Hartford's new prescription for fighting drug abuse

By , Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

An odd collection of pipes is strewn about the white shelves in Office 2719.

There are crudely fashioned ones of clay and wood, as well as elegantly curved creations of glass, brass, and porcelain.

Slowly, the realization dawns on an observer that the pipes were never intended for tobacco. They are the paraphernalia hurriedly thrown away by drug dealers and users running from the law.

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In another place, perhaps, they might seem merely odd. But not here in the Hartford, Conn., police station.

This is what happens when a city begins a major crackdown on drug dealers. The contraband stacks up. So do arrests of small-time street dealers. In Hartford, drug arrests last year were up 40 percent from the year before. And street crime, which many argue is closely related to drug addiction, has been down for six months running.

But as in any major city, for every arrested dealer and confiscation here there are hundreds still on the street. Indeed, the story of the street speaks louder than the statistics.

''As soon as we turn the corner, you're going to see some people blend into the woodwork,'' says Robert Taylor, one of two Hartford narcotics agents seated in the blue sedan. Three blocks away, teen-agers are dealing ''nickel bags'' ($5 worth) of marijuana in front of a low-income housing project.

Sure enough, when Detective Taylor and fellow officer Dan Getek drive around the corner (the car is unmarked and the officers in plain clothes), dozens of teen-agers recognize them and dart away. Pairs of gangly arms and legs disappear behind a concrete wall. One tall youth bolts for the door later than most -- his bright white hat a blurred streak against the reddish brick buildings.

''Now you see what we're up against,'' Detective Getek says. ''Everyone knows us.''

But in Hartford's fight against drug trafficking, teen-agers are small potatoes. More substantial busts can be made several blocks away, where young men stand in front of sleazy storefronts selling small glassine and tinfoil envelopes of heroin and cocaine.

In front of one Hartford bar, the sight of the unmarked sedan sends the dealers scurrying. One man stands his ground, carrying a suspicious-looking brown bag. The detectives decide not to pick him up, perhaps because a civilian is in the car. ''If he's here grinning today, he'll be here tomorrow,'' Taylor says.

Arrest statistics are meaningless on the street, though there have been more arrests since the squad's manpower has been quadrupled over the past year and a half. (The force numbers between 25 and 40; the squad commander, Lt. Larry Jetmore, doesn't want drug dealers to know the exact strength.) Taylor explains: ''If we arrest a street dealer, there'll be someone to take his place the next day.''

If the squad has an impact, it is in the arrest of major dealers. ''That's felt,'' Taylor says. ''We put him out of business, and maybe he has three street dealers working for him. They're out of their supply. It's a pyramid effect.''

Nabbing these big-time dealers is the squad's primary aim, although it often takes weeks of investigation to identify them. ''They're a lot of people between us and him,'' explains Lieutenant Jetmore. Sometimes an informer -- perhaps a rival dealer -- will tip the squad off when a major dealer shows up in Hartford (usually from New York City) with a large drug supply. Other times, the dealer is too big to catch alone, and the squad here works with the state narcotics unit or agents from the federal Drug Enforcement Administration.

January's catch has been good -- four major dealers arrested. One of those arrests the squad report calls ''a significant factor in curbing the influx of heroin.'' But only temporarily, Jetmore adds. Like a wall of sand against an incoming tide, disruptions in the drug traffic are always only temporary.

On Edgewood Street, an area the squad has paid special attention to since January, the officers point out a dilapidated three-story house typical of the area. This is one place where the squad has effectively stopped the drug dealing , but across the street are two other suspected drug outlets. Taylor looks at one of them: ''We've raided that place so many times, I don't (even) know how many times!''

''We arrest someone and maybe he spends a night in jail,'' says Jetmore. ''But he's out on bond the next day. And he deals heavier because he knows he'll need a lot of money for a lawyer. It'll be two years before he goes to jail.''

Two months ago, the squad made its biggest marijuana bust ever (155 pounds). Jetmore doesn't know if the dealer is in jail. But, almost as a matter of course , he guesses the dealer is back on the street.

''That's depressing to me,'' he says. ''The criminal justice system isn't working. I'm dealing with the same major drug dealers the narcotics department was dealing with five years ago.''

But a narcotics detective can't dwell on that, he says. ''You'd go crazy. I'm a cop. I've done my job.''

Three or four times a day, the squad makes a raid (called a ''hit''). Armed with a search warrant, the squad plans its approach beforehand. Radios are rarely used, because an increasing number of drug dealers are using police scanners. Timing is of the essence -- a few seconds are all a dealer needs to flush his drugs down the toilet.

A dealer is rarely convicted unless he's caught with narcotics in his possession, Jetmore says. Ransacking rooms to find packets of drugs the size of large postage stamps requires intelligence and has a reward of its own, he says. (The squad recently found several packets of cocaine hidden in the lids of mayonnaise jars.)

But narcotics is also the most dangerous kind of police work, Jetmore says. The squad regularly finds rifles and revolvers in its drug raids. On one raid this day the squad had to contend with the dealer's attack dog.

"Every police job takes its toll,'' he says. ''But this seems to take a toll more than most. The burn-out rate in the division is tremendous.

''It's my job to determine when the toll becomes too great,'' says Jetmore, who will have the officer transferred to another department. ''Ideally, the length of stay should be three years, but unfortunately, it's six or seven.''

Back in Office 2719 Jetmore pulls up a chair in the middle of his office. The confiscated drug paraphernalia is on his left. To his right, atop a filing cabinet, sits a potted plant. It looks like a dying weed, shriveling from weak green to light brown.

Actually, it is evidence for a court case -- a marijuana plant almost ready for harvest. It gets no outdoor light or care. But like the drug problem itself, the plant seems to survive.

''How unique do you think Hartford is?'' Jetmore asks. ''I get out of work and drive 20 miles to my home. And there's a drug problem there.

''They could give me 100 men and I wouldn't be able to get rid of the problem. I go out and I do my job. But I don't have any answers. And that scares me.''

''It's an incredibly frustrating business,'' agrees Lt. William Smith, commanding officer of Connecticut's statewide narcotics task force. ''You've got a lot of dedicated people . . . who, despite insurmountable odds, are out there fighting what amounts to a losing battle. That's how I characterize the people in drug enforcement today.''

''Once you talk to a policeman,'' Jetmore adds, ''and you get him to let his defenses down, you find out that he joined the police force because he had ideals,'' he says. ''Yeah,'' says Jetmore, he still has those ideals.

Even in the blue sedan so familiar to Hartford drug dealers, those ideals remain. ''From the day I started out on this job, I knew I had to find my own successes,'' Taylor says. Success can't be found in the street.

''I happen to have a conscience,'' he continues. ''There's a right and a wrong, and I was brought up to do the right.''

Perhaps, though he doesn't say it, simply fighting on the right side is success enough. In the fading daylight outside the police station, Taylor adds: ''You've always got to wonder what would happen if we weren't here.''

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