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by Peter Moskos

June 22, 2015

Baltmore's so-called gang problem

From Cop in the Hood:
In cities like Chicago and Los Angeles, gangs control the drug dealing. Because of that, some assume that drug violence is intrinsically linked to gangs. But East Coast cities have a different history. Large-scale gangs, such as the Bloods and Crips, are growing but still comparatively small. Gangs in Baltimore tend to be smaller and less organized, sometimes just a group sitting on a corner. Any group selling drugs can be called a gang, but the distinction between a gang and a group of friends is often based more on race, class, and police labeling than anything else. The disorganization of Baltimore’s crime networks may contribute to Baltimore’s violence. Conceivably, organized large gangs could reduce violence by deterring competition and would-be stickup kids.

While drug-dealing organizations exist, they tend to restrict themselves to wholesale operations without conspicuous gang names, clothes, or colors. In Baltimore, wholesalers--often SUV-driving Dominicans and Jamaicans with New York or Pennsylvania tags--will sell their product to various midlevel dealers once or twice a week. The midlevel dealers will re-up the corner dealers’ stash as needed. Street-level dealers in Baltimore control smaller areas, perhaps three or four corners in close proximity. As a uniformed patrol officer, my focus was exclusively on the low-level street dealer. Going up the drug ladder requires lengthy investigations, undercover police, snitches, and confidential informants. A patrol officer’s job is to answer 911 calls for service.
Has any of this changed?


Unknown said...

I retired two years ago after 36 years in the Philadelphia Probation Department, the last 24 as a Presentence Investigator, writing background reports on those awaiting sentencing. Before that I had worked for over ten years in our drug unit, during the time when crack cocaine began and spread. So I was not "on the street" in the way you were as a cop but I supervised thousands of drug offenders and probably 30-40% of my investigations involved drug charges. More had drug offenses on their rap sheet whatever the current case.

Your observation, from my experience is correct. Although most of the people I supervised or interviewed were at the bottom end, I'd at times get someone higher and some of those either decided to leave the life or had left it and came back after some time on another offense- fight with their girlfriend for instance. In either case they were often quite willing to detail what they knew and it almost always coincided with your observations.

One more commonly held misconception on this issue- that people involved in drug sales are supporting their own use. In any organized operation, people don't get hired if they are users (I exclude marijuana). The people who are sell to use folks, at least in my experience, are the "individual entrepreneurs", who might sell out of their (or a girlfriend's or relative's) house. As I used to quip when teaching a class on this subject to new probation officers, their problem is that they can't sustain the business model. One for me and one to sell usually degenerates pretty quickly, especially for those who are using prescription meds, which along with marijuana, where someone can sustain that division, were the drugs I mostly saw dealt this way.

john mosby said...

Prof, your speculation about bigger drug organizations possibly reducing street violence made me think of this:

In your scholarship, have you ever compared AA urban organized crime to the white-ethnic organized crime of the first half of the 20th century?

The LCN, Irish "Westies," even Jewish OC, etc, seemed to adhere to the role Henry Hill in "Goodfellas" summarized as "the police for people who can't go to the police." In other words, the gangs kept their own neighborhoods nice to live in while maintaining an undercurrent of illegal business. Among other things, this allowed the law-abiding white ethnics to have proper jobs, go to university, and generally climb out of poverty, and out of the need to be gangsters. Sort of a twisted version of broken windows.

At least that's the narrative. One can certainly pick apart many of those assertions. But old ladies with handbags probably did walk up Mulberry Street without fear. And we don't have any Jewish ghettos in the US anymore. So at least some of the narrative is based in truth.

Flash forward to the crack era, and all the resources of the state are brought to bear on the AA gangsters. Anyone who could possibly be a "boss of bosses" gets sent to the pen, resulting in small sets who are constantly fighting with each other. The idea of keeping one's own neighborhood nice goes out the window.

Why the difference? Racism (conscious or unconscious)? Or just the bad luck of getting into the crime business just when the children who benefitted from the early-20th-century OC have become good-government crusaders?

Anyway, I would be interested in your thoughts.



Adrian said...

that narrative of the good old days with civilized Cosa Nostra gangsters ignores stuff like the Black Hand kidnapping rings that the American Cosa Nostra grew out of. They would kidnap family members of anyone with money (shop-keepers, etc.) and ransom them. They preyed on normal people and definitely did not function as rule-enforcers in under-policed areas.

john mosby said...

LCN replacing Black Hand kind of supports the narrative of gradual, increasing legitimacy, though, doesn't it? But I do agree that the old-time OC narrative does ignore a lot of harm done to innocent people.

At the same time, though, the present-day disorganized drug crime may be hurting a lot more innocents.

Not saying that the solution is freeing Jeff Fort et al so they can re-establish order on the streets.

But it probably is useful to acknowledge that old-time OC provided some level of 'civil society' to ethnic ghettos. Our enforcement strategy has eliminated that function without really providing a replacement (eg cops ain't social workers, mums, dads, clergy, or Rotarians).


Adrian said...

Good point regarding the evolution in the right direction.

I wonder if another factor is the increasing professionalism of police over that 120 years. If you look at a pragmatic "order-in-the-neighborhood" type in 2015, they're going to work through the police and local gov't because the police make it possible. In 1890, it likely wasn't possible for an Italian-speaking neighborhood leader to work through Irish cops. As police gain legitimacy, OC loses it.

john mosby said...

True indeed - also, the cops in the classic OC era were bought and paid for. Nowadays, as the Prof points out, police corruption is the very rare exception.