INGLEWOOD — Drug sales have all but stopped in the Dixon-Darby and Hyde Park neighborhoods since the Police Department started a massive undercover effort, police and residents say.
After eight weeks and more than 700 arrests, neighborhoods that police once called "drug supermarkets" have been restored to an environment in which residents are no longer afraid to barbecue in their yards or play with their children.
"I absolutely cannot believe the change," said Janice Flowers, who lives in an apartment in the Dixon-Darby neighborhood.
Hyde Park Boulevard is no longer backed up with cars full of drug customers waiting to make drive-through purchases, and children now play kick ball on the Dixon-Darby streets where throngs of drug dealers used to hawk their wares like carnival barkers, police say.
"It's so wonderful to hear children's voices outside my window instead of young men arguing about drug deals," said Flowers, whose purse was stolen twice outside her apartment building.
"I used to be so afraid to go outside that I'd sit here and stare at an empty refrigerator rather than walk to the store to get something to eat. Since they chased those dealers off the streets, I'm not so afraid to go outside and walk around the neighborhood."
In the past year, police say, Dixon-Darby and Hyde Park neighborhoods had become two of Los Angeles County's most notorious markets for rock cocaine--a highly concentrated, extremely addictive form of the drug.
Located near the San Diego and Harbor freeways, Dixon-Darby and Hyde Park were convenient for customers who felt uncomfortable going to more established drug centers in South Central Los Angeles, police say.
Police and city officials started the undercover task force in May because "it reached a point where we became known as the city of drug dealers, not the city of champions," said Mayor Edward Vincent, referring to the city's official motto. "We couldn't stand for that."
By Wednesday morning, the team of 30 undercover officers posing as buyers had made 760 arrests and seized more than a dozen weapons and at least $250,000 worth of cocaine, police said. The squad represents about one-sixth of the Inglewood force.
Police also credit the task force with a 40% reduction in the city's robbery rate. Only 51 robberies were reported for the month of June, compared with an average 96 for the previous months. Burglaries, rapes and other assaults also declined in varying degrees, but officials were not sure the task force was a factor.
"Our robbery rate is the lowest it has been since 1979," said Lt. James Butts, who conceived the idea and heads the force. "Not only have we told drug dealers and buyers that Inglewood is not the place to do business, but we have sent a clear message to criminals of all kinds--Inglewood is serious about cleaning up the streets."
Police Chief Raymond Johnson said the force will continue indefinitely, but the officers must eventually return to normal patrols and other duties. So far, he said, police protection in the city has not suffered by the diversion of manpower.
Police in neighboring areas applaud the effort and have asked Inglewood for advice. But they also fear that Inglewood may just be chasing the dealers into other areas.
Hawthorne and Gardena reported slight increases in drug trafficking since Inglewood's task force started, based on arrests and observed activity of suspected dealers. Officials at the Lennox Sheriff's Substation have doubled their cocaine seizures since the task force began, but narcotics deputies doubt that increase is wholely attributable to Inglewood's crackdown.
"We've seen more cocaine in this area, but we are confiscating more powdered stuff than rock," said Sgt. Bob Sobel, head of the Lennox narcotics unit. "I'm sure some of those dealers are fleeing to other areas, but a lot of them have just taken to using new methods like using beepers and cellular phones to set up drop off points instead of direct street dealing," Sobel said.
Having tackled street sales, the task force is now focusing on dealers who use mobile telephones to set up transactions and "rock houses," where customers can buy and smoke the drug, Butts said.