Late at night two weeks ago, Howard County SWAT police in protective gear crashed without warning through the front doors of two neighboring town houses in the Canterbury Riding development in north Laurel. They carried search warrants and were looking for drugs.
"I saw black masks, with only their eyes and nose showing, and combat clothes," said Hazel Cummings, whose house was entered. Police broke through the door, she said, "but all they had to do was ring the doorbell. We have nothing to hide."
For about 2 1/2 hours police kept Cummings and her family and the family of her neighbor, Juanita Thompson, in handcuffs while they searched for marijuana, cocaine and drug paraphernalia. None was found.
The Cummingses and the Thompsons later said they had been put through a nightmare at the hands of overly aggressive officers who were slow to identify themselves adequately as police. The families contend they were the victims of overzealous monitoring by a neighborhood citizen patrol.
Police officials said the officers wore police identification, had probable cause to enter the houses and followed standard police procedure. Lt. Lawrence Knutson said he could not recall another drug search with a warrant that had come up empty in the more than two years he has been commander of the police vice and narcotics division.
Both households "have been brought to our attention continually for at least 14 months," he said.
The detained families accused their white neighbors of racism.
"I think this happened to us simply because we're a black family," said Thompson, 38, a former community relations executive in broadcasting and the mother of four teenagers. "I am surrounded by white racist neighbors who have stereotyped blacks. I think that's why this ordeal happened to us."
But one community leader insists black and white residents of Canterbury Riding share a concern. "The issue is drugs, not race," she said. "The people here are scared."
It has been 14 months since residents of Canterbury Riding got tough on drug trafficking in their part of north Laurel and organized Howard County's first neighborhood citizen patrol.
Canterbury town house owners and renters said they were tired of being scared and harassed, largely by outsiders who were turning the 228-unit complex into an open-air drug market.
Residents bought walkie-talkies with money from their condominium fund and began walking the 15-acre property at night. They would report their sightings to a base house, which would call police with descriptions of suspicious traffic.
There was a lot of it, said Canterbury Riding residents and Howard police, who stepped up their patrols of the area.
There were people walking and driving over from the adjacent 1,100-unit Whiskey Bottom development, observers said; there were cars with out-of-state license plates driving in for five-minute stops.
Night and day there were groups of teenagers, including some who lived in Canterbury Riding, congregating on the steps that lead to All Saints Road from the town house development's ring road. Some of the youths carried cellular phones and made frequent sorties to cars passing through the community, residents said.
At first, "We thought it was teenagers just congregating," said a community-police liaison for Canterbury Riding, resident Deborah Keyser. "We were so naive. We weren't scared about it until we started hearing them asking people to buy crack."
Knutson said the Whiskey Bottom-Canterbury area has developed "one of the higher concentrations of illegal drug activity" in the county.
Canterbury Riding residents were afraid to walk near the steps or to allow their youngsters to play in the nearby tot lot, said Keyser and another police liaison, Cynthia Blade. Residents told police that they could lie in bed at night and hear crack transactions taking place under their windows.
They said they also saw money and drugs change hands, at first openly, in plastic bags, and later, when the neighborhood patrols began, concealed in open potato chip bags proffered to drivers. "We thought Frito-Lay was doing a taste test out front," Blade recalled.
At the advice of police, Canterbury Riding residents began keeping track of the license numbers of the cars that sped in and out. They called police when they saw drug sales. And they kept watch for unusual traffic in and out of houses.
As a result, "It no longer became comfortable to sell drugs out there," Blade said. She said the crowds have dissipated. Women once again feel safe to jog in the complex.
Blade and Keyser, who are white, angrily deny that racism motivates the civic patrol in what they described as an integrated, multicultural neighborhood of varying incomes and professions.
Until the recent raids, police had conducted three searches of two Canterbury Riding households as a result of neighborhood complaints. Both households were white, police said. Drug traffic in the front of the community has involved buyers and sellers of all races, the community liaisons said.
Police said the homes of Thompson and Martin and Hazel Cummings had been under police surveillance.
Martin Cummings, 33, a hospital electrician, is white. He said that his hand was injured during the police search and that he has filed a formal complaint of excessive force.
Hazel Cummings, 42, a hospital technician, and her children are black. One of the Cummings teenagers, said by police to frequent the Thompson house, was arrested recently at a nearby service station and charged with drug possession.
"It outrages me that police came into my home based on what was perceived as going on," Thompson said. "There was no evidence . . . . The whole thing is based on hearsay, what neighbors perceived to be in this home."