Clearing the corner is what separates those who have policed from those who haven’t. Some officers want to be feared; others, respected; still others, simply obeyed. An officer explained: “You don’t have to [hit anybody]. Show up to them. Tell them to leave the corner, and then take a walk. Come back, and if they’re still there, don’t ask questions, just call for additional units and a wagon. You can always lock them up for something. You just have to know your laws. There’s loitering, obstruction of a sidewalk, loitering in front of the liquor store, disruptive behavior.” Police assume that if the suspects are dirty, they will walk away rather than risk being stopped and frisked. You can always lock them up for something, but when a police officer pulls up on a known drug corner, legal options are limited.
Because of these problems and the “victimless” nature of drug crimes, most drug arrests are at the initiative of police officers. On one occasion, while driving slowly through a busy drug market early one morning, I saw dozens of African American addicts milling about while a smaller group of young men and boys were waiting to sell. Another officer in our squad had just arrested a drug addict for loitering. I asked my partner, “What’s the point of arresting people for walking down the street?” He replied: “Because everybody walking down the street is a criminal. In Canton or Greektown [middle-class neighborhoods] people are actually going somewhere. How many people here aren’t dirty? [‘None.’] It’s drugs.... If all we can do is lock ’em up for loitering, so be it.”
The decision to arrest or not arrest those involved in the drug trade becomes more a matter of personal choice and police officer discretion than of any formalized police response toward crime or public safety.
Although it is legally questionable, police officers almost always have something they can use to lock up somebody, “just because.” New York City police use “disorderly conduct.” In Baltimore it is loitering. In high- drug areas, minor arrests are very common, but rarely prosecuted. Loitering arrests usually do not articulate the legally required “obstruction of passage.” But the point of loitering arrests is not to convict people of the misdemeanor. By any definition, loitering is abated by arrest. These lockups are used by police to assert authority or get criminals off the street.
Police have diverse opinions about the drug problem. I asked my sergeant if it was more effective to arrest drug addicts or to remain on and patrol the street to temporarily disrupt drug markets. He surprised me by choosing the former:
Arresting someone sends a better message. Locking up junkies makes a difference. This squad used to have more arrests than five of the districts. We used to go out every night and just make arrest runs as a squad. Start with six cars, like a train. Fill one up, then you have five cars. Continue until you’re out of cars. At 1 am, everybody on a drug corner is involved with drugs. We locked them up for loitering. Got lots of drugs, a few weapons, too. After a few weeks, everything was quiet. Eventually it got so that we had to poach from other districts. We ran out of people to arrest. You think the neighbors didn’t like that?[Note: This happened in the late 1990s, before O'Malley's now-maligned "zero-tolerance" push.]