Two years ago, the drug trade was so vast in the patrol area of the Norwalk sheriff's substation that even law enforcement officers felt there was no way to address the problem.
"It was so voluminous" that citizens' complaints about suspected drug dealing could not be properly followed up by the five-member undercover squad, said the sergeant in charge of the undercover narcotics unit at the station.
But the problem was a regional one--since drug dealers ignore city boundaries--and had to be handled on a regional basis.
The sheriff's sergeant approached the captain of the Norwalk station about the problem last year, and the captain in turn approached the cities of Norwalk, Santa Fe Springs and La Mirada.
Together, the cities agreed in July, 1985, to augment the narcotics unit by pitching in to hire five additional investigators and a secretary, as well as providing vehicles for surveillance.
Largest Unit in County
The unusual agreement has made the narcotics unit at Norwalk Sheriff's substation--now with 10 investigators and one secretary--the largest of all 19 stations in the county. The expansion has brought results by increasing arrests and the haul of illegal drugs, mostly cocaine and heroin. (Narcotic units at the other 18 stations range in size from one deputy to four deputies plus a sergeant.)
"The local narcotics problem was more than five guys could handle," said Capt. Robert Pash, commander of the Norwalk substation, which serves the unincorporated areas of Whittier in addition to the three cities. "Five guys can only do so much."
Undercover investigators said members of the unit would often be tied up doing paper work, testifying in court or interviewing suspects in custody. That left only one or two to actively pursue leads and work cases.
"The cities recognized the problem wasn't getting enough resources," said Pash, who noted that the narcotics bureau of the Sheriff's Department assigns investigators to each station according to the size and scope of its problem.
The three cities recently agreed to pay for the program for a second year. Norwalk and Santa Fe Springs contribute about $166,000 each for four investigators and La Mirada adds another $100,000 for one investigator and a secretary. The additional investigators were deputies promoted from the Norwalk station's patrol unit. Five deputies were hired to replace them.
"The problem of drugs cannot be addressed by one little city acting by itself," said Fred Latham, Santa Fe Spring's assistant city manager. Drug trafficking, he said, often "moves across the boundary lines of cities."
Rash of Drug Activity
Norwalk Mayor Bob White said there has been a rash of drug activity in the Norwalk area in the last two years. "As long as we stay on top of it with a special unit investigating it, it's going to pay off."
"If we didn't have the specialized group like this, we wouldn't have near the number of arrests or success," White said.
Since the crew doubled in July, 1985, the unit has seen an increase in the number of arrests and seizures, and seized more than 62 kilograms of cocaine, a 600% increase over the previous year, said the sergeant of the unit, who asked that his named not be printed.
The undercover said the total amount of cocaine--about 62,000 grams--can be compared to the entire department's countywide seizure of 239,000 grams during fiscal 1984-85.
In fiscal year 1983-84, the unit made a total of 157 drug-related arrests. That number jumped to 257 in 1984-85 and, during 1985-86, increased to 358 arrests.
The Norwalk station has received several inquiries from substations interested in forming similar programs, Pash said. So far Norwalk is the only station to have narcotics patrols paid for by their contract cities.
Sgt. Bernard Beck, of the Sheriff's Department narcotics bureau, said there are 86 field investigators countywide. He said they are often frustrated because so much time is taken up by paper work and court time.
Before the station expanded the narcotics unit, the investigators "seldom got out of the office. They would not have enough time to make cases," said Beck, who added that he has "heard nothing but good things about" the drug unit.
Pash said the community is the real winner.
"When you have only five investigators, you tend to be selective with cases. You only work the good ones or the big ones," Pash said. "Now we work the little guys. We hit the small-time dealer. Maybe we don't get the ship from Colombia that just docked at Long Beach with tons of something on it, but we're able to impact the local community."
Complaints About Drugs
Cmdr. Lee Baca, the commander of the Norwalk station when the program started, said he would become frustrated because he couldn't always respond to calls from residents who complained about drug trafficking in their neighborhoods.
"Many tips received were placed in a waiting capacity until I could get the manpower to handle them," said Baca. "I found that unacceptable."