LENNOX — On a typical night along Inglewood Avenue here, a drug deal takes place every five minutes.
Sheriff's deputies say it used to be even worse. Just one year ago, they say, drugs and money changed hands at nearly twice that rate.
Despite an estimated 50% drop in drug trafficking and related crimes such as purse-snatchings and prostitution, Inglewood Avenue in Lennox is still one of the county's most active "drug supermarkets," said Capt. Bob Wilbur of the sheriff's Lennox substation.
Deputies arrested 150 suspects on drug charges in November, about 50 more than in November, 1984. Nearly all of them were charged with selling small amounts of drugs. The bigger dealers who supply street peddlers rarely make small sales themselves, officials said.
'Long Way to Go'
"When outsiders drive down the avenue, it's probably hard for them to imagine it was once worse than it is now," Wilbur said. "We've come a long way, but obviously we still have a long way to go. This isn't a problem that is going to go away overnight."
Nor did the problem arise overnight.
Anni Rodriguez, who grew up in Lennox, remembers doing all her shopping at small stores along Inglewood Avenue. "I used to walk down Inglewood because I knew I'd see someone I knew," she said. "Now it's a disgrace."
Most of her friends have fled Lennox for safer neighborhoods, but the 30-year-old mother of two refuses to leave.
"This is my home. I work nearby. My parents live here. Moving is just like giving up. I want to see Lennox be what it once was."
Up and down the one-mile stretch of Inglewood Avenue between Imperial Highway and Century Boulevard, drug dealers advertise their wares--mostly marijuana--like carnival barkers. Sometimes two or three compete for a sale. Customers, many of them driving luxury cars that look out of place in this mostly low-income community, creep up and down the street, creating traffic jams for motorists just trying to get through.
The dealers attract customers from throughout the county, officials say. "We've arrested people from everywhere. . . . Beverly Hills, Rolling Hills, Hollywood Hills, you name it," said Sgt. Ron Trowbridge, a former member of the department's undercover street patrol.
"They come here because it's an easy buy. They drive down the street, see a signal, make a deal and take off in a matter of seconds. They never even have to leave their car."
Officials suspect that most drug deals are made with passing motorists, but pedestrians, bicyclists, even people waiting for city buses, are open game for the zealous drug pushers.
"They basically go after anything that moves regardless of race, age or color," said Trowbridge. He recalled a case in which drug dealers inadvertently botched a sheriff's stakeout when a number of peddlers approached an undercover deputy and blocked his view of a suspect.
The increase in arrests is attributed to the creation in October, 1984, of an undercover Street Criminal Apprehension Team for Lennox. Bicycle patrols, neighborhood watch groups and undercover and surveillance teams helped to put some street dealers and a few suppliers out of business.
But with a seemingly endless stream of willing street peddlers in the area, suppliers have no trouble putting replacements on the street, said Trowbridge, who was once a member of the SCAT team.
"Dealers see that the percentages are in their favor," Trowbridge said. "It's kind of like they suspect we have limited resources and know that we can't keep up high-pressure patrols forever. They hope to outlast us."
Building a successful court case is difficult, Trowbridge said, because deputies must observe the sale, cite the buyer and arrest the seller.
Occasionally, deputies seek to deter customers by stopping suspicious cars. "Ninety percent of the time, they quite frankly admit that they are here to buy drugs," Trowbridge said. "We try to make sure they don't succeed. Sometimes they listen. Most times they don't."
Wilbur said he fears that the drug problem will never improve unless deputies receive more community support.
In this tight-knit, largely Latino community, officials say that residents' fear of hoodlums often keeps them from cooperating with police. "They know who the guys are who provide the dope," Trowbridge said. "We have to earn their confidence so they'll share that information with us."
"They are our eyes and ears," Wilbur said. "But they are prisoners of fear who lack confidence in our system."
The officials, however, say anger is slowly replacing fear as more residents and neighborhood watch groups come forward with information. Still, residents who do call in with tips often insist that they remain anonymous.
"The same guy who called in with a hot tip might ignore me on the street, but that's OK by me" Sgt. Lee Smith said. "He might have a family to protect and I can certainly respect that."