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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 Needed

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 homicides.

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.

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