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Stalking Dealers in Coyote Gulch : Foot Beat Takes to Cars to Keep Pressure on Pacoima Drug Traffickers

January 31, 1988|MICHAEL CONNELLY | Times Staff Writer

At night, Coyote Gulch is a no-man's land where there are only three reasons for being: buying, selling or busting.

The product here is PCP. A menthol cigarette dipped in phencyclidine hydrochloride halfway to the filter goes for $10. The buyers are those cruising by in their cars. The sellers are the teen-agers standing in small groups hawking their product, then running to and from the cars delivering it. And the busters are the cops on the Pacoima foot beat.

Coyote Gulch is Los Angeles police slang that goes back further than anybody can remember. The gulch actually is a cul-de-sac in San Fernando Gardens, a 448-unit public housing project off Pierce Street. Around the corner is a spot the cops call Mota Alley, where the product is marijuana. Nearby is Bump Alley, where cocaine is dealt. After that, there are North Gulch, West Gulch and other places like them.

The gulches and alleys make for some of the most drug-plagued areas in the San Fernando Valley, and they are the beat of the six-man patrol, a unit that began on foot three years ago next month.

Back to Tradition

At the onset, the patrol was designed as a step back to traditional law enforcement, with uniformed officers walking through a small area of housing projects and along a stretch of shops on Van Nuys Boulevard. These were the places hardest hit by the street-level drug trading and crime, and police say that, if they were taken back from the drug dealers, the core of the problem would erode.

To be sure, the patrol in three years has become an increasingly recognized presence in the area, whereas open street dealing is less so. But, in that time, police--and many Pacoima residents--also have seen the drug problem slowly spread from those core neighborhoods to nearby residential streets.

The foot patrol has been forced to move along with it, and, in effect, covers so much territory now that its officers are on foot only when they are chasing down suspected dealers.

The three-year evolution has brought a sense of accomplishment and frustration. Some officers and residents fear the unit has begun a job it can't finish.

"We measure our success by looking at the streets," said Sgt. Cary Krebs, supervisor of the patrol. "It is a matter of degrees. We have cleared up the supermarket atmosphere that was in the projects.

"But a lot of the problem has moved out into the other neighborhoods. So to say the problem has been cleared up is actually a misnomer. There is still a tremendous narcotics problem here."

Pressure Points

Krebs' words reflect what is becoming an axiom for the Pacoima beat: Applying pressure in one spot doesn't end the problem. A problem seemingly may disappear one day, only to reappear another day when the pressure is off or move to a new spot where there is no pressure at all. And you don't have to be a police officer in Pacoima to see that.

"Some nights it's dead out there--that's when you know the police have come around," Max Waller, president of the residential council at San Fernando Gardens, said of the drug dealing. "And then, some nights, it's a drive-through drug store. The police make their raids, which we're thankful for, but the dealers just come right back and do their thing, start selling again."

Not only do the dealers keep coming back to haunt the projects, but some have moved into neighborhoods of single-family homes where, until recently, the police pressure was not as great.

So, on most days, the patrol officers have more ground to cover than they could do on foot. As Capt. William Pruitt, supervisor of patrol in the LAPD's Foothill Division, put it recently, it is a "motorized foot beat."

"We just don't have the time to have these officers walking down the street," Pruitt said. "They are totally committed to chasing thugs and drug dealers all day long."

Pruitt is concerned that the commitment has stretched the patrol too thin. But, he said, the constraints of staffing and money leave him no alternative but to use the unit as his best and only resource against the problems.

"We have totally gone off target," said Pruitt, who noted the primary reason for establishing the foot beat was to provide a more visible police presence and build community relations in the area. "I've had to set a higher priority on the drug situation," he said.

On one recent day, the beat officers were in three patrol cars moving through the sprawling San Fernando Gardens. Entering the projects from different streets, they stayed in contact by radio. Small groups, mostly of teen-agers, stood watching the patrol cars move by. Some younger children waved, others stared defiantly at the officers. Between the buildings, there was the sound of whistling--the warning call of the "players," as the dealers here are called.

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