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O.C. Making Drugs for Officers to Sell : Crime: Santa Ana police arrest 350 small buyers in 'reverse stings' after taking the crack cocaine to streets.

October 20, 1994|LEE ROMNEY and KEVIN JOHNSON | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

SANTA ANA — Orange County authorities have been secretly manufacturing rock cocaine for Santa Ana police to sell in undercover operations targeting small-time drug buyers in several neighborhoods, including the area near Willard Intermediate school.

The practice is considered extremely risky by many law enforcement officials, including police in Los Angeles and San Diego. But Santa Ana police have sought special court orders in the last 18 months to make hundreds of sales, Police Chief Paul M. Walters said Wednesday.

"We're not playing games here," the chief said. "We're trying to give the streets back to the residents and we're making progress."

Walters said the department resorted to the so-called reverse sting operations--where officers act as drug dealers--because they were not making a dent in the trafficking by posing as prospective buyers.

Powder cocaine seized in Santa Ana drug busts is taken to the Orange County Crime Laboratory, where it is cooked into "rocks"--also known as crack cocaine--to be sold in $10 and $20 pieces.

Since the operation started, officers have made about 350 arrests--about 100 of them within several blocks of Willard Intermediate School, said Capt. Bruce Carlson. Most of the others were arrested in a neighborhood targeted by the federally funded anti-crime program known as Weed and Seed.

At least two or three of those busted have been minors, said Dean Allen, head of the public defender's Juvenile Court office.

"If they want to keep kids away from drugs, I think there are probably a lot of better ways to do it than just to sell them drugs," Allen said.

Citing serious potential liabilities involved with distributing real narcotics, the Los Angeles and San Diego police departments say they do not employ the technique used by Santa Ana officers.

"You have got to ask yourself if it is worth doing," said LAPD Lt. Sergio Diaz, who supervises street narcotics investigations in West Los Angeles. "What happens when a suspect makes off with the dope or they put it in their mouths? You have just introduced a drug into the community that wouldn't have been there. There could be problems."

Gerald Arenberg, executive director of the National Assn. of Police Chiefs in Washington, D.C., said the technique is simply too dangerous.

"I'd hate to be the department that permits this to happen and it turns out that somebody overdoses or has a heart attack after swallowing this stuff," Arenberg said.

Walters acknowledged that reintroducing drugs to the streets is somewhat unorthodox but he said no one--not the police officers nor the buyers--has been injured. Police said some buyers have ingested the rocks before they could be arrested, but Walters said there have been no reports of buyers suffering ill-effects from swallowing the substance. And he said undercover officers have tried to avoid sales to juveniles.

During processing at the crime lab, the individual rocks are coated with a special dye that causes any part of the body to glow when touched by the drug and later illuminated under a black light. That helps police identify suspects who swallow the drugs or try to drop them.

Since the sales are made in such small quantities, Capt. Carlson said, there is little danger in putting harmful quantities of drugs back on the streets.

"The only reason we are doing this is because there is drug activity occurring in these neighborhoods," Carlson said. "We're trying to do what works for solving our own problems here."

The so-called reverse sting operations are common in the high-stakes drug wars where investigators flash large amounts of narcotics to net big dealers. But on the streets, the tactic of selling small amounts of drugs to capture drug users is controversial.

Two years ago, a Florida appeals court put a stop to a similar operation, ruling that the sheriff of Broward County acted illegally in manufacturing crack cocaine for undercover investigations.

The state Supreme Court in Florida upheld the ruling, resulting in the reversal of hundreds of cases. "It is incredible that law enforcement's manufacture of an inherently dangerous controlled substance, like crack cocaine, can ever be for the public safety," the court said in its ruling.

Defendants arrested in the Florida cases have now a filed class action lawsuit in federal court asking for more than $1 million in assets that were seized from them after the arrests.

Santa Ana officials, however, stress that the operation has passed California legal tests and scrutiny by the Santa Ana city attorney's office and the Orange County district attorney's office.

The Sheriff's Department, which runs the county crime lab, did not respond to requests for comment Wednesday.

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