Drug sales were brisk as the sun set over Pomona. Hawkers were lined up along both sides of East 7th Street, flagging down motorists to try to sell them $10 bags of marijuana.
That night, undercover detectives posing as buyers arrested three men and lost another to the darkness. It was just one in a long series of battles with street dealers that the police say they are losing.
The short segment of 7th Street near downtown Pomona is one of seven areas in the city where police say a multitude of drugs, including increasingly popular cocaine, are bartered openly day and night.
They say that "curb service" sales, which began to increase earlier this year after a series of raids on suspected drug dealers' homes, are a dangerous new phenomenon that has resulted in more drug-related violence in the city.
Police, both in Pomona and in surrounding areas, say that Pomona is rapidly gaining a reputation in the East San Gabriel Valley as a regional marketplace for drugs. Pomona police have asked the City Council for nearly $1 million to create a 16-member narcotics division with a dope-sniffing dog and a full-time attorney to speed prosecution of dealers.
Last month, Police Capt. Rick Shaurette made a lengthy presentation to the council that included a videotape of what police said were drug deals on the street.
Shaurette said dealers have grown increasingly sophisticated, employing teen-agers as front men on the streets who, in some cases, carry pagers so their bosses can keep in touch with them.
"Each time we find a way to catch the crooks and still stay within the legal limits, they find another way to do it," he said in an interview.
But as police continue their battles with drug dealers, the City Council is busy waging its own war against a growing budget deficit.
A number of factors, including expected cutbacks in federal revenue-sharing next year, may drive the city's $1.3-million deficit to $4.3 million, council members say. While they acknowledge the city's drug problem, council members have reacted coolly to the Police Department's proposal.
Councilman Mark Nymeyer said he is sympathetic and believes that the drug problem is severe. But he and other council members said the request for funds could only be granted with either a raise in utility taxes or the creation of a public safety assessment district. Under state law, two-thirds of the voters would have to approve such an assessment district if it included funds for the Police Department.
So far, no proposal for a public safety assessment district has been made, although the idea has come up in council study sessions.
Public May Support It
Nymeyer said that although residents forced the City Council to back down in July on a proposed assessment district for street lighting and landscaping, he senses more support for public safety assessments among his constituents.
Unless the city calls a special election, voters would not have a chance to decide the matter until June, when the next state election is scheduled, Councilman Jay Gaulding said. A special election is unlikely, council members said, because it would probably cost at least $50,000.
Gaulding said he feared that the council's decision to back down on the earlier assessment district proposal could harm the chances of another such proposal passing. "We don't have any credibility with the people," he said. "They don't believe anything we say."
Meanwhile, the city's five-man vice squad, which divides its time about equally between prostitution and drugs, spends many days and nights arresting small-time street dealers.
Recently the squad agreed to allow a reporter to observe their undercover operations.
22 Dealers Arrested
Sgt. Ron Frazier, leader of the narcotics team, complained that although he had helped arrest 22 drug dealers in the past two weeks, he was hardly making a dent in the city's drug problem.
"What's frustrating is we can't do enough to make a difference," he said.
That night the detectives played out a what they say has become an all-too-familiar scenario.
One of the customers on 7th Street was Ron Kelley, an undercover detective who bought four $5 bags of marijuana. Kelley wore a transmitter under his shirt and his conversation with the curbside dealers was monitored by police in an unmarked car a few blocks away.
As he left the area, Kelley described the two men who had sold him the drugs. Both were arrested within minutes, taken to the police station and charged with possession of marijuana with the intent to sell it.
"It's hot, isn't it?" Kelley said of the aggressive sales techniques of the dealers who approached him. "It's a convenient place where the trafficker and the buyer can meet."
Eight months ago, Kelley said, street sales were confined to one central-city location. But as the sales strategy became more popular, drug dealers rapidly expanded their efforts.