LEONARD HAMM, the Baltimore police commissioner, could be standing on a street corner watching his officers make a drug arrest, or he might be attending a community event, walking into a barber shop, or just sitting on the front steps of his house. It could happen any time, and often does. Someone recognizes Hamm, walks up to him and says: "Commissioner, I got to get out of the game."
His officers hear it, too. At 2 a.m., when only they and the corners boys are on the street, someone will wait for the right moment, out of earshot of his friends, and say: "I got to get out of the game."
It's usually a man who says it, often one in his 30s or 40s, sometimes one in his 20s, sometimes even a teenager. They've all had their hands in heroin and cocaine distribution.
"People are tired of this," says Hamm.
Maybe just as tired as the rest of Baltimore.
The O'Malley era crackdown on the most notorious drug corners, the aging of an addicted population estimated at about 40,000, and the persistence of gun violence that leaves between 250 and 300 homicide victims in Baltimore each year are factors in a perceptible exhaustion among not only the city's tired-of-being-tired junkies but also at least some of its low-level dealers.
Police officers say they hear the groans all the time.
Over the past six weeks, nearly 80 men and women (or, in about a dozen cases, their parents or grandparents) have contacted The Sun for help in finding drug treatment or a job opportunity. All reported a desire to get out of the life. They fear more prison time. They fear death.
Many of them used the same words to express themselves: "Tired of the hustle," "Tired of the street," and "Got to get out of the game."
Older drug salesmen express fear of the younger dealers, their hunger for shrinking sales territory and their homicidal tendencies.
The older dealers know they've wasted too much of their lives in prison, too. "I can't do that again. I can't go back there," said Kenneth Johnson of East Baltimore, who spent at least six of his 43 years behind bars for drug distribution. (He'd like to find a job with a roofer again, or other contractor.)
"You get older and have a family, and you just can't keep [dealing]," said a 33-year-old man from North Calhoun Street in West Baltimore, a block from where, he said, a shooting had occurred the night before. "I'm out here, still hustlin' [heroin], but I don't want to do that no more."
Hamm, a native Baltimorean, has heard it all personally - so much so that last winter he asked the department's community affairs unit, directed by Maj. Richard "Rick" Hite Jr., to start a new outreach effort to offer those involved in the drug trade an exit route.
Hite's unit has been saying what needs to be said: Get Out of the Game. Stop Killing People. Small groups of officers wear black T-shirts marked with those words, and they distribute leaflets.
The leaflets offer "an alternative to a life of crime and regret" through a new 24-hour hot line. "Are you afraid to leave home without your weapon?" one leaflet asks. "Is your supplier threatening to cut you off and up? Do you spend more time with your lawyer than your family? Does your family ask you to stay away from them?" An affirmative answer to any of those questions, the leaflet states, means it's time to find a new career.
Sometimes Hite's officers approach groups of young men, as they did the other night in West Baltimore, and sometimes they take a one-on-one approach. Sometimes they get a positive reaction - about 75 times since May, Hite says - and sometimes they get a grunt. Sometimes a young man will show no interest in the offer but make a call to one of the officers an hour, or a day, later.
The target group is the chronically at-risk 14- to 24-year-old male, but members of the Get Out unit often find themselves offering services to older men and women, too.
"Selling drugs is all about survival for a lot of these guys," says Hite. "We want to dismantle the idea that it's their only means of survival."
The idea is to offer options - drug treatment, high school education, housing, and job placement for ex-offenders through the STRIVE Baltimore program. Get Out Of The Game is a partnership of the Police Department and a handful of service providers, good people committed to tackling the city's hardest cases.
For years, and especially the past few, we've been trying to arrest ourselves out of Baltimore's most pernicious problem. We've filled the prisons and detention centers beyond capacity. What the effort needs is a second punch - a serious and direct effort to offer those trapped in the drug culture another way out. "If we don't do this sort of thing," says Hamm, "we'll still have this mess 30 years from now."