Two additional undercover officers act as "advisers." They wander the street, ready to move quietly to prevent passers-by or residents from interfering.
'Can Be a Pain'
"Street stings can be a pain," Carter says. "(To stage) a successful street sting you need two things: a good seller and great chase cars."
A deal takes place. A young couple drives off with a plastic bag containing marble-sized chunks of bona fide "crack" or "rock," the potent, smokable form of cocaine. As the car pulls away, the seller relays a license number and description of the young couple to Carter and to the two-man teams roaming the area in unmarked chase cars.
The couple's car heads north on La Brea. Three unmarked police cars maneuver into position ahead and behind. The chase cars stop, doors fly open and, amid the traffic, officers holding pistols descend on the occupants of the trapped car, shouting: "Police! Where is it? Where is it?"
The officers pull the couple from the car. The woman looks dazed. Her hair is in braids. She is eight months pregnant.
Because of her condition, the officer in charge of the field jail gives the woman a court date and lets her go.
"She told me, 'I might have my baby by then, officer,' " he says. "I told her, not if you keep smoking that rock cocaine you won't."
The challenge is to retrieve the drug before suspects get rid of it. Some try to eat the evidence, so Inglewood police use extra-large plastic bags that are hard to swallow. Because moisture does not hurt rock cocaine, other buyers remove it from the bag and conceal it in their mouths.
Although police testimony and retrieval of an empty bag are enough to file a possession charge, obviously the best evidence is the cocaine itself. So Carter warns his men that if they consistently fail to retrieve drugs, "We're going to shut down shop. We're not in the business of selling dope."
The district attorney's office had to obtain a judge's order to permit Inglewood police to use real drugs--a pound of confiscated cocaine--in the stings.
The cocaine has been tested twice for authenticity. It will be tested again after being retrieved from the people who buy it.
"We probably have the cleanest dope around," Carter says.
An early evening rush keeps the seller busy. Unlike previous stings, which have caught affluent customers from the beach cities and beyond, the buyers are mainly from Inglewood. They buy $10 and $20 rocks. Most will spend a maximum of a night in jail unless they are wanted on other charges, and will probably be instructed by a judge to undergo counseling.
The prospect of light sentences is not much solace, however, at the time of arrest.
A 54-year-year-old grandmother cries and asks the police not to tell her family. A terrified 24-year-old accounting clerk presses his face against the side of the jail van and prays out loud. A gaunt, visibly strung-out man approaches the dealer without noticing an unmarked police car in the middle of the street. It takes three officers to handcuff him.
The amplified voices echo in the command van a block away. Carter and his men listen intently as another buyer asks, "Who got it?"
He wants a "dime," a $10 rock. But he only has $8.75.
"Oh, you got pennies, too, huh?" the undercover officer says, agreeing to a discount.
"Let me put it in my mouth in case there's police around."
"Actually, I'm a police officer. You're under arrest."
Minutes later, a chase car deposits the handcuffed prisoner at the field jail. He faces the van, trembling. He described himself as a Vietnam veteran on disability. He is 38, short, chunky, his bushy hair peppered with gray. The scar on his back came from a bayonet, he said.
Asked if he has previous arrests, he says: "Yessir, once, back when I was growing up in Memphis, Tenn. We were nine kids and we didn't have nothing to eat, and I stole five pounds of ham out of a cafeteria."
Later, leaning against the glass of the dark van among silent, manacled prisoners, the man blames his misfortune on a woman. She promised him sex in exchange for crack cocaine. He knew of three rock houses in the area, but Market Street, where he has seen as many as 15 dealers working at one time, was closer.
The man claims that he has been drug-free for two years. As for the police, he says he has "no animosity against people for doing their job. I chalk this up to my own stupidity. I didn't used to buy from strangers."
And he says: "I'm never gonna buy drugs no more."
In an apartment near the drug sellers' turf, a Mexican teen-ager watches out the window with mild interest.
He says he often sees the buyers filling the street at night, the dealers hiding their stashes in bushes and in the tailpipes of parked cars. The police should do this more often, he says.
Each morning he goes out to look for day labor. Each evening he comes home and sees the dealers.