Traditional Gang Enforcement Fails
King Gang Investigation
The King/Ricks/Meredith (King) gang's potential danger and threat
were investigated by the Baltimore City Police Department's (BPD's)
Drug Enforcement Unit. Surfacing in 1982, the King gang initially
seized control of Hoffman and Holbrook streets. For 2 years the
gang grew, bringing a significant section of east Baltimore under
its control. When the gang was successfully prosecuted, 47 members
were convicted, 5 murders were credited directly to the gang, and
$1.8 million in assets were identified, targeted, and seized.
The King investigation used the traditional BPD narcotics investigative
approach. Members of the Criminal Investigation Division Drug Enforcement
Unit and agents from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration used
informants, cooperating witnesses, and police officers in undercover
assignments to penetrate the gang at its most vulnerable point:
the lines of distribution. The investigators infiltrated the gang
and purchased heroin from key members, including King, the leader.
A further mark of success was the police department's aggressive
postarrest pursuit of the gang's financial assets.
Members of the Baltimore underworld noted the investigation's
success. In the King case, law enforcement had reached the upper
limits of its ability to investigate drug gangs. In the past, narcotics
investigations had toppled many gang leaders (Liddy Jones, Melvin
Williams, and others), but never had so many members of an organization
been disposed of at once or so much of a gang's wealth been seized.3
New Investigative Methods
The King probe was one of the last investigations conducted against
Baltimore gangs by conventional methods. The reasons for implementing
new investigative methods were twofold. First, Baltimore had an
influx of cocaine in the mid-1980s, which soon became pandemic.
It was as if the barrier that had confined heroin to the inner
city had somehow fallen overnight. Suddenly, drug dealers were
everywhere. Many experienced traffickers, schooled in the sale
of heroin, were now plying their trade among a new group of users:
the middle class. Law enforcement had to respond, and the burden
was placed on the BPD's Drug Enforcement Division. Second, the
gang became more resistant to encroachment, effectively blocking
traditional enforcement methods. Law enforcement could get little
information regarding the size and scope of a gang's influence,
which made it difficult to justify an investigation.4
Gang members are relentless in their efforts to thwart investigations—tampering
with evidence, intimidating witnesses, and accepting long sentences
rather than providing information about other members. A gang is
structured so that only the leader knows every precise movement
of all the gang members, which makes the job of law enforcement
difficult and discourages pretenders to the throne. A gang's methods
of operation are designed to resist a knockout blow. Gangs do not
allow large quantities of money and/or drugs to accumulate, denying
an investigator the fruits of a successful narcotics investigation.
For these reasons, drug enforcement officers usually focus on other
significant areas, where they can make an impact on the drug war.
Prosecuting Gang Members
Another approach to combating gangs is to prosecute members for
firearm and assault offenses. This strategy enables prosecutors
to confront shooters and other members who have knowledge of homicides
that carry potentially long sentences. Prosecutors may be able
to trade years off a member's sentence in exchange for the cooperation
they need to build cases against the gang leaders who direct the
Several factors make successful prosecution unlikely for a violent
crime committed by a gang member. First, a homicide investigator's
workload is so demanding that it is difficult to devote adequate
time to a protracted drug homicide investigation. For several years,
the BPD's homicide unit operated under MASH-like conditions, patching
cases together before a new wave of murders diverted the officers'
attention to another crisis.
Second, gang-related cases are often investigated in a vacuum.
Not knowing that he or she is up against a gang, the detective sees
the crime as a single act and not as part of a pattern. In that
context, the crime appears illogical. Unfamiliar with the personalities
of the gang members, a detective finds it extremely difficult to
obtain information. In addition, time constraints and lack of funds
limit the use of informants to target gang members.
If a detective manages to overcome those obstacles and build a
prosecutable case, the likelihood of conviction remains slight.
After the defendant is arrested, the detective moves on to another
assignment. Between arrest and trial, the gang member as defendant—with
discovery papers in hand—moves to dismantle the case. Behind
the investigator's back, witnesses and their families are bribed,
intimidated, or murdered. If those measures fail, gang members who
are not on trial may appear in court to intimidate jury members.
A not guilty verdict is a significant coup for the gang, suggesting
its superiority over the criminal justice system.