Gang- and Drug-Related
Homicide: Baltimore's Successful Enforcement Strategy
by Detective Edward Burns, retired
bulletin examines the phenomenon of violent inner-city gangs and
introduces an investigative approach to combating these gangs in
Baltimore, Maryland. Gangs have a devastating effect: they instill
fear among citizens and create an atmosphere of violence so pervasive
that the nation's youth now view serious, often fatal assaults as
normal responses to perceived or actual slights.
In many cities, gangs are easily identified by flaunted colors
and are maintained by a continuity of the organization. In Baltimore,
however, gangs and their members are not easily detected. Traditionally,
local law enforcement has treated gangs like drug organizations,
applying standard investigative techniques that apply to drug crimes.
This report shows that the evolution of gangs?coupled with a dramatic
increase in the trafficking of hard drugs (i.e., cocaine)?has rendered
traditional investigative approaches ineffective.
Gang Characteristics and Growth
A gang differs from a drug distribution organization in structure,
objective, and methods (specifically in its use of violence). An
urban drug organization is a small, loose confederation of individuals
who are usually in their late 20s. This type of group unites to
cash in on the lucrative drug market, and its main goal is to accumulate
wealth. The drug of preference is cocaine, and distribution is
above the street level. For a drug organization, violence is a
defense mechanism—a reaction in the face of a crisis or a byproduct
of the trade. With the widespread use of cocaine and its derivatives,
the number of drug trafficking organizations rose dramatically
in the 1980s.
In contrast, a youth gang is an organization of tightly bonded
youth who are joined together and controlled by a criminal leader.
A gang is often conceived and nurtured by an individual who uses
it as a vehicle to raise himself or herself to a position of power
among his or her peers. In Baltimore, the gang's energy is directed
toward distributing narcotics or providing support services for
the drug trade, which may include murder for hire.
In specific inner-city territories, Baltimore gangs control drug
distribution from street-level consumption to bulk wholesale. Gangs
dominate the heroin market and distribute cocaine as a side venture.
Gangs maintain and expand their control through systematic violence—establishing
a reign of terror that stifles opposition and increases a gang's
Unlike a stereotypical street drug dealer, who plies the trade
in the local neighborhood and treats this occupation as a live-and-let-live
proposition, a gang leader seeks to dominate territory and expand
the gang's geographic control. A violence-prone gang easily intimidates
the neighborhood drug dealer, assimilating or tolerating the dealer's
presence but on an unequal, tenuous footing.
After the base of operation is secured, a gang focuses on optimizing
the territory for the sale of street-grade heroin and cocaine.
Under the leader's direction, the hardcore gang members—soldiers1 whose
loyalty to the leader is expected to be absolute—secure drug stash
houses and paraphernalia for the operation and recruit the expendable
dealers, runners, touts, and lookouts. As the gang's profits grow,
more expendable, lower-level members are recruited, and the gang's
size and influence expand.
The gang leader maintains dominance over the membership by a mixture
of rewards and violence, with an emphasis on the latter. The leader
is the focal point of the gang's activities, the final arbiter
of disputes, the source of spending money and bail, and the receiver
and dispenser of information. He or she manipulates gang members
by testing loyalties, determining status, and keeping members off
guard and subservient to his or her will—perfecting a totalitarian
form of control.
While the gang secures the lines of distribution, the leader controls
the flow of drug revenues and maps out supply lines. The gang leader
is in contact with established local leaders of other gangs and
with former gang leaders who now work in the criminal underworld
and no longer require the services of the gang. These more experienced
gangsters coach the younger criminal in matters such as hiring lawyers,
hiding money, creating communication networks, and researching police
investigative procedures and ways to avoid them.2
A product of the leader's desire for power, the gang is driven
to generate terror. The fledgling gang announces its presence by
committing violent acts to establish its claim to a neighborhood
and, after gaining control, by continuous fighting to maintain
and expand control. Rivals, recalcitrant dealers, potential witnesses,
and other enemies are identified and dealt with in a variety of
ways, which often culminate in murder. These acts are publicly
acknowledged by the gang. Credit is taken, and the crime is added
to the reputation of the gang and symbolized through the leader's
Gangs use the art of name recognition to maintain control. Using
violence to accomplish his or her goals, the leader sees that his
or her name becomes inextricably associated with terror. When the
leader's name is mentioned, opposition is expected to crumble.
Witnesses and victims often use the phrase "he don't play" to explain
their reluctance to cooperate with an investigation. At some point
in a gang's evolution, a leader's name seeps beyond the criminal
realm and into the public consciousness. As parents learn the names
of gang leaders from their children, the names spread throughout
the city and strike fear. Fear works in favor of the leader and
his or her agents because families, fearing retribution, encourage
potential witnesses not to get involved in any investigation of
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
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.
Effective Gang Enforcement
The proposed approach to combating gangs is based on the idea that
the gang is an instrument of the leader's will—a will that
often requires violence to satisfy personal ambitions. An investigative
goal is to develop conspiracy cases from evidence obtained by turning
the gang's violence inward upon vulnerable gang members. This is
done by pitting the sensible against the indiscriminately violent
and by turning the many troops against the one corrupt gang leader.
This method works because many gang members are against senseless
violence. This approach takes advantage of the tension that violence
creates within the gang and uses it against the gang's leaders,
who advocate for and approve of violence.
The initial or covert phase of the investigation involves
identifying the gang's members, detecting its victims and violent
acts, learning its reputation, and developing an informant to observe
and record the gang's characteristics and activities over time.
When the covert phase is complete, the investigation moves to the overt phase—targeting
members who are outside the leadership nucleus.
During the overt phase, the targeted gang members are placed in
legal jeopardy in a highly structured interview situation designed
to change their allegiance from the gang to the investigative team.
Police use one of three methods to place gang members in this vulnerable
- Controlled arrests.
- Interviews of randomly arrested gang members.
- Grand juries as investigative tools.
Controlled arrests. The first method places the
target in a highly vulnerable legal position and is used when it
can be done without diverting too much attention from the primary
investigation. An example of an ideal controlled arrest is the arrest
of a gang member for a firearm violation when the member has had
at least three prior felony convictions. Such an arrest exposes
the target to a minimum federal penalty of 15 years without parole.
An arrest for possession of a controlled, dangerous substance when
the subject is already on parole also isolates a gang member and
creates uncertainty within the gang.
Interviews of randomly arrested gang members. The
second method, interviewing randomly arrested gang members, depends
a great deal on chance. For large, well-established gangs, the
likelihood is high that at any time some members may be incarcerated.5 Because
gang members know that jail time is a reality, they may feel vulnerable
to prosecution if witnesses and/or evidence exist that could link
them to a crime. If the subject can be convinced that his or her
actions fall within the scope of a conspiracy charge, uncertainty
is generated and the subject often becomes a good candidate for
switching allegiances and cooperating with the government.
Grand juries as investigative tools. The third
method, using the grand jury, is the most productive approach.
Police can place a gang member in a vulnerable position without
expending a great deal of time or investigative energy. The threat
of a perjury or contempt sanction, juxtaposed with a promise of
immunity and a chance to escape a losing proposition (i.e., long
jail time), makes the gang member feel uncertain and insecure—an
ideal situation for the interviewer. After a gang member is placed
in this vulnerable position, he or she is confronted in a pre-grand-jury
interview by an investigator and prosecutor who work as a team.
The interviewer introduces the two major themes.
Gang violence and the gang leader. The
first theme is a litany of the gang's violence, the responsibility
for which is placed squarely on the leader. The gang leader is
labeled a terrorist, and the violence is presented as both reprehensible
to the subject and ostentatious, as the violence draws attention
to and thereby endangers the very existence of the gang. The interviewer
suggests that the leader has broken the covenant with the gang
and is no longer worthy of the interview subject's loyalty.
Self-interest. The second theme of the interview
is self-interest. Leniency for the subject's crimes can be considered
in exchange for cooperation against the violence-prone nucleus
of the gang. This offers the subject a way to escape full exposure
for certain crimes (which may not be prosecutable due to lack of
sufficient evidence). Because a peripheral or an alienated gang
member is not the target of the investigation, and since no attempt
has been made to gather evidence against the subject, nothing is
lost by seeking a grant of immunity. As the investigation expands
and evidence is gathered, a peripheral member could become a target
of prosecution, and then the member's cooperation and/or immunity
may be considered only in light of this new reality. However, the
goal of the investigative process is to foster cooperation.
Other themes. While stressing the major themes,
the interviewer also introduces subthemes. These include the police
officers' knowledge of the gang, the inevitability of prosecution,
and the scope of the investigation. These themes are designed to
convince the subject to shift allegiances. The interviewer alludes
to the subject's role in the gang, identifies nicknames, and shows
knowledge of the gang's reputed deeds. Attention is also drawn
to the special nature of the investigative team and its successful
track record. Details of the investigator's methods are shared.
The subject is advised that there are cooperators (i.e., legions
of informants) and that even gang members who are not targeted
will be interviewed. The interviewer emphasizes that there is no
neutral ground—either the subject cooperates, falls afoul
of the grand jury through contempt, or becomes a target of the
In the overt grand jury phase of the investigation, street-level
informants who are active in the gang's territory are gathered
to pinpoint witnesses, identify nicknames, and report feedback
concerning another subject's interview. For example, in the Stanfield
cases below, one detective developed a street-level informant who
listened to gang members rehash grand jury testimony (e.g., He
would relate another's conversation, "I told them that but they
didn't ask me this.") The informant passed that information to
the detective, the subject was reinterviewed, and additional information
was gained the second time around. This type of informant is invaluable
to the investigative approach and, because of the type of information
sought, is easily developed and maintained.
Stanfield and Boardley Investigations
The investigative process—incorporating controlled arrests,
random interviews, and grand jury investigations—was developed
during the 1986 Timmirror Stanfield homicide investigation. Stanfield,
a classic gang leader, was 25 years old when he was indicted. He
headed a drug gang of more than 50 members that controlled South
Baltimore's Westport area and West Baltimore's Murphy Homes housing
project. The gang was extremely violent and had grown so bold that
it denied postal workers access to Westport on their daily rounds.
The gang was responsible for several murders, and the investigation
focused on four of the murders that occurred at the 725 George
Street highrise. Former Maryland State Attorney Kurt Schmoke authorized
Assistant State Attorney Howard Gersh to use a special grand jury
to investigate the gang. Approximately 40 gang members and other
neighborhood witnesses testified before the panel. Within 5 months,
the four cases were prepared for trial, with 15 gang members ready
to testify against Stanfield. Three of the cases were presented
for prosecution, and convictions were secured against the nucleus
of the gang.
With certain modifications and on a larger scale, the investigative
process developed in the Stanfield case was used in the Boardley
investigation with equally impressive results. Warren Boardley,
Nadir Abdullah, and Christopher Burrows controlled a vast drug
distribution network centered in the Lexington Terrace/Poe Homes
housing project and spreading throughout the West Baltimore and
Cherry Hill areas of the city. The gang employed four full-time
gunmen and used eight others, all hired by contract.
The scope of this investigation was broader than the Stanfield
investigation in that it sought to employ the federal Racketeer
Influenced Corrupt Organizations Act statute, which used murder,
narcotics trafficking, and money laundering as the predicated crimes.
The results were similarly impressive. Several members turned against
the gang nucleus, even though the core group was not incarcerated
while the grand jury was sitting.
The investigative process employed in the Boardley investigation
works because of the way in which each gang member is bonded to
the gang. In areas where gangs flourish, gang membership to achieve
status and money is an accepted norm, like pursuing an education,
a job, or sports. Consequently, youth with minimal or no criminal
tendencies are drawn to gangs and fall under the tutelage of gang
leaders. Most members do not comprehend the scope of the gang's
lawlessness and are not prepared for the types of crime assigned
to them. The degree of adaptation or corruption depends on the
individual's proclivity for crime. The assignment to commit a criminal
act occurs before the subject is able to make an intelligent choice.
Therefore, the subject becomes committed to the gang despite strong
reservations that may linger.
The Stanfield investigation was developed and prosecuted by the
state. The Boardley investigation was a joint effort by state and
federal authorities. Both investigations were successful, and both
approaches have their merits. A joint investigation takes advantage
of the strengths of each. A major weakness, highlighted in the
Boardley investigation, is the lack of clearly established lines
of responsibility among the federal and local participants.
From the evidence gathered in the Stanfield and Boardley investigations,
it appears that only a few members adopted the violent mentality
of the core group. The majority of gang members appear to be trapped
between their essentially good upbringing and their fear of the
gang's violence. Those members who are uncertain and confused are
the ones who the investigators target. The process proposes to
resolve a subject's conflicts by offering a safe alternative to
the gang—cooperation with government officials.
The investigative strategy achieves its primary goals. This process
disempowers the leader, disrupts the integrity of the gang, and
generates new evidence that leads to successful prosecutions of
the gang's nucleus. The investigative process has a significant
impact on both those who cooperate and those who are prosecuted.
Based on 1988 data, the Murphy Homes area—formerly known as
the Murder Homes—has not experienced new gang or gang-related
murders. Drug dealing still exists in the neighborhood, but not
with the degree of organization or violence imposed by the former
Creating a Police Gang Unit
The complexity of gang problemsterritorial concerns, informant
reliability, general neighborhood safety, and drugs that are sold
in or near school zonescalls for a special police unit. However,
for a police gang unit to be successful, several factors need to
be explored before its creation so that the unit sustains support
for its unique mission over time. The police gang unit should:
- Be small and self-containedhaving its own office space,
vehicles, informant funds, overtimeand its mission should
be to attack gangs that use violence, whether that violence is
murder or aggravated assault.
- Operate in close conjunction with the homicide unit, where
patterns of violence are best detected. However, the gang unit
should not be part of the homicide unit because the constantly
shifting demands created by the reactive nature of the homicide
unit would draw on the limited resources of the gang unit and
reduce its effectiveness.
In BPD, a suggestion was made to incorporate the gang unit
in the Inspectional Services Division, which had a command
structure that could absorb a new unit without significant
change in the overall departmental organization. Also, the
Inspectional Services Division was able to access information
from the criminal investigation units without arousing jealousya
plus for a unit that must investigate matters that cross
- Partner with a prosecution team so that the most effective
toolthe grand jurycan be fully employed. The thrust
of the investigation is to convert alienated gang members, and
only the prosecutor can guarantee specific legal arrangements
that affect whether crimes will be prosecuted.
- Have a liaison with designated district units, because a considerable
amount of investigative time is directed toward gangs' street
activities. After targets are ascertained and information is
developed, the district unit should be informed to take advantage
of the chance occurrences that involve district officers. In
addition, district officers should have the opportunity to learn
the value of developing and recording information.
BPD generated large numbers of arrests to maintain statistical
indicators of its impact. Unfortunately, this caused street-level
information to dry up because the frequent interruptions made offenders
wary. Thus, the department was without data that had been routinely
obtained from offenders and informants and that was necessary to
assess gang problems and initiate solutions.6
Strategy Reviews Needed
The need for reviews of law enforcement strategies can be seen
in crime statistics. In 1988, Baltimore experienced 234 homicides,
of which 112 (48 percent) were drug related. In addition, BPD's
Planning and Research Division recorded 1,155 aggravated assaults
with handguns on the city streets. The drug-related percentage of
these shootings is not recorded, but if the percentage is approximately
that of the murders, 554 individuals were victims of a drug-related
Using Baltimore's murder rate as a barometer of violence, two
other factors need to be considered. First, Baltimore has one of
the most sophisticated shock trauma medical systems in the nation.
From June 1987 to July 1988, Baltimore trauma centers handled 328
city shootings, with a mortality rate of 16.5 percent. Two hundred
seventy-four victims were saved by the trauma teams' outstanding
medical skillsa factor definitely contributing to a lower
Second, Baltimore has been spared the ravages of crack cocaine,
the influx of out-of-state gangs, and the violent struggles of rival
gangs securing distribution lines for their crack. During the past
30 years, the law enforcement profession has assumed responsibility
for the drug problem but has had little or no effect on it. Law
enforcement is not designed to change society but instead to cope
with its symptomsto keep them under control.
This bulletin maintains that the gang violence under review in
Baltimore is a symptom of the powerful influence of gang leaders.
These gang leaders, though small in number, are largely responsible
for the fear that touches Baltimore's citizens. Head gangsters are
vulnerable, however, because the violence they command is revulsive
to others, and law enforcement can direct that revulsion toward
combating gangsters' ambitions. This bulletin reports a technique
used to target gang leaders by using their own violence against
them and by publicizing that those who seek to build drug empires
with violence will be the subject of special attention from law
enforcement agencies. If violence is viewed as a losing proposition,
then gangs may be repudiated in favor of other, less violent ways
of reaping profits from the drug trade. Perhaps law enforcement
cannot completely eradicate the illegal drug trade, but it can reduce
the violence that often accompanies it.
term soldier is commonly used to identify journeymen members
of Baltimore's gangs.
of information hint that gang leaders are united in a loose confederation,
but its membership, structure, and goals are shrouded in secrecy.
The possibility that such a confederation exists is alarming because
its structure resembles that of organized crime, a problem which
has not yet taken hold in Baltimore.
gang leaders reacted by addressing the two weaknesses that were
revealed in the King/Ricks/Meredith investigation. Access to leaders
became more limited to the gang's small, tight nucleus, and assets
were hidden more frequently.
Stanfield and Warren Boardley were both originally misidentified
as street dealers because law enforcement investigations revealed
little about the size and scope of their gangs.
the Boardley investigation, 10 incarcerated members were interviewed.
1987, 11,873 subjects were arrested for narcotics violations. Of
that number, 7,661 were charged with possession of dangerous controlled
substances—addicts with personal-use quantities of drugs.
This group possesses a significant amount of criminal information,
but it appears to be largely untapped, suggesting that the arrests
may have been a statistical pursuit.
was supplied by Ameen I. Ramzy, M.D., F.A.C.S., Deputy Director
of the Maryland Institute for Emergency Medical Services Systems.
About the Author
Detective Edward Burns (retired) served in the Baltimore City
Police Department's Drug Control Unit. Edward Burns is a retired
20-year veteran of the Baltimore, Maryland, Police Department,
specialized in homicide investigation, and worked extensively on inner-city drug
gangs. After retiring from the police department, he began teaching
in Baltimore middle and high schools. He has
coauthored the book The Corner with David Simon, creator of the television
program Homicide, and
cocreated the television series The Wire with Simon.
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This document was prepared as a technical submission under a project administered by the Police
Executive Research Forum, "Research on Strategies to Incapacitate Narcotics Wholesalers," grant
number 86?IJ?CX?0079 awarded by the National Institute of Justice. The opinions, findings, and
conclusions or recommendations expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the
official position or policies of the National Institute of Justice, the Bureau of Justice Assistance, and the
U.S. Department of Justice.