Deciding that the neighborhood looks pretty quiet as the sun begins to set, Sheehan and Gabbard get out of the car and walk around Oakfield Avenue to check the bushes and vacant lots for stashes.
Cats roam the alleyways, navigating their way around garbage, broken bottles and discarded vials. Gabbard finds a partially full vial of crack cocaine among the weeds near a vacant house on the corner of Fairview and Oakfield avenues; it’s a small amount but cause for paperwork nonetheless. He unwraps a package of Misty brand cigarettes — a gag gift from some of the other officers — and uses the cellophane as a makeshift evidence bag.
In addition to filing a report, Gabbard must return to the station to drop the drugs off in a vault, where it will join other illegal narcotics to eventually be destroyed by the department.
Vacant buildings are a problem, says Gabbard, as he kicks around the weeds and discarded liquor store bags commonly used to hold stashes. On the other end of the block sits a cluster of deflated balloons tied to a street post, the remnants of a vigil held for the neighborhood’s most recent homicide victim. Vacant buildings are often used as residences for squatters or places to get high, and Gabbard speaks of a recent case where the owner of a home had been absent for an extended period while he was in rehabilitation. The man returned to his home to find it had been turned into a “cut house,” a sort of factory, where drugs are divided and placed into baggies, vials or bottles to be sold on the street.
The officers have a uniquely up-close look at the effects of drugs and crime on a neighborhood that many people — even those who live there — don’t get the opportunity to see.
“I look at it as walking on a frozen lake and the ice starts to crack,” Gabbard says of how the drug trade permeates and breaks down neighborhoods. The presence of the dealers brings down property values for nearby homes and buildings and discourages new businesses from moving in; existing busi-nesses start looking for opportunities elsewhere.
“You can’t operate a business down here without bulletproof glass,” he adds, as he drives past another group of men standing outside a convenience store.
“It’s just a cycle,” adds Sheehan. Without access to good education or nearby jobs, many children who grow up watching their parents or older siblings make a living in the city’s drug market follow suit. Making matters worse is that many employers are hesitant to hire an applicant with prior drug charges.
When Sheehan began working as a Baltimore cop, he used to ask the civilians he was questioning whether or not they had ever been arrested. After being laughed at nearly every time, he stopped asking and just started assuming.
“It’s very rare that you stop someone and they haven’t been arrested [before],” he says.
“Their records are so tarnished they’re cursed,” affirms Gabbard. Even if they want to get out of the trade, the alternatives available to many men and women involved in the business are severely limited. “That’s the double-edged sword.”
“You have to survive,” says Sheehan. “You have to make money somehow.”
The relationship between the police and the public runs the gamut in the Northwestern District, says Gabbard.
“There are a lot of people who don’t really like the police,” says Sheehan. “It’s kind of mixed.”
Many people glare as the car drives past, and it’s not uncommon to see people spit in the street as the patrol car rolls past, a sign of disapproval. Many people the officers come into contact with on a typical day don’t bother to hide their dislike. However, says Gabbard, “They’re the same people who call us all the time.”
“You would be amazed at how many people call the police for everything,” he continues, adding that he’s received calls for frantic bats stuck in a house to even clogged toilets.
Closer to the outskirts of the city, Ronnie Rosenbluth, president of Shomrim of Baltimore, says his civilian organization works closely with other local groups to combat the things that have troubled neighborhoods farther south.
In the area covered by Shomrim, from Northern Parkway to Wabash Avenue and out into the suburbs, Rosenbluth says the majority of the calls his volunteers get are for burglaries or suspicious people. They make it a point to try to avoid domestic disputes and drug calls.
“We sometimes wonder how the same police officer will go from Park Heights, Belvedere dealing with drugs and stabbings to come here to Labyrinth to deal with some old lady complaining that the noise is too loud at the neighbor’s,” says Rosenbluth. “How the police can turn it on and off — we give the police a lot of credit that they’re able to do that.”