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“How are you doing today?”

“Fine,” the youth quietly replied.

Aside from the teenagers, the reaction was mostly positive. A woman sitting in a patio chair on her porch said a cold front was moving in. A couple on the street standing next to a car stopped to talk about the broken axle the man was trying to repair.

A few young men walked discreetly away, looking over their shoulders as they went. Others watched from behind windows or screen doors as the teams moved through the area.

Maj. Keohane stopped at a corner on Whitcomb Court. As a rookie, 24 years ago, this was his beat. Back then it was a notorious and persistent open-air drug market. He said the change was remarkable. Even 10 years ago, police got little cooperation from residents.

“There was just a lot more resentment to the police,” he said.

At the first stop, one team stayed behind. A young man on a list of habitual trespassers at the public housing complex had an outstanding warrant, so they processed him and waited for a vehicle to transport him to jail. The other teams moved on. Each stop took about half an hour.

In another neighborhood, the agents, officers and troopers engaged a group of about a dozen children in a courtyard. Mr. Swann on the sidewalk tossed a football with a boy as a police lieutenant tried to recruit him to a youth league basketball team.

It’s early evening, but darkness had fallen — a time that in past years residents said would have brought drug dealers to the street corners.

“To me, it’s getting better,” says Vernell Marrow, 57, as she watched the activity from her front door. “They’ve been stepping up. Just to see kids out here playing at this time of day, the neighborhood’s getting better.”

Mr. Swann acknowledged that sometimes the operations can be perceived as “touchy-feely.” But they send a message.

A little later, a team stops a young man and his pregnant girlfriend in the open stairwell of a low-income housing complex. The man said he didn’t live there - an admission that drew a swarm of agents. Within moments, the dark breezeway was lit with hand-held flashlights as agents checked identification and questioned the couple.

The man stayed mostly silent. But the girl, quiet at first, was soon bantering with the lead ATF agent, Anthony Spottswood.

“What are you getting each other for Christmas?” he said, as they waited for an identification check to determine if the man had any outstanding warrants. “I can’t tell you that,” she said playfully.

Mr. Spottswood kept the talk light as he asked and was reluctantly granted permission to check the pockets of the man’s oversized parka. A cell phone rang. The ID check turned up nothing. The man was free to go. He skulked off, three steps ahead of his girlfriend, and the agents moved on.

Story Continues →