Sunday, January 12, 2003

Drug dealers do little time

On the street with the Violent Crime Squads

By Jane Prendergast
The Cincinnati Enquirer

The guy in the No. 9 baseball jersey hangs out by a beat-up LTD on a steep Mount Auburn street. A tattooed man in a do-rag pulls up in a Jeep. He's an undercover cop and he buys 20 bucks worth of crack. He drives off; uniformed officers move in.

Game on.

Click through a photo sequence following the police chase - and capture - described here.

No. 9 sprints past a little girl in pink playing with her purse, past teenagers shooting basketball, past a woman tending her garden. He strips off the jersey, hoping the plain white T-shirt underneath melts better into the background. Officers tackle him a block later.

Jaquay Milhouse, 23, will go to jail this time, sentenced last week to 60 days behind bars for selling drugs to a cop. It's the first time he's been sentenced to jail, despite five earlier convictions for possessing small amounts of marijuana.

His story is not unique.

Cincinnati police made drug busts a top priority last year as narcotics were blamed for soaring violence that included 65 homicides, a 15-year high.

Yet an Enquirer analysis of police and court records for 2002 shows that for all of the anti-drug effort, even convicted drug dealers often walked out of court free.

In District 4, which stretches from Mount Auburn to Carthage, more than one-third of 108 drug felons were sentenced to no jail time last year - even though most had prior criminal records.

Another third, like Mr. Milhouse, were sentenced to six months or less. Only one drug felon was sentenced to three years in prison, the most time any of them got.

Prosecutors say they do their best to get as much time as possible for criminals. Judges say they have to follow state sentencing guidelines.

That's just talk to officers, who say the revolving-door punishment makes for an unwinnable game. They know the dealers and users they arrest today probably will be back tomorrow, selling the same drugs and prompting the same neighborhood complaints.

"The dopers know it, too,'' says Sgt. Rick Lehman, a 26-year veteran who supervises the District 4 Violent Crime Squad. "They'll say, `I'll be back out in a couple hours.' "

After an undercover officer was stabbed Jan. 3, police with guns drawn moved in on a car on Vine Street after seeing shots fired from the back seat.
(Jeff Swinger photo)
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From violence to drugs

The creation of Violent Crime Squads in each of the city's five police districts was behind much of the push that drove drug arrests up to 8,000 last year - 28 percent more than the year before.

Now a year old, the squads are the outgrowth of a high-profile Violent Crime Task Force of 70 officers who worked in crime-ridden Over-the-Rhine and the West End after the April 2001 riots. When Police Chief Tom Streicher declared that effort a success in January 2002, he sent half of the officers back to their regular duties and the rest to new Violent Crime Squads across the city.

Since then, they have evolved mostly into anti-drug units, with officers spending most of their shifts arresting street-level drug buyers and sellers.

Their work is evident.

From January through November last year, the Violent Crime Squads made 1,392 drug arrests - nearly one-fifth of all drug arrests citywide. They took 188 guns off the streets, confiscated hundreds of grams of cocaine and marijuana, served almost 2,400 warrants and addressed residents' questions at more than 270 community meetings.

Still, "Do I think I'm solving violent crime by doing this? Probably not," says Sgt. Brian Ibold, who leads the District 2 Violent Crime Squad on the city's east side. "But almost every day, there's somebody in this district complaining about drugs. We're definitely making a dent in that."

Records kept by District 4's squad allowed the Enquirer to match arrests with court records to track outcomes.

In all, the Violent Crime Squad made 243 felony arrests, on charges including aggravated robbery and burglary. Of those, 159 were adults arrested on felony drug charges. Of 108 people convicted, 38 were sentenced to probation but no jail, and 22 of those had prior records. Most were guilty of selling small amounts of pot or crack - the most popular drugs in the city.

When felons did receive jail time, they most commonly got 180 days - half the maximum time allowed for dealing a small rock of crack, the analysis shows.

"Why somebody's back on the street isn't because of something I've done or I haven't done," says Officer Jeff Smallwood, a member of the District 4 squad. "I did my job."

Chief Streicher is convinced that eventually, his officers' hard work will pay off.

"Maybe they'll pick a guy up two, three, four times on minor stuff," he says. "Then he doesn't show up for court. So the next time, we have the right to search him, and he's got a gun. It's frustrating as hell, but that's just how it works sometimes."

Mayor Charlie Luken, in his annual State of the City speech on Jan. 30, is expected to focus on crime and punishment. He calls violent crime "the elephant in the room" that the city has to address.

And he wants to learn more about why many drug dealers don't spend much time in jail or don't go at all.

Repeat offenders

Here's part of the answer: Antonio Clifton.

When the District 4 Violent Crime Squad busted him last September for possession of crack cocaine, it was his third drug arrest in less than a year.

Mr. Clifton, 26, had been free despite two earlier felony charges for selling crack. He had avoided any penalties on those charges by failing to appear in court as the cases progressed. After one of the trafficking charges was filed a year ago, he spent two days in jail and then got out after somebody paid 10 percent of his $5,000 bond, a common bail deal.

The cases were combined, and Mr. Clifton was sentenced to six months in prison on all three.

Each of the squads can tell countless stories of various kinds of repeat offenders. They blame prosecutors and judges for making too many plea deals with offenders, deals that send the familiar faces back out on the streets.

Hamilton County Prosecutor Mike Allen and the common pleas judges agree with officers on one thing: Serious crime here is almost all about drugs. They don't, however, accept the blame for a system that keeps repeat offenders on the streets.

Mr. Allen says plea deals are a necessity because of the growing number of cases demanding judges' time and because jails can hold only so many people. It's his lawyers' job to advocate for as much jail time as possible, "but at the end of the day, it's up to the judges."

Repeat offenders are the biggest problem, he says. "That's when the judges have to drop the hammer."

Judges follow guidelines

Judges say it's not that simple.

They have to follow sentencing guidelines set in 1996 by the state legislature. Those include, among other requirements, that judges try probation first for anyone, like Mr. Clifton, charged on low-level felonies such as selling small rocks of crack.

Most of the drug suspects arrested are charged with fourth- and fifth-degree felonies, the lowest of five levels. Those levels can jump under certain circumstances, such as if someone is caught with a lot of drugs, found with a gun in his waistband or if he sold the drugs near a school.

But even multiple sentences in the county jail don't automatically propel a low-level repeat offender to prison. A judge has to first be convinced, among other things, that the defendant hasn't responded to rehabilitation, hasn't shown remorse or poses a public safety threat.

"You can't just arbitrarily send someone to the penitentiary because you don't like crack," says Common Pleas Judge Dennis Helmick, who, like other judges, handles dozens of drug cases every year.

"I'm not sure that there is an easy answer. We don't have drugs because courts are lenient. For some reason, we've got a tremendous addiction to drugs in our society."

Common Pleas Judge Ann Marie Tracey cites another reason for judges to adhere to the guidelines: "We don't like to get overturned. I think the guidelines work. It's right to try treatment and community control first."

Judges can tailor community control, more commonly called probation, differently for each offender. They typically order everything from weekly visits to a probation officer for regular urine checks for drugs to time in a locked rehabilitation facility.

Of the 38 District 4 felons who weren't sent to jail, many were ordered to follow probation conditions including mental health counseling and the suspension of driver's licenses.

Dr. Sheldon Greenberg, executive director of the Police Executive Leadership Program at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, says the long-term key to significant drug reduction is involving multiple agencies.

"There's no single enemy in the drug war," Dr. Greenberg says. "It's a lack of rehabilitation problem. It's a unit patrol problem. It's a neighborhood problem. It's an inter-jurisdictional problem."

A good Violent Crime Squad is "a very legitimate piece," he says. "But it's only a piece of a very complex puzzle of drug control in our communities."

That leaves, for Cincinnati police, the game of arrest and release. It continues until the suspect ups his prison odds by dealing a lot of drugs or by carrying a gun. Officers almost have to think of it as a game, Chief Streicher says, or it becomes too difficult to come to work every day.

"I know it's in me to beat these guys at their own game," says Officer John Mendoza, holding a piece of crack cocaine he found lying on Buena Vista Place in Walnut Hills. "It becomes a thinking game with these dopers. You have to sit and figure out what they're gonna do."

Undercover, on the streets

Officer Don Meece keeps fake teeth in a tiny velvet bag in the District 4 Violent Crime Squad office on Reading Road. In his locker is a long, black ponytail wig the ex-Marine, ex-Teamster truck driver wears to cover his distinctive shaved head.

Part of the game is a successful disguise - he's been buying drugs in neighborhoods like Avondale and Corryville long enough that he's recognized.

Officer Meece and his partner, Spc. Len LaBrecque, a new grandfather and the most veteran officer still out regularly buying dope on Cincinnati streets, are headed out to buy drugs. They allowed their names to be used for this story, but requested they not be photographed.

This shift, they'll drive a blue Cadillac borrowed from the department's vice unit. Sometimes, it's a van with a piece of rolled-up carpet sticking out the back. Sometimes, it's the used Jeep an officer just bought.

They're hoping this August night to impress Mayor Luken, who'll be riding with the squad. The mayor asks them about guns: Do dealers carry them to shoot the police?

Maybe, officers respond, but they mostly have guns to protect their money and dope from "jackboys." Those, Officer Brett Gleckler explains, are drug dealers who steal other dealers' money and dope.

Before they leave the district, the mayor looks at a series of blown-up snapshots on the wall - pictures taken from a teenager the squad has arrested many times. The images are startling: Young, black men, in various poses, with guns.

"God," Mayor Luken says, "They're so young."

The pictures hang there to remind everyone that the squad is trying to identify the young men. It's best to know who's out there, Sgt. Lehman explains, who's hanging with whom and how well they're armed.

As Officer Meece and Spc. LaBrecque drive the Cadillac down Liberty Street on their way to Mount Auburn, somebody flags them down. He offers to hook them up with drugs. And he does. So the officers identify themselves, and he runs.

Game on.

This time, the dope flagger turns out to be 14.

"It's that easy?" the mayor says later, incredulous.

This young man ended up getting no punishment. Charges of obstruction of official business and complicity to commit aggravated drug trafficking were dismissed in juvenile court, officers say. Juvenile court records are sealed.

"So now this kid thinks this is a joke," Spc. LaBrecque says. "What lesson did we teach this 14-year-old?"

Tailoring work to neighborhood

Each Violent Crime Squad works a little differently, setting priorities with district captains and Lt. Col. Rick Janke, the assistant chief in charge of the patrol bureau, the largest part of the police department. Most of the officers are younger, with reputations for being aggressive.

District 3, which covers the west side, decided to strongly enforce the citywide curfew that requires juveniles to be indoors by midnight. Districts 1 and 4 focused some nights on prostitution after it became a hot-button issue at City Hall.

In District 1, which covers Over-the-Rhine and the West End, officers do a lot of "jump outs," in which they simply jump from their Toyota minivan when they see a drug transaction.

In District 2, officers shut down an illegal bar that Madisonville neighbors had repeatedly complained about. District 5 officers spent a lot of time on trouble spots like the intersection of Hamilton and Chase avenues in Northside.

In District 4, Officer Meece and Spc. LaBrecque often look more like plumbers than cops as they pack up surveillance equipment in hand-me-down leather bags and hide in attics or vans to spy on drug dealers. When they see a sale, they'll radio their colleagues, pointing out whom to arrest and where.

Dealers aren't stupid. They recognize officers' undercover vehicles. They keep drugs in their mouths and other body cavities. They use crack addicts as runners, paying them with tiny pieces of crack the addicts collect until they have enough to get high themselves.

They also know how much time in jail they're likely to get. If they've got just a little bit of pot on them, they don't run - they know they usually don't go to jail unless it's 100 grams or more, says Officer Jennifer Jones, a member of the District 1 squad.

Dealers also know they can "work off" their charges sometimes if they agree to be confidential informants and give up their suppliers or information about other crimes.

District 2 officers offered that chance to Joseph Bruce, 30, who broke down and cried when he was arrested in Madisonville for selling crack to an undercover officer. Mr. Bruce, Sgt. Ibold says, insisted he sold dope because he was trying to feed his kids.

Still, he declined to help officers out by giving up his supplier. And even though he admitted selling, he was put on probation and ordered to submit to random drug testing.

"He knew," the sergeant says, "that he wasn't going to do any time."


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