­lice lead­ers, in­clud­ing Bal­ti­more Com­mis­sioner Michael Har­ri­son. “There’s a very im­por­tant dy­namic here, in that in the very mo­ment the po­lice need the com­mu­nity to help them pre­vent crime, the com­mu­nity is wary of the po­lice.”

The dy­namic has long played out in ma­jor Amer­i­can cities, but is es­pe­cially a con­cern in Bal­ti­more given the ex­plod­ing opi­oid epi­demic, un­prece­dented vi­o­lence, re­peated cor­rup­tion and abuse scan­dals in­volv­ing po­lice in re­cent years, and the fed­eral con­sent de­cree man­dat­ing im­proved com­mu­nity in­ter­ac­tions.

Wexler said there are sev­eral ex­am­ples where po­lice de­part­ments have con­fronted re­luc­tance from both the pub­lic and in­sti­tu­tions con­cerned about ap­pear­ing too cozy with law en­force­ment. Los An­ge­les af­ter the beat­ing of Rod­ney King and New Or­leans af­ter Hur­ri­cane Ka­t­rina are two of many such in­stances in Amer­i­can his­tory.

“That’s what you have in Bal­ti­more right now,” Wexler said.

Break­ing out of such a sit­u­a­tion re­quires “an in­cre­men­tal process of trust build­ing that doesn’t hap­pen overnight,” Wexler said, “but ev­ery­body has to move slightly out of their comfort zone or you don’t get change.”

At times, po­lice-com­mu­nity part­ner­ships are proudly made pub­lic, as with the Bal­ti­more Po­lice pro­gram putting clergy mem­bers into pa­trol cars. In other cases, the ar­range­ments are se­cret — such as when po­lice con­duct covert sur­veil­lance from pri­vate fa­cil­i­ties.

Es­tab­lish­ing the lat­ter kind of part­ner­ship is a par­tic­u­larly sen­si­tive mat­ter, rais­ing ques­tions about the role of com­mu­nity or­ga­ni­za­tions, churches and hos­pi­tals in the crime fight. Ten­sions can erupt. Ma­jors said she be­lieves drug en­force­ment dis­pro­por­tion­ately tar­gets black com­mu­ni­ties, across the coun­try but par­tic­u­larly in Bal­ti­more. Al­low­ing po­lice to essen­tially spy on the Ur­ban League’s neigh­bors in the Se­ton Hill neigh­bor­hood, and from its of­fices, would un­der­mine its mis­sion of help­ing res­i­dents suc­ceed, she said.

“I was very both­ered by that,” she said.

Costello, in a state­ment, said there is no ques­tion there is drug deal­ing in the neigh­bor­hood, and his out­reach to Ma­jors was sim­ply an at­tempt to help neigh­bor­hood res­i­dents who “no longer en­joy their stoops or com­mu­nity ameni­ties” be­cause of it. Costello said com­mu­nity mem­bers have ex­pressed fear that the deal­ing would soon lead to gun vi­o­lence, and that they would be re­tal­i­ated against “if they were the ones who spoke out” about it. So he took it upon him­self.

Matt Jablow, a po­lice spokesman, said that in re­cent years, the depart­ment has re­ceived “nu­mer­ous com­plaints” from Se­ton Hill res­i­dents about drug deal­ing, and re­sponded to “sev­eral acts of vi­o­lence there that ap­pear to have been drug-re­lated.” He added the depart­ment is “al­ways look­ing to part­ner with mem­bers of the com­mu­nity, in­clud­ing, of course, our elected of­fi­cials, to make Bal­ti­more a safer city.”

Jablow de­clined to com­ment on Costello’s ex­change with Ma­jors, or on how po­lice iden­tify and seek ac­cess to sur­veil­lance lo­ca­tions more gen­er­ally, say­ing “[c]on­fi­den­tial­ity and anonymity are two key com­po­nents of any suc­cess­ful sur­veil­lance op­er­a­tion.”

Covert sur­veil­lance is rou­tinely dis­cussed in Bal­ti­more courts as a tool of city po­lice, and drug en­force­ment is a reg­u­lar topic of dis­cus­sion be­tween po­lice, elected of­fi­cials and lo­cal res­i­dents.

Costello’s out­reach to Ma­jors came on the same day the coun­cil­man re­ceived an email com­plain­ing about an “open air drug mar­ket” just a few blocks away, near Mount Cal­vary Catholic Church and the Uni­ver­sity of Mary­land Med­i­cal Cen­ter’s mid­town cam­pus.

The anony­mous sender, who pur­ported to be writ­ing on be­half of “a small group of peo­ple who would like to help clean up and heal the prob­lems in Bal­ti­more and bring new life and busi­nesses to the city,” also sent the email to Demo­cratic Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young, of­fi­cials at UMMC and the Arch­dio­cese of Bal­ti­more, and re­porters at The Bal­ti­more Sun.

The email al­leged “dozens of buy­ers and sell­ers op­er­at­ing in the open, on and off, all day long, in all di­rec­tions,” and called for a col­lec­tive plan to end the ac­tiv­ity.

“We want all par­ties who have a stake in this part of town and Bal­ti­more in gen­eral, to stand up, take own­er­ship, use their re­sources and just do some­thing to get these drugs and drug re­lated crimes off of our streets,” the email read.

Costello, a Demo­crat, re­sponded and said he ap­pre­ci­ated the prob­lem be­ing brought to his at­ten­tion, and asked the anony­mous sender whether they had both­ered to call 911 to re­port the drug deal­ing.

The email was for­warded to Fa­ther Al­bert Schar­bach of Mount Cal­vary, who re­sponded. He wrote that his “first pri­or­ity has been to min­is­ter to the re­cov­er­ing ad­dicts who gather on our corner in prox­im­ity to the lo­cal methadone clin­ics,” but that he has wit­nessed drug deal­ing in the area and ap­pre­ci­ates law en­force­ment ef­forts to stem it.

Maj. Daryl Gaines, the Cen­tral Dis­trict com­man­der, wrote back to say po­lice “are aware of the on­go­ing is­sues” in­volv­ing drug deal­ing in the area, are work­ing to ad­dress them, and know “there is a lot more work to be done.”

In an in­ter­view, Schar­bach said, “You don’t have to be around very long to no­tice money chang­ing hands. It’s pretty much out in the open.” But he also said the is­sue of how to ad­dress that ac­tiv­ity “is a sen­si­tive topic, be­cause we are min­is­ter­ing to this com­mu­nity.”

The church has started pro­vid­ing egg and cheese sand­wiches to many of the peo­ple who gather at the bus stop out front to wait for a methadone clinic to open Satur­day morn­ings, he said. They call it “Bus Stop Break­fast.”

At the same time, Schar­bach said, he wants to end drug deal­ing in the area. It’s a bal­anc­ing act.

“To be clear, while I haven’t per­son­ally con­tacted the po­lice about the drug traf­fic, I know of par­ish­ioners who have and I have sup­ported their ef­forts. I have also en­thu­si­as­ti­cally co­op­er­ated with po­lice when they’ve made in­quiries of any kind,” he said. “A church serves an im­por­tant role at a cross­roads like this be­cause we are able to sup­port law en­force­ment against drug deal­ing while serv­ing the com­mu­nity of re­cov­er­ing ad­dicts. In this way, the church can be a ‘salt and a light’ in the midst of the city.”

Mount Cal­vary is not part of the Arch­dio­cese of Bal­ti­more, though arch­dio­cese of­fi­cials said they helped put Costello and Schar­bach in touch. Sean Caine, an arch­dio­cese spokesman, also con­firmed the arch­dio­cese has co­op­er­ated with po­lice on “sur­veil­lance ac­tiv­i­ties” in the past.

“We value our part­ner­ship with the City and look for rea­son­able and prac­ti­cal ways for the Church to as­sist the City in ad­dress­ing is­sues that un­der­mine the safety and well-be­ing of res­i­dents,” Caine said. Schar­bach said po­lice have never asked to con­duct sur­veil­lance out of Mount Cal­vary.

The area around the church in­cludes UMMC’s Cen­ter for Ad­dic­tion Medicine, which pro­vides out­pa­tient methadone treat­ment for opi­oid ad­dic­tion, as well as an in­de­pen­dent methadone clinic op­er­ated by MedMark on Eutaw Street.

Kel­lie Edris, a spokes­woman for UMMC, said the hos­pi­tal com­mu­nity, which has been part of the neigh­bor­hood for 144 years, shares “the deep con­cerns as­so­ci­ated with open air drug markets and our coun­try’s per­va­sive ad­dic­tion chal­lenge.”

The hos­pi­tal is com­mit­ted to work­ing with all of the com­mu­nity’s stake­hold­ers — res­i­dents, clergy, elected of­fi­cials and po­lice — to in­crease safety and the lo­cal qual­ity of life, she said.

“Open air drug markets in ev­ery part of the city must be ad­dressed; how­ever, law en­force­ment can’t do it alone,” Edris said. “As a pub­lic health in­sti­tu­tion, we will con­tinue to work with the Bal­ti­more Po­lice Depart­ment so the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem can hold vi­o­la­tors ac­count­able and pub­lic health providers can pro­vide ed­u­ca­tion and treat­ment ser­vices to those suf­fer­ing from the dis­ease of ad­dic­tion.”

JERRY JACK­SON/BAL­TI­MORE SUN

Tif­fany Ma­jors, pres­i­dent of the his­toric Greater Bal­ti­more Ur­ban League, said she was trou­bled when City Coun­cil­man Eric Costello asked if Bal­ti­more Po­lice could use the non­profit’s head­quar­ters to con­duct sur­veil­lance of a nearby apart­ment com­plex.

LLOYD FOX/BAL­TI­MORE SUN

City Coun­cil­man Eric Costello’s out­reach came on the same day he re­ceived an email com­plain­ing about an “open air drug mar­ket” near Mount Cal­vary Catholic Church.

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