N.Y. exporting drug problems

November 29, 2004|by BRIAN SHAPPELL

HAGERSTOWN - Like law enforcement groups in most cities in the United States, the Hagerstown Police Department faces a significant problem with violent crime within its boundaries, police say.

Police also indicate that the biggest cause of those, as well as burglaries, robberies and prostitution in the city, is the drug trade brought to the area largely by former residents or natives of New York City.

"You name a town in this part of the country and they're there," Hagerstown Police Department Chief Arthur Smith said.

And though many drug dealers and users are thrown in jail, many are returning to the area upon their release, or others committing the same offenses soon replace them, Smith said.


Members of the department's Street Crimes Unit pointed to a "huge price markup" the dealers can put on their products, prevalently crack cocaine, and the relative lack of danger in doing business here as compared to New York City, as the reasons for Hagerstown's popularity with drug dealers.

Though the face of the drug trade continues to change, Smith believes the drug problem in Hagerstown could linger in the city forever unless there are widespread changes to drug education.

"If we could get rid of drug use in Hagerstown, you can get rid of all these (officers) and me," Smith said.

New Yorkers and violent crimes

Smith said a large portion of the shootings and many other violent attacks in the city during the past several years have involved a New York City transplant as the assailant or victim.

In fact, at least one New York man was charged for some role in murders reported in March 2004 at the Washington Gardens housing complex; in December 2002, North Jonathan Street; and in September 2001, on Lanvale Street.

Smith said a common denominator in many shooting cases is some clear link to drugs.

But despite the trend, Smith and members of the department's Street Crimes Unit believe the New York transplants are not nearly as violent as active gang members in most large cities and are just looking to make some money.

"They're not looking for a fight," said Officer Tom Langston, of the Street Crimes Unit. "It's bad business for them to come down here and raise hell."

Smith said, despite stiff sentences from local judges and aggressive prosecution from the Washington County State's Attorney's Office, those drug dealers who do serve "hard time" tend to end up back in Hagerstown once their sentences are over, especially if they are housed in one of the Division of Correction's Roxbury Road facilities near the city.

He said drug dealers from New York have said, point blank, "You'll never get rid of us."

Safety and economics

Smith said the area is alluring to drug dealers because Hagerstown is cleaner and safer than the streets of New York City or Baltimore, and because there are "ladies here who house them."

Several officers have reported that drug dealers have made comments that they barely have a need to carry a gun while doing business in Hagerstown, something unheard of in their home city.

But another reason for their interest, according to several officers, is a matter of basic economics.

Langston and Officer Dave Russell, also of the Street Crimes Unit, estimated that a "rock" of crack cocaine that sells in New York for about $7 generally sells for about $40 or $50 in Hagerstown.

"The markup is incredible," Langston said.

Driving drug trade indoors

Officers at the department say that the nature of the drug business in the city has been changing in recent months. They say it is moving into apartments, in many cases replacing street-level operations.

Langston said that because of cameras in two areas known for drug activity - North Jonathan Street and downtown - and increased attention from officers, many dealers will only do business with known, established customers.

"It's starting to leave the street and go inside," Langston said.

Russell said that is a far cry from the scenario of a few years ago.

"People used to be lined up two and three deep waiting to get served (on public streets), Russell said. "They're setting up in different places now."

Russell said many dealers are starting to shy away from selling to complete strangers in some instances.

"You just can't walk up to Joe Blow and buy a 40-piece or 50-piece anymore," he said.

Smith called the change a small victory, saying that an innocent bystander is less likely to be injured in a drug deal gone wrong in an apartment, rather than on a public street.

Because of the changes, police are having to depend more on confidential informants, most of whom are working off their own drug sentences and are known as users, police said.

However, these users are not beating down the door to help police, said Hagerstown Police Officer Terry Hose, who is a member of the Washington County Narcotics Task Force and is federally deputized.

"It's hard to get them to begin with," Hose said. "Basically, you have to take what you can get."


Smith said he believes the drug problem in Hagerstown, and far beyond, is caused by the lack of proper drug education and treatment programs in the country. He said widespread education, not more enforcement, is the biggest key to reducing drug use and associated crime.

"As long as you have someone looking for drugs, someone will be there to supply it," he said.

In the meantime, Smith said police have no plans to take it easy on anyone involved in the local drug trade.

"That (treatment and education) is not our side of the street right now - it's locking them up," Smith said.

Smith said the country has a long way to go before an education cycle could yield positive results for communities.

"None of these guys are worried about being laid off anytime soon," he said pointing to his officers.

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