WASHINGTON — WHAT would you do if drug dealers started hanging out in your driveway, or next-door? If their phalanx of errand boys, hard-core addicts, and drive-by business brought a racket and an uncertainty to your evening hours, what would you do? There's one hitch: Calling the police is no use because the little street-corner dealer is an all-too-common problem that police admit they cannot keep up with.
Two years ago, faced with those questions, Ed Johnson and a group of 35 neighbors from the black, middle-class Fairlawn area took matters into their own hands.
Their neighborhood watch program was just that: watching the problem, says Mr. Johnson.
So Johnson and his neighbors, wearing hard-to-miss orange hats, filed out to a street corner knotted with drug activity.
Armed with a video camera that Johnson aimed at the group and clipboards for writing down license numbers of drive-by clients, the neighbors mingled for two nights among the dealers.
``What in the world are all you old church people doing here?'' he remembers someone asking.
On the third night, the puzzled dealers had moved a block away. So the Fairlawn Coalition split up, some occupying the original corner, others moving to the new site.
Within weeks, the group had so interrupted business for the dealers that they left the area altogether. Another 12 drug-dealing locations were rooted out the same way during the following year, and now the 18-square-block area is ``crystal clear,'' says Johnson.
Thus was born a concept that to date has swept hundreds of angry citizens into neighborhood patrols under the umbrella title of the Metro Orange Coalition. It is considered by police and antidrug officials to be one of the city's most successful ways of dealing with its drug crisis.
Not a single act of violence has been reported against a patroller in two years, Johnson says.
``We're not on the street to confront or do battle. We don't go out to pick a fight, but to disrupt. Our main goal is [to scare away] the customer'' by being a lawful presence, explains James F. Foreman, coordinator of the Metro Orange Coalition, the umbrella group that has grown to more than 100 separate neighborhood coalitions.
Mr. Foreman, who has trained dozens of new patrols, says that the program not only chases crime away but builds old-fashioned neighborhood values. Often because neighbors scurried inside to keep out of the drug environment, they never met and talked. Now they spend several hours in the evening together on the street.
Many ``orange hats'' interviewed on bitter-cold evening patrols report seeing visible changes within days of their activities. One woman, who called herself ``Queen Fireball,'' the CB radio handle she uses over patrol radios, says that when she sees cars pull up to drug-dealing locations and do immediate U-turns, she feels her presence is having an impact.
A universal sentiment among patrollers is that the police can't keep up with the drug problem.
``Evidently, the police are not going to be the answer or [this city's thick activity of drug dealing] would not have gotten to be like that,'' observes Johnson. But he is quick to add that while ``before, you saw police ride up and down all day and never look your way unless there was some incident,'' the patrol groups have commanded the attention of police, who now help organize and train new patrols.
The Metropolitan Police Department acknowledges not being able to keep up with the drug problem. It has responded with plans to operate under the new concept of Community Empowerment Policing (CEP). The concept arose in tandem with the success of the ``orange hats.'' It is aimed at returning officers to foot patrols where they get to know citizens, to increase police accountability to each neighborhood, and to begin to sort through neighborhood problems by referring them to the correct city agency.
Police Capt. Gayle Stewart, who spoke recently to Johnson's patrol group, says ``regardless of what the crime statistics say, law enforcement has failed to stop crime since its inception.'' But, she adds, citizens can be the ``eyes and ears'' of the police department ``because the community can put 50 people out on the street and the police can't.''
While police officials began the pilot CEP program last July, it has not been implemented across the board yet and does not enjoy widespread support among old-line policemen who see it as a ``touchy-feely'' approach. They favor a tough, law-and-order approach, says a source close to police department leadership.
While the police department may take time to embrace its side of the new citizen-policing philosophy, so too will it take time to catch on in the roughest, most poverty-stricken areas, where drugs proliferate. There are special problems that have made the orange hat concept difficult to sell there. Fear of retaliation from entrenched drug dealers is one, says a police lieutenant who deals with housing projects in the Southeast section of town. For example, he recalls a witness to a drug-related murder who was so upset that neighbors saw police at her apartment that she refused to cooperate with them unless they took her away publicly in handcuffs. She wanted no one to think she was going against her drug-dealing neighbors. This would not be a prime candidate to stand orange-hatted against drug activity.
At Barnaby Manor, a federally subsidized housing complex, an orange hat patrol faltered at first for several reasons. Members felt one participant's family was so involved in drugs that she continually foiled the group's activities, says a resident who asked not to be identified.
Another problem for that group, which consisted solely of single mothers, was the issue of child care, explains Catherine Williams, a Barnaby Manor resident. ``If you worked eight hours a day and you get home and have to walk from 7 to 9 [on patrol]'' and still take care of the children, interest in patrols wanes, she says.
Crime and violence was so bad at Barnaby Manor that employees would refuse to go back there, explains Marcy Marine, owner and president of Promaco, which manages the building. She says she recognized that ``there's not enough money in the world to make this just a police issue.''
So in an effort to salvage the complex, Ms. Marine has attempted to reorganize the patrol group by getting rid of the tenant with drug connections, offering all the money necessary to buy hats and CB radios, and helping to organize a parent-support group.
In some places like the Montana Terrace public housing complex, notorious because it is where former University of Maryland basketball player Len Bias bought the cocaine that killed him, there is scant hope that patrols could ever find support.
Elizabeth Richmond, who has lived there 23 years, says there is too much fear in the complex to get a group started. But, as the sort of grande dame of the complex, she has shown that the spirit of the orange hats can work.
She is well known there for turning in drug users and dealers to the police.
``They used to threaten me and I'd say, `Go ahead and do it quick. I'm not worried about it because I'm going home to God.''' Now she says she has gained their respect because when she walks the plazas of the complex she can hear the whispered warning, ``Here comes Mrs. Richmond.''