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A month after law enforcement officers swept through three taverns and arrested 20 suspects -- 15 of them on narcotics charges -- a bitter aftertaste lingers among the bar operators.

The owners of all three taverns agreed they must work with the police to combat what is seen as a pervasive drug problem, but they criticized some of the tactics used in the raids on March 16 and April 9.

Among complaints, supported by some in the community, are:

The raids represent illegal harassment of legitimate businesses.

There seem to be racial overtones to the raids.

Innocent people in the taverns are at least temporarily lumped in with suspected criminals while police go through an identification process.

The raids took place at Price's Oasis at Highland and Fairfield avenues, the Three M's Bar at 3716 Highland Ave., and the Holloway Inn at 1220 East Falls St.

Some of the tavern owners said the police rushed right past narcotics dealers who were outside. They also say that crack dealers still maintain a blatant presence in their communities despite the raids.

But their major complaints are that the police didn't finish what they started and there was some indiscriminate harassment during one sweep. The raids were conducted by the Niagara Falls Police Department with the help of the U.S. Border Patrol and the Niagara County Sheriff's Department.

"To me, I don't think it was legal," said David Matthews, one of the three owners of the Three M's. "But I didn't pursue it."

Dorothy Ewing, who owns the Holloway Inn with her husband, Hollis, said: "My main problem is how they treat the innocent. I like to see them treat the innocent right."

But the police say they were misunderstood. The raids weren't conducted to necessarily bag drug traffickers -- they were launched as a pre-emptive strike against out-of-town drug dealers who allegedly threatened to kill some Niagara Falls officers. Those arrested on narcotics counts were merely in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Besides the suspects arrested on drug charges, others were taken into custody on various warrants and other charges, including being illegal aliens. That is how the Border Patrol became involved. In addition, about 70 others were taken to police headquarters and later released after the police verified their identification.

"We were looking for underage people of Jamaican or black origin who were not residents of our city," said Capt. Stephen J. Gadacz of the Niagara Falls Police Department. "We were going out to defuse a very volatile situation."

On March 16 and again on April 9 about 35 officers raided Price's Oasis and the Holloway Inn. Three M's was raided on March 16 only. Police confiscated two weapons -- at the latter two bars -- and arrested six people from out of town, according to Detective Joseph Marochi. That included two from New York City, one from Buffalo, an Amherst man and two from Rochester. One of the New Yorkers was booked on weapons charges.

Marochi said the two Rochester men were "mules" -- those who transport drugs from one location to another -- and were picked up on a tip.

"Those arrests we made were good arrests," said Sheriff Francis L. Giles. "The law says if you are in possession of drugs you're liable to be arrested."

Officials say they have leads on certain "suppliers." And the vigil continues. Two New York City teen-agers were arrested April 28 when they got off a train at the Lockport Road station. They carried $30,000 worth of crack.

One suspect from the tavern sweeps has been sentenced to jail. Felix E. Gibbs, 32, of Eighth Street, was sentenced to 90 days in the county jail on May 8 for seventh-degree criminal possession of a controlled substance. Other cases are pending in court.

Gadacz said the department has a great deal of support in the black community.

"I would think those who are law-abiding would welcome this," said the captain.

The Rev. Joseph Jones, pastor of Damascus Baptist Church and a member of the Niagara Improvement Association, concurred with that evaluation. He said he had no problem with citizens being caught in the raid's cross-fire.

"It's time to stop nurturing wrong," he said. "If you know your friend is doing wrong and you do nothing, you are no better than him. . . . Racist overtones? (Drugs are) killing more blacks than anyone. If you want to get rid of it, you can't spare the rod."

Michael A. Brundidge, affirmative action officer for the Niagara Falls School District, agreed the drug problem here must be addressed, but he said the raids sent disturbing signals.

"It's starts to sound like South Africa," he said. "Like, do you have your ID?"

Brundidge said the taverns have had a long presence in the black community -- long before the drug epidemic -- and the raids are having a chilling effect on black enterprise. He also said he was disturbed by the motivational factor.

"What motivated the police to get involved was not the cocaine problem, but the fact there were threats against them," he said. "What you're really telling me is if there was no threat, you wouldn't have done anything."

Mrs. Ewing also said the raids set an improper tone: "If they feel they can can do it to one or two, they feel they can do it to everybody. . . . It can happen to you next time."

Ms. Price said her customers didn't appear upset in the wake of the raid. Matthews said his steady customers still frequent the Three M's. He also said police performed their duties professionally. "They didn't have to roughhouse nobody," he said.

When asked why the police raided only black bars, Gadacz repeated the primary mission of the raid -- the sweep was to get the New York City traffickers out of Niagara Falls.

"If I'm going fishing," said Gadacz, "I'm not going to the Sahara Desert to cast a lure in the sand."

The strongest criticism came from the proprietor of the Holloway Inn, a bar that sits like an island amid vacant lots on East Falls Street. In the March 16 sweep, the Holloway saw more action than the North End bars.

As the police came through the door, customers were told to place both hands on the bar, said Mrs. Ewing. A man who is handicapped by a bad arm could not comply and was roughly handcuffed, according to Mrs. Ewing.

"The way they had the guns on people was very uncomfortable," she added.

Gadacz said the police went in with guns drawn because intelligence reported the possibility of firearms at the taverns.

"We are entitled to render the area safe," said Gadacz.

Both Annie Price, owner of Price's Oasis, and Mrs. Ewing agreed that the police headed directly inside their establishments, although the owners claimed drug dealers were right outside the door at their usual haunts.

"They would do a better job if they get the people outside," said Ms. Price.

"They're outside laughing," said Mrs. Ewing of the dealers.

Patrons at the Holloway felt the police already had "scared them away" since some New York faces no longer make the rounds.

"They're putting everything on the New York City crew, but it's still just as bad," Mrs. Ewing said. "Deep down, I don't think there was a problem. (The problem) are people from around here, from Rochester and Buffalo."

Mrs. Ewing even gave the New Yorkers some due.

"They never sold on the premises," she said. "They did give us that much respect. The fellow who was suspected to be the big man kept his people under check. The local (people) will sit here and sell like we got a license on the wall."

"It's all our problem," said Matthews. "You can't turn your back on the police. But they can only do so much. It's a hell of a situation."

Matthews, nonetheless, was concerned about the raids. "If it happens again, it can hurt business," he said. "But I don't think I'll be having any more problems."

Brundidge said: "We ought to have the right to public access to black enterprises. When they take that right away, you hurt individuals and black enterprises."

Police say they will continue operating by the letter of the law.

"Our intent is to rid the City of Niagara Falls of the criminal element, and to do so in a legal and lawful manner," said Gadacz. "We intend to stay on top of the situation as we receive our intelligence. They're still here, but we have things under control."

MONDAY: Wheelers and dealers.

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