In two undercover police operations in the last two months, Inglewood police officers posing as drug dealers have arrested 57 crack cocaine buyers in a sting aimed at putting the fear of prosecution into recreational drug buyers.
Police Lt. Larry Carter, commander of the operation, said the sting, the first of its kind in the county, has had a "dramatic" impact on the targeted neighborhood near the intersection of Prairie Avenue and Century Boulevard, damaging the area's drive-by drug traffic.
In the latest sting Friday and Saturday nights, which resulted in nine drug arrests, Carter said, there were few buyers in sight and "we could barely give the stuff away."
The program's success has prompted Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner to announce that other sting operations will begin throughout the county in coming weeks to arrest drug buyers.
Buyers Off Balance
"When someone wants to stop and buy, they will never quite be sure if they're talking to a dealer or a police officer," Reiner said. "The key to all of this is to put people off balance."
The Inglewood sting has so far resulted in no felony convictions for possession of cocaine, which would carry a maximum penalty of three years in prison and a $5,000 fine. But there are 25 pending cases and 32 people, mostly first offenders, have been referred by the courts to drug rehabilitation programs.
Carter said the sting probably has had a limited impact on the overall drug scene because drug traffickers can easily move indoors or set up shop somewhere else.
But Carter said the program disrupts the open and blatant type of dealing that has occurred in some neighborhoods.
"The street problem is diminishing rapidly," he said. "If there are no buyers, there are no sellers."
Inglewood Councilman Virgle Benson added, "The word is going to get out that whether you're a hard-core or recreational user, if you play with roses, you're going to get stuck."
The sting, code named Operation 13, began March 13 on a stretch of 99th Street where Carter said drug dealers would openly yell, "Yo! Rocks!" at passing cars. "There had been three sellers there all the time," Carter said. "Not anymore."
Fears of Residents
It is a neighborhood of neatly kept houses and small apartment buildings where iron gratings on numerous windows testify to the fear of crime. Many parents here say they forbid their children to play outside their yards because of cocaine dealing.
Francisco Chavez, who lives on 99th Street, said that from his front stoop he can see deals being made two or three times a week.
"After work, I sit right here and sometimes, the man stops right here," he said. "A lot of people are selling cocaine. They do it too fast so I can't call the cops."
Carter said the drug sting, which was run in conjunction with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department and the district attorney's office, operated with an undercover officer who was given a supply of crack cocaine released by the district attorney's office.
The operation began with officers first clearing the streets of loiterers, drunks and drug dealers and replacing them with police decoys, who could monitor the undercover officer making the drug sales.
The undercover officer, Arthur Gland, wore a transmitter so the drug deals could be recorded and was backed up by 28 other officers and investigators, who were in chase cars or operating hidden video cameras.
Reiner said Gland, 29, was instructed to avoid illegally entrapping suspects. The undercover officer could not show any drugs to a potential buyer until the buyer made the first move.
Gland said he would stand by the street, dressed in faded blue jeans, tennis shoes and a Mets baseball cap, and try to make eye contact with passing drivers.
"I want to let them feel that hey, I'm here to serve you," he said.
Once the buyer made a commitment to purchase the drugs, Gland was allowed to display his goods and complete the deal. After the sale, the squad of seven chase cars pursued and arrested the suspect.
$1,700 in Sales
In the two sting operations so far, Gland, who also has made undercover drug buys, has sold about 21 grams of cocaine valued at $1,700.
He said the sting has gone smoothly both times, although he was accosted once by a resident who told him to get out of the area.
Neighbors interviewed Sunday were divided in their opinions of whether the police crackdown has scared off cocaine sales. Most said cocaine sales were--and remain--a problem.
"It is still the same, drugs and gangs and all that. It is really bad. You know it is going on," said resident Lydia Chavez.
But Carter said he has no doubt that the sting operation has worked, a claim he said is verified by undercover officers who monitor the area.
He added that the operation, which will continue throughout Inglewood, has not only cleaned up 99th Street, but other areas where the word has spread that buyers are now open game for arrest.
"We went to all the hot spots this weekend and no one was buying," he said.