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Last Updated: Monday, 23 May, 2005, 01:21 GMT 02:21 UK
Tackling crime, Baltimore style

By Matthew Wells
BBC News in Baltimore

Most nights of the year, somebody in inner-city Baltimore gets murdered and it's usually to do with drugs.

Major Rick Hite
Major Hite believes that people want to see the good guys win

The poorest parts of the city's east and west sides have been in the grip of heroin and crack-cocaine for many years now, despite the startling statistic that reported crime is down 50% since 1999.

Such is the self-confidence of the drug-dealing fraternity, that last year they made a DVD called "Stop Snitching".

In it, a series of small-time local hoods brandishing handguns, wads of cash and diamond-encrusted watches, send out a message that anyone who informs on them will be beaten or killed.

It's a poorly-made but lurid glimpse inside a world that has its own twisted rules.

As some of the youngsters start rapping over a car stereo, you can see the natural talent that lurks beneath the rage and the drugs.

It became a big hit in the city and way beyond, not least because it momentarily features one of Baltimore's best-known sons hanging out on his home turf, who also happens to be a major basketball star.

DVD fight back

A few days ago, he denounced the video at a press conference alongside Maryland's governor.

Baltimore's police department has come up with a more imaginative way of fighting back though.

After a few months of careful production, they've released a video of their own, complete with hip hop soundtrack.

Baltimore police's "keep talking" t-shirt
Can fashion fight crime?

"Keep Talking" features a group of mainly African-American men on the cover staring impassively into the camera.

To the strains of the song "Shook Ones" - slang for scared men in the ghetto - Detective Donny Moses begins his voiceover.

"The men and women of the Baltimore Police Department would like to thank the producers of the Stop Snitching video.

"In case you didn't know," it continues, "you've made Baltimore a safer city."

What he means is that four of the men featured in the video have now been locked up, having apparently incriminated themselves on the tape.

Officers believe the original video was intended mainly to intimidate criminals who inform on fellow drug-dealers, but its impact was more general and more damaging.

Snitching t-shirts

Detective Moses told me who the police video was trying to reach.

"We want the innocent person out there to know, it's OK to talk to the police.

"For people who are in the drug game so to speak, we're here to try to help you make a better life for yourself.

"And for those people that just have to do the wrong thing," he said, with a look that reflected six years spent in the narcotics squad, "we're here to take you off the streets.

"We're eventually going to take you down, one by one."

The "stop snitchin'" t-shirt
The "stop snitchin'" t-shirt is popular in the city

Videos are not the only potent hip hop medium that the police are dealing with.

A few months ago, several manufacturers began making Stop Snitching T-shirts, and one local chain began selling them in its stores.

We visited a mall and found only one T-shirt left.

An assistant told me they had sold out twice already, and he couldn't see why police would be concerned.

To many, it seems, the glorification of crime is just part of the culture, whether the intimidation is real or not.

"We've a lot of young people who idolise these drug dealers. The reality is, the guys they're looking up to are going to be spending their lives in a four-by-six cell with no fancy jewellery, no cars, no money and no girls - if they don't get killed first," said Matt Jablow, police public affairs director, who thought up the Keep Talking response.

The police have now printed their own T-shirts too.

I went along to watch a group of community affairs officers handing out copies of the DVD, in some of the places they think the message needs to be seen most.

The lead officer, Major Rick Hite, said the video was "going like hot cakes - we've flipped the script".

More than 1,000 have been handed out, and demand certainly seems greater than supply.

Some young people come in after a weekend and tell me about things that happen, that give them a distain for the whole force
Calvin Street

He admitted there was a danger that young people could see the whole hip hop culture confrontation, as a piece of entertainment.

"But the kids want to see the good guy win in the end. Part of this is to provide them with wrap-around services.

"If you want to turn your life around, here's an opportunity for you."

At the rundown indoor market we visited, there are signs of new development, but the heroin pushers are still doing brisk business.

Plenty of young men in baseball caps and hoodies were kicking around with not much to do.

Some took copies of the video, others weren't interested.

Unsurprisingly, none were keen to talk to the BBC.

Several older men said they could understand the hostility and lack of trust towards the police, claiming that petty harassment was common.

"I don't like snitches," said one man, carrying away a copy of the police video.

'Rotten apples'

The "code" on the streets where they have to live calls for self-policing, he added.

One of the stall holders gave another reason why there is still much work to do in this community, to ensure that people really keep talking.

Youths had been selling drugs right in front of her a few hours earlier, making it impossible to sell food, but police had failed to respond to calls she had made for assistance, she said.

The plea for more face-time with officers in the most blighted parts of the city was reiterated by the veteran public servant Calvin Street, who now, in retirement, runs a busy youth opportunities centre on the eastside.

Calvin Street
Calvin Street understands why some people distrust the police

"I believe most of the police force are good guys," said the boyhood friend of the current police commissioner.

"But also, some young people come in after a weekend and tell me about things that happen, that give them a distain for the whole force."

In the last few days, two more men have been remanded and are now awaiting trial, thanks in part to being mentioned in the Stop Snitching video.

Unfortunately, they are Baltimore police officers who are accused of re-selling illegal drugs on their beat over many years.

However much good work is done, the "rotten apples" are the ones that stick in people's minds, said Mr Street.

The stall holder back at the market took their arrest as a healthy sign.

"Just like these kids selling drugs out here, you've got police officers doing the same thing, and it shows nobody is above the law."

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