"Once again I was awakened at 2:15 a.m. with the loud noises of the drug dealers outside my home. Then by 4:15 a.m., I was disturbed again, this time by a female voice screaming in distress. As I looked out, I could only partially see figures moving in the dark. I called the police, and soon the men who had been standing on the corner began to flee down the street.

"Exactly what happened I do not know, but several squad cars arrived, as well as a paddy wagon, ambulance and unmarked cars. However, within five minutes after the police left, the drug dealers were again standing on the corner."

The remarkable thing about the woman's account is that it is so unremarkable. Not just in the slums but in erstwhile quiet neighborhoods like hers, drug dealers routinely work their open-air markets, suspending operation when the cops arrive, resuming it as soon as the cops drive away. And like her fellow sufferers, this Northwest Washington resident doesn't know what to do. Her letters and phone calls to city officials date back nearly two years. Four or five nights a week, she says, her sleep is broken by the activities of the drug dealers -- sometimes a handful, sometimes as many as 20 -- operating within a few feet of her front door.

"Cars are constantly coming and going, doors opening and closing, music blasting from car radios -- all this at 2, 3, 4 or 5 a.m. When I leave for work at 6, they are still there on the corner. I'm afraid even to go out in the mornings unless I see others moving on the street. Why can't {city officials} do something?"

It's a good question, and the answer -- perhaps too naive -- is that they can.

You've heard the official answers. The police respond to complaints, but since the activity ceases with their arrival, there's usually nobody to arrest. Making a case against the dealers involves the painstaking work of making undercover buys, obtaining warrants and then returning days later with other officers (so as to protect the identity of the undercover cops) to make the arrests. With the open-air markets numbering in the hundreds, little progress is made.

Is there another way? Well, maybe there is. In Charleston, S.C., the bailiwick of Police Chief Reuben Greenberg, the police don't bother with these lightning-strike shows of force. When he learns of an open-air drug market, the chief assigns an officer or two to the area for round-the-clock surveillance. If the dealers move, the officers move with them. That simple tactic has worked in Charleston and appears to be working in Mobile, Ala., where Greenberg is on loan as public safety director.

"A street-level drug dealer is a merchant, that's all," Greenberg said recently. "They don't want to move more than a block away. Their customers don't know where they are."

And there's another reason they don't like to move too far, he points out. "You can get killed {by rival dealers} moving someplace else. Once you lose your turf to the cops, in most cases you're out of business."

I haven't asked the local authorities why they don't copy Greenberg's tactic, but I can anticipate their answers: too few officers; a lack of jail space for arrested dealers; the probability that it would only force the dealers indoors, where they are harder to catch.

I don't buy it. Most cities could use more police officers, but using the present force smarter could work as well in other places as in Charleston, where the crime rate has dropped 45 percent to its lowest level in 20 years. Jail space matters in the case of arrests, but who supposes that the dealers would court arrest by continuing their drug-selling operations in the presence of uniformed officers or that their customers would continue buying?

As for moving indoors, Greenberg, has an answer. When his officers bust an indoor operation, they cart off everything that could conceivably be used as evidence: furniture, telephones, clothing. "We take the air conditioner out of the window and the chair he was sitting on. He can't get back in business Monday or Tuesday. He's losing $30,000 a day."

But the main appeal of the Greenberg approach is that it is not dependent on making arrests. The idea is to hit the dealers financially, disrupting their markets and scaring off their customers, including the vital out-of-neighborhood middle-class "recreational" users. Sure they will move, but not far. To hide from the cops means hiding from their customers as well, and they can't stand it.

Finally, if there are too many open-air markets to police them all, I offer this suggestion. Let the police give priority to those neighborhoods that bestir themselves to institute citizen patrols. Such a joint undertaking could have the twin effect of busting up the drug traffic and putting citizens back in charge of their neighborhoods. Not a bad parlay.