Prosecutor Declares War On Open Air Drug Markets

BERLIN – With a stern warning for known repeat offenders and a softer alternative for those maybe caught in the web for the first time, Worcester County State’s Attorney Joel Todd and several local law enforcement and community support agencies last week fired a first salvo in a renewed battle to rid Berlin’s neighborhoods of open-air drug dealing.

Todd hosted a community meeting of sorts in the Multi-Purpose Building on Flower Street last week to announce a multi-pronged effort to rid the communities on Berlin’s east side from the open-air drug dealing that has been so prevalent for decades. The new program promises harsh treatment for known repeat offenders in Berlin along with a community safety net of sorts for first-timers eligible for counseling, mentoring and employment services.

Similar efforts to rid Berlin’s neighborhoods of drugs and the associated crime over the years have been tried in the past with varying degrees of success, but Todd, town officials and local law enforcement agencies represented at the meeting last week issued a stern warning to those employed in the business of selling drugs in the town.

“This is a new Berlin starting right here and now,” said Todd. “It’s over right now. I’m not kidding.”

Berlin Mayor Gee Williams acknowledged the overt drug dealing on Berlin’s east side and made a promise to direct any and all resources to aid the new battle against the problem.

“Every family, every child and every senior citizen in Berlin has a right to expect to live in a safe place free of crime,” said Williams. “Anyone dealing in Berlin, you have a simple choice. Give it up or find another place to go. You need to know your actions are disrespectful to this neighborhood and the town of Berlin. We’re no longer going to tolerate open air drug dealing in Berlin.”

Todd said acknowledging the problem was an appropriate place to start in the battle against open air dealing in Berlin. For years, most area residents and visitors know about the problem, but little has changed in the effort to end it, Todd said.

“None of us can pretend there is not a drug problem in Worcester County, especially right here in Berlin,” said Todd. “Even the tourists over in Ocean City know this is the place to come to buy drugs. They take cabs over here. We know that.”

Operation Take Pride

Starting in March, a multi-agency operation began including undercover officers from Berlin, the Maryland State Police, the Ocean City Police Department and even Somerset County all making undercover drug buys in known hot spots in Berlin. A combination of bad weather and other factors hampered the investigation somewhat, but nonetheless, the officers were able to make buys from 11 individuals, nine of whom had been convicted before and two of whom were identified as dealers for the first time.  One of those identified was participating in the county’s drug court program at the time of his arrest.

The two first-timers were present at the meeting and were singled out by Todd for participation in the new initiative. They had already prepared charging documents sitting on the seats next to them and the only thing keeping them from being arrested that minute was the lack of the state’s attorney’s signature. Todd could sign the document and the pair could be taken into custody, but he had other plans for them that night.

“The two that didn’t have records before are here with us tonight,” Todd said. “We’re going to take a chance on you two. We grew up in the same town and went to the same schools. You have documents in front of you charging you with possession and intent to distribute cocaine and the only thing they are lacking is my signature, but I’m not going to sign those papers as long as you stop dealing drugs. If you don’t, you’ll be giving up a chance at a wonderful opportunity here.”

Todd said the proposed program had a second-chance element in it for those deemed eligible, but the overall message to dealers in the community was one of zero tolerance for the illegal activity in the future.

“We’re going to eliminate open air drug markets in Berlin,” he said. “I want you to be able to drive through or walk through this neighborhood without driving or walking through a drug deal. This is a part of Berlin that is not talked about on the town’s web pages or the Chamber of Commerce pamphlets. It’s a part of town where everybody knows what’s going on but nobody wants to talk about it.”

Todd said the time was now to avoid talking about the problem and start embracing real solutions. He explained the battle against drugs in Berlin needed to start with the overt dealing going on in certain areas.

“We want the revolving door to end,” he said. “We don’t want them coming back. We now have a zero tolerance for open-air drug dealing in Berlin, and we’re establishing a beachhead right here and now. We’re sending informants into the trouble areas and if you’re dealing, somebody is going to snitch you out.”

One Prosecutor For Drug Cases

Todd said he was assigning a single deputy state’s attorney to handle all of the drug cases in the area. Deputy State’s Attorney Julie Guyer, a former Maryland State Police trooper, has been assigned the task and will rely on her vast knowledge of the area and known offenders to prosecute drug cases only. To some degree, Guyer will make decisions about who should eligible for the second chance program and who should be prosecuted to the fullest extent possible, and will work closely with local law enforcement officers on the cases.

“I’m assigning Julie Guyer to handle all of the drug cases,” said Todd. “She has the knowledge to effectively prosecute these cases because she is familiar with the area and the known offenders.”

Berlin Police Chief Arnold Downing agreed with the one-prosecutor component of the new war on drugs.

“”We’re going with prosecution by one person and it’s going to help,” he said. “We’re not going to go ahead and make deals. We’re going to put the people who need to be there in jail, and put the people who need some help in touch with the services they need.”

Fed Prosecutor Pledges Support

During the presentation of his new tough stance on open-air drug dealing in Berlin, Todd introduced federal prosecutor Steve Hess of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Baltimore to explain his agency’s role in the plan. Hess explained his office has vast resources at its disposal to help communities, like Berlin, in their battle with drug problems including the Department of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF), the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and the FBI, all of which can be brought in to assist with local operations.

“We have those resources available for you,” he told those in attendance. “When these cases come up, we can help decide if they should be prosecuted at the state or federal level because there are big differences when it comes to prosecution and sentencing. We’re here to do what we can to make sure you get the biggest bang for you buck.”

The second part of Hess’ presentation was pointed directly at the two individuals who were being given a second chance in a sort of “scared straight” revival.

“You’re already looking at one felony conviction if you don’t embrace this program and if you get a second, you could be facing serious federal charges,” he told the two offenders. “You could be looking at 15 years minimum, and that’s federal time. Federal time is different than state time. There is no parole ever and there are no suspended sentences ever. There is little or no credit given for good time served and in the federal system, it has to be truly earned.”

Hess also explained there are no guarantees federal drug offenders will serve their time in or near the communities where they committed their crimes.

“You will not be sent down to ECI [Eastern Correctional Institution] or Baltimore or even Hagerstown,” he said. “You probably won’t even serve your time in Maryland. You will be removed from the community. You might end up doing your time in West Virginia or Pennsylvania or even Kentucky or Tennessee and the places aren’t pleasant.”

Hess urged the two first-timers and anyone else who might be involved in dealing drugs in Berlin to seize the opportunity presented to them for a second chance.

“You’ve been given a gift here tonight and I urge you to take advantage of it,” he said. “If you take advantage of everything being offered here tonight, it can change your life.”

Tough Love Offered

Worcester County NAACP branch President Edward Lee was on hand to contribute to the presentation and took a slightly less harsh position when talking with the first-time offenders in the second-chance program.

“First of all, I’m here to advocate for this community,” he said. “I’m also here to let you know I love you guys, but I will not tolerate the abuse drug dealing creates in this community. You have got to find some spiritual support and it’s out there for you.”

Lee urged the offenders to take advantage of the opportunities being offered to them to get out of dealing before they become ensconced in it like so many of their peers.

“You have an opportunity here to work the system,” he said. “That’s basically what they’re giving you here tonight, but you have to look at it like an opportunity. We’re going to do whatever we can to rid this community of the scourge of drugs and if you get in the way, you’re going to get run over.”

Open Air Dealers Targeted

Several in attendance questioned why the proposed operation was targeting the open-air drug dealers and not the users or the larger suppliers further up the chain.

“We haven’t talked at all about the users,” said Diana Purnell. “Without the users, there is no dealer. I think we need to address that issue.”

Todd explained the program he was presenting that night was directed at the open-air dealers in Berlin in an effort to rid the neighborhoods of the market for drugs.

“That certainly is a problem,” he said. “No business would succeed if there weren’t any customers. We know that. … When we talk about open-air dealers in Berlin, we’re talking about retailers because that’s what they are. We haven’t talked about the wholesalers here tonight. That’s an entirely separate issue.”

Watch Program Revived

Off and on over the years, residents on Berlin’s east side attempted to take back their streets with a community watch program with varying degrees of success. Todd said an effort would be made with the help or Worcester County Sheriff Chuck Martin to revive the concept.

“There used to be a neighborhood crime watch here but it went away for a variety of reasons,” he said. “We’re going to have the sheriff’s department work with residents here to recreate that crime watch group. We need the community to be the eyes and ears for law enforcement.”

Law enforcement agencies often confiscate large amounts of money in drug busts to use for various programs, and Martin explained money confiscated in Berlin drug busts would be reinvested in the community.

“Every dime I have coming in is going to be thrown at this problem,” said Martin. “If we take the dealer’s money, we’re going to invest it right back into solving this problem. It’s going to get better, we promise you that.”

Resident Grace Purnell said there is a willingness in the neighborhoods to report the illegal activity and identify the offenders, but raised concern about support from the various law enforcement agencies.

“There’s a group of older women who go down to the park and see the open-air dealing going on all the time,” she said. “We make the calls, but if we’re going to stick our necks out and identify people, we need to know if they are being arrested. We need to know if they are being taken off the streets.”

Meanwhile, Phyllis Purnell said the old neighborhood watch program died a slow death because the offenders harassed and threatened its members to the point they were afraid.

“The chairperson of the community watch program was harassed to the point he was run out of town,” she said. “He picked up and moved on because he was harassed so much.”

Economic Solution

While the tough stand on open-air drug dealing presented last week includes stronger prosecution, increased patrols and community vigilance and stiffer penalties for those convicted, the plan also includes a softer side in the form of counseling and support services for those caught up in the drug dealing web for different reasons. Like the two offenders singled out in the meeting last week, some of those caught in Berlin’s drug-dealing lifestyle are users and addicts, but others get involved as a means to earn money to support themselves and their families.

Otherwise decent kids are turning to drugs as a means to earn a living because they can see no other way out, but the program presented last week includes job counseling, support services, mentoring and other counseling.

Worcester County Economic Development Director Jerry Redden was on hand to assure those in attendance who got caught up in dealing for the wrong reasons that there are alternatives available.

“The problem we have with drugs is a cultural problem, and there is a cultural solution,” he said. “Through economic development, we can create jobs and help find pathways for those who truly want the help. If you embrace the good things, then we can help you. We’re here to support you, but at the same time, we’re not going to tolerate drug dealing in our communities any more.”

Patience Urged

Todd explained the nuances of the multi-faceted war on drugs and open-air dealing in Berlin. He showed maps of the town of High Point, N.C., which was the model for a similar program that depicted crime rates before and after the implementation of the program. A map from 2003 showed dots indicating crimes densely distributed in the neighborhoods, while the map from 2006 was nearly devoid of any of the same dots.

“Open-air drug markets are toxic to neighborhoods,” he said. “There is a direct nexus between drugs and violent crimes and these maps indicate what happened in High Point after this program had a chance to take effect.”