The War on Drugs and Policing Strategies in the Ghetto

From The Corner (1997)  by David Simons and Edward Burns pp. 158-169


The paper bag does not exist for drugs. For want of that shining example of constabulary pragmatism, the disaster is compounded.


The origins of the bag are obscure, though by the early 1960s, this remarkable invention was a staple of ghetto diplomacy in all the major American cities. And for good reason, since by that time virtually every state assembly and city council had enacted statutes prohibiting the consumption of alcoholic beverages in public. They seemed good laws, reasoned attempts to prevent rummies and smokehounds from cluttering  the streets, parks and sidewalks; codified weapons to prohibit unseemly displays of human degeneration. That these goals might have been accomplished in small-town America, or in the manicured suburbs, meant nothing, of course, in the core of any large city.


There, on the corners of the poorest neighborhoods, dozens of men would live their lives at the lip of a bottle of 20/20 or T-Bird or Mickey's, public consumption law or no. Long before the open-air drug market, the corner was still the assembly point, the clubhouse; those who spent their days there couldn't afford bar prices, but nonetheless preferred the corner ambiance to downing a bottle at home, particularly since home was more likely than not a third-floor walk-up with three screaming kids and a woman who hated you even when you weren't drinking. No, it was always the corner.

For the police working these ghetto posts, the public consumption law posed a dilemma: You could try to enforce it, in which case you'd never have time for any other kind of police work; or you could look the other way, in which case you'd be opening yourself to all kinds of disrespect from people who figure that if a cop is ignoring one illegal act, he'll probably care little about a half-dozen others.

But when the first wino dropped the first bottle of elderberry into the first paper bag-- and a moment of quiet genius it was-- the point was moot. The paper bag allowed the smokehounds to keep their smoke, just as it allowed the beat cop a modicum of respect. In time, the bag was institutionalized as a symbol; to drink without it was to insult the patrolman and risk arrest, just as it was a violation of the tacit agreement for a cop to ignore the bag and humble anyone employing it. In a sense, the paper bag allowed for some connection between the police and the corner herd; for the price of an occasional bottle, in fact, the smoke hounds could often be relied upon to provide information about more serious matters. More important, the bag allowed the government to prioritize its resources, to ignore the inevitable petty vices of urban living and concentrate instead on the essentials. This is a truth once understood by any cop worth his pension-- if you're policing an Amish town and the worst crime is spitting on the sidewalk, then enforce that law. But if you're policing Baltimore or a city like it, and the worst crimes are murder, rape, armed robbery and aggravated assault, then don't waste your time, men, and money throwing gin-breathed wrecks into a police wagon.


But with no equivalent to the bag in the war on drugs, there can be no equilibrium on the corners, no accommodation between the drug subculture and those policing it, no relativity in the contemplation of sins and vices. Without the paper bag, animosity and, ultimately, violence are the only possibilities between the police and the policed, because there is no purpose to diplomacy or proportion when war becomes total. Granted, a paper-bag solution wouldn't reduce the power of addiction, or steal any of the profit, or mitigate the disaster of a single life lost to narcotics; it is in no sense a cure for the drug epidemic. But there is still a priceless lesson in the idea, a valuable bit of beat-cop sensibility that could rescue both the patrolmen and their prey from their own worst excesses. No doubt some kind of war on drugs was a political inevitability, just as that war's failure to thwart human desire was inevitable as well. But we might have saved ourselves from the psychic costs of the drug war-- the utter alienation of an underclass from its government, the wedding of that alienation to a ruthless economic engine, and finally, the birth of an outlaw philosophy as ugly and enraged as hate and despair can produce-- if we had embraced the common sense that comes with the paper bag.


Instead, as the addict population grew, we could see no connection between the corner rummy and the corner dope fiend. One was deemed a harmless self-destructive soul, while the other was declared a sworn enemy. That some of those chasing heroin are genuinely dangerous is beyond dispute; the first wave of the national drug epidemic helped to fatten all the crime stats in the late sixties and early seventies. But the other side of that statement-- the assumption that many of those chasing a blast are more a threat to society than corner drunkards-- has been neither considered, nor argued. Even today, with cocaine added into the mix, the corner is in large part home to a tired collection of bit players, struggling to make their shot within the confines of the drug culture itself. Touts, burn-artists, doctors, slingers, stash-stealers, stickup boys who never rob a citizen, who only hit dealers, metal harvesters, petty thieves who grab a few dollars by shoplifting or breaking into cars, fiends who spend only what comes by way of a government check-- shake them all out and what's left to play the roles of predator and sociopath is maybe five percent of the population on any given drug corner.


Rather than target the truly dangerous, rather than concentrate on the murders, the shootings, the armed robberies, the burglaries, we have instead indulged all our furies. Rather than accept the personal decision to use drugs as a given-- to seek out a paper-bag solution to the corner's growing numbers-- we tried to live by mass arrest. And what has been lost in our abject failure to make any legal or moral distinction between a corner victim and a corner victimizer is any chance to change the drug culture itself, to modify the behavior of those chasing a blast, to wean the worst violence from the corner mind-set, to draw those who might have been willing to listen toward ideas like community, treatment, redemption.


Instead we have swallowed some disastrous pretensions, allowing ourselves a naive sincerity that, even now, assumes the battle can be restricted to heroin and cocaine, limited to a self-contained cadre of lawbreakers the-- quaint term "drug pusher" comes to mind-- when all along the conflict was ripe to become a war against the underclass itself. We've trusted in the moral high ground: Just say no.


We threw a negative at them, though it's unclear what they're supposed to say yes to on Fayette Street. We've made war against drugs in a social and economic vacuum until hopelessness and rage have the damned of our cities fighting for nothing more or less than human desire and profit, against which no one has ever developed a single viable weapons system.


Thirty years after its inception, the drug war in cities such as Baltimore has become an absurdist nightmare, a statistical charade with no other purpose than to placate a public that wants drug trafficking attacked and vanquished-- but not, of course, at the price it would actually cost to accomplish such an incredible feat. In Maryland such cognitive dissonance translates to a state prison system that can manage a total of just over 20,000 prison beds for prisoners convicted of every act against the criminal code in Baltimore and twenty-three other counties. Yet in Baltimore alone there are between 15,000 and 20,000 arrests each year for drug violations, and in all of Maryland's jurisdictions, more than 35,000 are charged every year with drug sales or possession.


Build more prisons, you say? How many more? Five? Ten? Keep in mind that Maryland is no slacker when it comes to locking people up; the state ranks tenth nationally in its rate of incarceration. You could bankrupt the state government by doubling the existing prison space and still there wouldn't be enough space to house the estimated 50,000 heroin and cocaine users in Baltimore, not to mention the rest of Maryland. And that leaves no room for those priority cases who just happen to be convicted of murder or rape or armed robbery. Moreover, the construction of a prison is only the preamble; what inevitably follows is the financial drain of staffing the place, of feeding and clothing the prisoners, of maintaining security standards, of running a medical program that the U.S. Supreme Court says must correspond to outside community standards for health care. Soon enough, you're spending more to lock a man down than it would cost to enroll him at Harvard.


More prisons is the impulse answer, the quick-and-dirty response of so many hack politicians and talk-show hosts. It's what the Bush administration told state governments to do as early as 1989 and what the federal government itself has done amid the escalating drug war. Leading by example, the U.S. Bureau of Prisons has doubled its capacity in ten years in an effort to keep up with a federal inmate population that is rising at record rates-the logical result of the mandatory sentences and parole restrictions contained in all those omnibus crime bills.


Yet even with more than 100,000 souls in federal custody, the U.S. prison population is only a tenth of the total number of those incarcerated. State prisons and state budgets are responsible for the rest. In the drug war as in every other aspect of law enforcement, the federal courts handle only the tip of the iceberg-- the major offenders, the headline cases, and the crimes that happen to occur in federal jurisdiction. And here's the rub: The U.S. government can happily build prisons into the next millennium because they don't need real money to do it. As with everything else in the federal budget, prison construction and operation can be undertaken simply by adding to the federal deficit. State governments, meanwhile, carry more than 90 percent of the burden of incarcerating people and they, of course, must spend real dollars and balance their budgets.


So what happens in places like West Baltimore? What becomes of all those bodies thrown into the police wagons, all those man-hours of police enforcement, all the dollars spent on court pay and overtime, all that work for the courthouse personnel, the pretrial investigators, the public defenders and prosecutors?


Not much. In a typical year, the Baltimore police department and the assisting federal agencies will lock up a greater percentage of the city's population for drugs than any other major urban area save Atlanta. The rate of arrest for drug charges in Baltimore will be nearly three times that of Los Angeles or Philadelphia, more than double that of Detroit or New York. In all, 18,000 or 19,000 arrests for the distribution or possession of drugs will be the usual result of a year's police work.


Yet just as typically, fewer than 1,000 of those drug defendants will be sentenced to state prisons and, of that number, less than half will be sentenced to more than a year. The rest of the city's drug docket will result in sentences of probation or dismissals. In short, for the vast majority of those arrested, the threat of incarceration is generally limited to a night or two in jail until a bail review hearing or, in the rare event that a money bond is set and a defendant is unable to pay, a month or two of pretrial detention.


It can't be otherwise, because whatever prison space is available is required for the thousands sentenced every year for violent crimes and other felonies. The state judges have known this for years. The lawyers know it as well. So do the police. And the learning curve reaches all the way down to the corner itself: As early as 1991, 61 percent of the felony cases brought into Baltimore Circuit Court were drug violations, and of those, 55 percent involved defendants· with at least one prior conviction. Thirty-seven percent had two prior convictions; 24 percent had three.


Up at the Wabash Avenue district courthouse, where arrests from half of the city's police districts funnel into the judiciary, farcical scenes are played out on a daily basis. One morning after the next, the men and women of the corner flood the benches that line Courtroom 4, the Western District bench of Judge Gary Bass, a patient and beleaguered soul charged with making sense of this travesty.

One by one, the street-level drug cases-distribution, conspiracy to distribute, possession with intent to distribute, simple possession-creep off the docket and receive· the only sanctions the state of Maryland can afford.


". . . one year probation, supervised."


“…continuing your probation for a year, subject to random urinalysis to be performed by the Department of Parole and Probation ... "


"Six months' unsupervised probation with the condition that you seek drug treatment."


". . . case placed on the inactive docket provided that you continue in your detox program ... "


For Judge Bass, whose memory for faces is legendary, it's a recidivist hell. On occasion, a defendant who is charged with something more substantial than drug involvement and is unwilling to risk a circuit court trial will catch a year or three for a breaking and entering, or for a handgun. And, every now and then, there comes a drug slinger so arrogant or incompetent that he shows up in court loaded with prior convictions and pending cases. For him, there's a chance to slow down with a couple years at Hagerstown, which means parole in eight months or so.


At the federal courthouse, it's very different, of course, because the national government, with its freedom from fiscal constraint, has cranked up the war as loud as she'll go. The new mandatory sentencing guidelines can tag first-time drug offenders with five or ten years, just as the elimination of all parole assures that most of that time will be served. Yet by contrast to the state courts, the federal system is handling only a handful of prosecutions: those involving either major traffickers or minor players unlucky enough to get caught at the fringes of a major trafficker's organization. The variance between courthouses has produced an institutional schizophrenia in drug enforcement. Fiends and small-time slingers sometimes take three or four state charges, then get caught up in a case that goes federal. Suddenly, the man in the black robes is running wild, talking fifteen and no parole. Say what? Who changed the rules?


But federal sentencings are the odd, angry shot in this war. It's at the local level that the endgame has been reached: There are now a million Americans in prison and it still isn't enough to close the corners. Should we lock up a million more? Three million? The cost would be exorbitant. The death penalty for drug trafficking, then? The legal costs of killing a man by state decree are even higher than warehousing him for a couple of decades.


Meanwhile, out on Fayette Street, the absence of real deterrent has been factored into the psychological equation. As the cocaine epidemic has expanded the addict population, thousands more have flocked to the corners, and the drug slinging has become more brazen. There is still some cat-and-mouse with the police; no one wants to go to jail, even for an overnight humble, nor does anyone want to be among the unlucky handful who catch a three-year sentence from some dyspeptic judge. But in terms of real estate, the war is over; by the numbers, the drug trade has proven itself invincible.


In the drug enforcement establishment, the smarter players have caught the scent of defeat coming from places like Fayette Street and they've learned the vernacular of diminished expectation. No, we don't see any light at the end of the tunnel. No, we don't believe you can arrest your way out of the problem. The careerists in the Justice Department and the DEA, the top commanders in the nation's largest police departments—most have learned to embrace the comprehensive view. The prevailing wisdom has drug enforcement as only one facet, with drug treatment and education as equal partners in some kind of global strategy. The smartest ones make it sound as if it's really a plan, ignoring the fact that all their enforcement is driving addicts toward a wealth of government-funded treatment slots that don't exist, and, let's face it, never will exist in sufficient numbers. As for education, what we have is media saturation; all those this-is-your-brain-on-drugs sound bites have reached and convinced those willing to be reached and convinced. The inner cities have heard the gospel and ignored it.


Still, give the drug warriors credit: They've learned to Incorporate enough seeming perspective to justify their budgets and grab for more. And can you blame them? What commander ever admitted that a war was lost until the absolute end was upon him? The DEA, Customs, ATF, the joint regional task forces, the local narcotic squads, all of them are feeding voraciously at the wartime trough, their operating funds coming not only from budget line items, but from the shared revenue of seized assets. They're vested in this debacle. They're a growth industry.


Yet who can argue with a moral war? If you give up, they assure us, it will be worse. And in one sense, they're right: It will be worse in places where poverty is limited, where the demographics prohibit the growth of a ghetto unde1;class. Call off the drug war and it wIll be worse In Pittsburgh, or Kansas City, or Seattle. It will be worse in Nassau County, or Dearborn, or Orange County. In any place where the deterrent is still viable, where the lid is still being held down, a cessation of hostilities will result in greater damage.


But in West Baltimore and East St. Louis, in WashIngton HeIghts and in South Central Los Angeles-at the very frontiers of the American drug culture-- it won't make any difference. War or no, 20,000 heroin addicts and another 30,000 pipers are going to go down to the corner in Baltimore tomorrow. Save for the twenty or forty that get tossed in a jail wagon, not one is going to miss his blast. Against that fact, the drug war stands as a useless and unnecessary brutalization, an unyielding policy that requires our government to occupy our ghettos in much the same way that others have occupied Belfast, or Soweto, or Gaza.


True a policy of repression was never the intent. But greater ideals are soon enough lost to the troops on the ground. For them, there is only the absolute futility of trying to police a culture with an economy founded on law breaking, of pretending to protect neighborhoods that can barely be distinguished from the corners that are overwhelming them. By the standards of a national drug prohibition, half of Fayette Street's residents are deemed outlaws. As the radio cars roll past, they throw out their communal eyefuck, showing ,twenty-three-year-old patrolmen and twenty-six-year old knockers what it’s like to be despised, to be regarded as an absolute enemy. For the younger police-- the ones who never knew the neighborhood when It was worth protecting, the ones for whom the fiends were always fiends-- there is no harmony, no connection to the streets or the people who live there. They are not serving anyone; they are answering radio calls and running up the daily arrests, pulling down that court pay for jackIng up one or two souls a day. They learn to throw the eyefuck back at the corner, to be cynical, brutal, and sometimes corrupt. They learn to hate.


Gone are the days in Baltimore when the police didn't get court pay for just any arrest, when they were judged instead by the greater standard of how they controlled their posts, when a beat cop culled information and tried to solve those genuine crimes that ought to be solved when detectives still bothered to follow up on street robberies and assaults. Now, the worst of the Western District regulars have become brutal mercenaries cementing their street-corner reps with crushed fingers and broken noses, harvesting the corners for arrests that serve no greater purpose than to guarantee hour after hour of paid court time at Wabash. And among this new breed of patrolmen are quite a few who are known by touts and dealers to be corrupt, who routinely keep some of what comes out of the pockets of arrestees. Win or lose, for them the war on drugs means pay day.


There's a racial irony at work, too. By the late seventies and early eighties, a predominantly white police department acquired enough racial consciousness to be wary of the most egregious acts of brutality. But on the Fayette street corners today, it's a new generation of young black officers that is proving Itself violently aggressive. A white patrolman in West Baltimore has to at least take into account the racial imagery, to acknowledge the fact that he is messing with black folk in a majority black cIty. Not so his black counterparts, for whom brutality complaints can be shrugged off-- not only because the victim was a corner-dwelling fiend, but because the racial aspect is neutralized. Not surprisingly, some of the most feared and most despised Western District officers along Fayette Street-- Shields, Pitbull, Peanuthead, Collins-- are black. They seem to prove just how divisive and alienating the drug war has become, and how class consciousness more than race has propelled the city's street police toward absolute contempt for the men and women of the corner.


Take, for example, the notable career of David Shields, a black officer who was allowed to run up four brutality complaints in little more than two years, yet stay on the street all of that time. A few months more and Shields claimed his first body-- twenty-one-year-old slinger from Monroe Street whom he chased into and shot, the fatal bullet striking the victim from behind. And though the police review of the shooting cleared Shields, there wasn’t a soul on Fayette Street who believed the knife on the ground actually belonged to the slinger, or that the young man on the ground was dead for any other reason than he had run from one of Western’s hardest and  angriest soldiers. Finally, when one of the brutality complaints was sustained by an internal investigation and Shields was hit with a civil suit for brutality against a Fayette Street resident, the department moved him to desk duties. Shields may be the extreme in the Baltimore Police Department, but many of those policing Fayette Street—black and white—routinely go out of their way to show contempt.


Take Pitbull Macer, who one day stood in the middle of Baltimore Street with his hand around Black Ronald’s neck, choking the tired, yellow eyed tout,  demanding that he give up drugs that, in this rare instance at least, Black Ronald did not have. And Pitbull, still unsatisfied, pulled out Ronald’s wallet and let the contents—ID cards, telephone numbers, lotto tickets—tumble into the street as confetti, then drove away, leaving the man picking his papers out of the street in absolute humiliation.

Or Collins, perhaps, who one afternoon got out his of his radio car, took off his gunbelt, handed it to a fellow police officer and offered to kick the shit out of fifteen year old DeAndre McCullough because the boy had taunted him with a hard look.


“You gonna beat a boy,” Fran Boyd had yelled at him, shaming him back into the radio car, “and you a grown man.”


Or a nameless Southern District Police patrolman, the one Ella Thompson saw on Baltimore Street, who grabbed a sixteen-year-old on a loitering charge at Baltimore and Gilmor, then punched him in the face as the boy stood cuffed against the radio car. “The boy said something to him,” Ella recalled. “And he just knocked him down.


To watch the younger generation of police is to get no hint of the sadness involved, no suggestion that the men and women of the corner are tragic and pathetic and, on some basic level, as incapable as children. In Baltimore as in so many other cities, the great crusade is reduced to a dirty war, waged by young parole officers and plainclothesmen already jaded beyond hope.


And yet the war grinds on. Not only because the police and prosecutors are vested in the disaster, but because the entire political apparatus is at the mercy of public expectation. In Baltimore, the mayor and council members and agency heads hear it at every community forum, every neighborhood association meeting from one end of the city to the other.


“I can’t walk to the market anymore.”


They’re out on the corner twenty-four hours a day.”


“I’m a prisoner in my own home.”


Even along Fayette Street, where so many of the residing families are drug-involved, there is a vocal minority, a long-suffering network of oldtimers still clinging to pristine rowhouses. They're the tired few who show up at the Franklin Square community meetings, who come out to the candidate forums, who are still willing to believe that government, if it truly cared, could end their nightmare. And they vote.


What is a police commander, a city councilman, even a mayor going to tell such people? The truth? That it can't be stopped, that the thing is beyond even the best of governments? Is an elected official going to stand up and declare that all the street sweeps, the herding of the corner pigeons, the thousands upon thousands of arrests have accomplished nothing in places like Fayette Street? Is he going to take the risk of admitting that for the sake of public appearances and a salve to our collective conscience, we are squandering finite resources on a policy that can never work?


The district commanders, the narcotics captains, the plainclothesmen-- at every rank in the Baltimore Police Department, they still defend the prevailing logic, citing as evidence those beleaguered souls who show up at the community forums and demand action. These people are desperate, they tell you. They need help. We've got no choice but to chase the fiends, if only to give these people a break. So like clockwork, the government sweeps the corners and sends the bodies to Wabash. But in Baltimore, not only is the street-level drug arrest not a solution, it's actually part of the problem.

It's not only that the street-level drug arrests have clogged the courtrooms, devouring time and manpower and money. And it's not only that the government's inability to punish so many thousands of violators has stripped naked the drug prohibition and destroyed government's credibility for law enforcement. More than that, in cities like Baltimore, the drug war has become so untenable and impractical that it is slowly undermining the nature of police work itself.


Stupid criminals make for stupid police. This is a stationhouse credo, a valuable bit of precinct-level wisdom that the Baltimore department ignored as it committed itself to a street-level drug war. Because on Fayette Street and a hundred other corners like it, there is nothing for a patrolman or plainclothesman that is as easy, as guaranteed, and as profitable as a street-level drug arrest. With minimal probable cause, or none at all, any cop can ride into the circus tent, jack up a tout or runner, grab a vial or two, and be assured of making that good overtime pay up at Wabash. In Baltimore, a cop doesn't even need to come up with a vial. He can simply charge a suspect with loitering in a drug-free zone,  a city statute of improbable constitutionality that has exempted a good third of the inner city from the usual constraints of probable cause. In Baltimore if a man is standing in the 1800 block of Fayette Street-- even if he lives in the 1800 block of Fayette Street-- he is fodder for a street arrest.

As a result police work in inner city Baltimore has been reduced to fish-in-a-barrel tactics, with the result that a generation of young officers has failed to learn investigation or procedure. Why bother to master the intricacies of probable cause when an anti-loitering law allows you to go into anyone's pockets? Why become adept at covert surveillance when you can just go down to any corner, line them up against the lIquor store, and search to your heart's content? Why learn how to use, and not be used by informants when information is so unnecessary to a street-level arrest? Why learn how to write a proper search warrant when you can make your court pay on the street, without ever having to worry about whether you re kicking in the right door?


In district roll-call rooms across Baltimore, in drug unit offices, in radio cars parked hood-to-trunk on 7-Eleven parking lots, there are sergeants and lieutenants-- veterans of a better time-- who complain about troops who can't write a coherent police report, who don't understand how to investigate a simple complaint, who can't manage to testify in district court without perjuring themselves.

Not surprisingly, as street-level drug arrests began to rise with the cocaine epidemic of the late 1980s, all other indicators of quality police work-- and of a city's livability-- began to fall m Baltimore. The police department began using more and more of itself to chase addicts and touts through the revolving door at Wabash and the Eastside District Court, so there were fewer resources available to work shooting cases, or rapes, or burglaries.


For the first time in the modern history of the department, rates for felonies began falling below national averages. In one six-year span of time-- 1988 to 1993-- the clearance rate for shootings fell from 60 to 47 percent, just as the solve rate for armed robbery fell below 20 percent for the first time ever. Arrests for rape declined by 10 percent, and the percentage of solved burglaries fell by a third. Alone among felonies, the arrest rate for murder remained constant m Baltimore, but only because the high-profile aspects of such crimes prevented department officials from gutting the homicide unit as every other investigative unit had been gutted. In a department where competent investigators were  once legion, the headquarters building was threadbare; the coming generation of police was out on the streets, running the corners, trying to placate community forums and neighborhood associations with an enforcement logic of sound and fury that signified nothing. 

In those same years, the war on drugs failed to take back a single drug corner, yet the city's crime rate soared by more than 37 percent to all-time levels. In 1990, the city began suffering 300-plus murders a year-- a rate unseen in Baltimore since the early 1970s, when baby-boom demographics and the lack of a comprehensive shock-trauma system could be blamed. Baltimore became the fourth most violent city in the nation, and its rate of cocaine and heroin use-- as measured by emergency room statistics-- was the worst in the United States. By 1996, the cumulative increase in the city's crime rate was approaching 45 percent.


In time, fewer and fewer of those living near the corners were fooled. On Fayette Street, those paying attention had lived with the drug war and the drug culture long enough to discern the range that separates sin and vice. To them, it said something that the kid who had shot three people this month was still on the street, or that the crew that had been breaking into area stores and churches was at it again, hitting the Apostolic Church on Baltimore Street just this week. It said something that the stickup crews were working Fulton Avenue and Monroe Street with impunity, that no one bothered to even report armed robberies anymore because they knew there would be no follow-up investigation. And it said something, too, that the only police activity they did see all week was down at Mount and Fayette, where the Western District day shift was, yet again, rounding up a handful of the usual suspects.