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`Red Dog' Police Sack Dealers

But leader of Atlanta task force says cocaine busts alone can't solve nation's drug problem

ATLANTA'S Red Dogs: They're tough. They're aggressive. And they send a scare through this city's criminal drug pushers. The Red Dog Anti-Drug Task Force includes just 24 men and women. But every month they make 600 arrests in Atlanta's most unruly neighborhoods. The police team was assembled 18 months ago to go after dealers who were openly peddling crack-cocaine on Atlanta's streets.

Red Dogs are no-nonsense cops. On a recent night, a half dozen Red Dogs, like their namesake - football linebackers blitzing the opposing quarterback - rushed in on a public housing area known for drug dealing. Guns drawn, they quickly cornered several suspects, including one who crashed his car while trying to escape.

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Red Dogs are physical. They shove suspects against cars and buildings, search them, handcuff them. This evening, one man is caught with 21 grams of crack, all of it carefully divided into 100 little blue baggies that sell for $10 apiece on the street. Six or seven other suspects, also possessing crack, are arrested as well.

Maj. Eldrin Bell, commander of the Red Dogs, notes that his officers must work constantly changing hours - around the clock - to outwit drug dealers. They also spend many hours in court because of their heavy arrest rates.

To keep Red Dog standards high, every month officers undergo eight to 16 hours of advanced training on warrants, anti-drug tactics, search, and seizure. They get help from the Georgia Police Academy, and district attorneys, and others.

With their aggressive posture, that legal training helps the Red Dogs avoid problems that could arise if they violated suspects' rights, the major says.

In the long run, however, Major Bell doesn't believe a tough police force is the best answer to drugs. The record quantities of drugs flooding across America's borders are a symptom of deeper problems, he says.

``Drugs are the end of the equation in society, just as joblessness, promiscuity, and teenage pregnancy are,'' he explains.

The major suggests that what comes at the beginning of the equation, in children's younger years, determines behavior.

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Out of the thousands of prisoners processed by Atlanta police each year, most on drug charges, he notes that only 11 percent have at least a high school education.

``That is approximately the reverse of what we see in society as a whole,'' he observes.

The major says that a breakdown in morality is worsening the nation's drug problems. Thousands of mothers are unwed, and many become grandmothers as young as 32. In Atlanta 50,000 people rely on public housing.

Meanwhile, those who are affluent - both black and white - flee Atlanta and other cities and leave the problems behind.

He blames institutions, too.

``Religion has failed ... to do its job,'' he says. Many people think that simply going to church fulfills their duty, he says. But he contends that churches should be out ``saving souls'' now being lost to drugs. Red Dogs can only hold the line on behavior until other influences, like family and religion, are brought to bear on immorality, the major says.

One in a series of articles about US border problems.

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