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'We Had No Business' In White Neighborhoods


Baltimore, Maryland was one of the many American cities ravaged by the drug war. In the 1980s and '90s, drugs, mostly heroin and crack cocaine, flooded many of the city's neighborhoods. And with the drugs came violent crime. Today, to walk through some of those neighborhoods is to get an education in the underground drug economy - a group of kids on bicycles, a man in front of the corner grocery, a woman sitting on her front stoop. Any of them could be part of the drug chain.

And watching it all, the police, the foot soldiers in America's war on drugs. Neil Franklin was one of them. He worked for the Maryland State Police and narcotics training task forces. Right after he started on the force in the mid-1980s, some of Baltimore's most notorious drug lords were brought down.

NEIL FRANKLIN: Linwood Gross, Little Melvin Williams, too, and I remember working on the case seizing the cars and the property, conducting the many search warrants around the city, bringing all of the spoils to the Fifth Regiment Armory there on Howard Street. And we didn't plan for the many smaller neighborhood gangs to step into the void, and they took their business to the street corners. And the only way they saw to defend their territory was to use violence.

MARTIN: So how did you approach that new landscape? How did you go about identifying who are the good guys and who are the bad guys?

FRANKLIN: Well, unfortunately, in an effort to do that it seems like we just viewed everyone as a bad guy, because there were just so many young people involved in the drug trade. You know, Baltimore city went through this period of time where we started outsourcing the many blue-collar jobs that employed so many black men in the '60s into the early '70s. Families need to be taken care of financially. Heating bills needed to be paid. Rent needed to be paid. And there were no legal jobs available for these folks.

MARTIN: But these drug were not isolated to black communities, were they?

FRANKLIN: Oh, absolutely not. However, in the law enforcement community, we tend to target communities of color, not white communities. And there are a number of reasons for that.


FRANKLIN: Well, there's political pressure. We don't dare go into gated America, you know, with drug-sniffing dogs and start scanning the cars parked along the street.

MARTIN: What do you mean you don't dare? If you have good information that something's going down in a community like that, you just don't do it?

FRANKLIN: (Laughing) Well, here's the thing. You don't need good information, because to have a drug dog scan a car parked on a public street, you don't need probable cause. You don't even need reasonable suspicion; it's legal to just do it. But why couldn't we do that in our affluent communities? The phones would be ringing off the hook. The people who live in affluent America have political and financial power and influence.

Policing these drug laws is also about numbers and the more arrests that we make, the more drugs that we seize, the busier that we appear, the greater our chances of accessing federal dollars. I mean, we can clear two or three corners and make, you know, five, six, 10 arrests.

MARTIN: I've read that the drug game in general in Baltimore - and other cities - is getting younger and younger. Is that something that you have seen?

FRANKLIN: You can go as low as seven, eight being a lookout. You know, when they see the police coming, you know, they'll yell 5-0. And that can be how it starts. Hey, just look out for me. At the end of the day I'll give you a few dollars or whatever. And then they'll graduate to maybe holding a package.

These gang members know that if we have these young people working and holding packages for us and holding guns for us, that if they get caught they're not going to be charged as an adult. And then they eventually graduate to actually selling and committing some of the violent crimes that takes place. And it's just a path of destruction for these young people.

MARTIN: Neil Franklin is a retired Maryland state police officer. He's the executive director of LEAP, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. He spoke to us from Baltimore. Thank you so much for being on the show, Mr. Franklin.

FRANKLIN: Rachel, thanks for having me.


MARTIN: You're listening to NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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