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Undercover Deputies Make Grade as Students

Schools: Two rookie officers, 29 and 30 years old, master the styles and slang of teenagers to catch drug dealers at Redondo Union High.

January 01, 1996|ERIC SLATER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

There is no training manual for rookie cops sent back to high school as undercover narcs. But the really important rules can be learned more quickly than algebra.

* Whenever possible, address authority figures as "dude."

* Speak frequently about the band Rancid and how incredibly hard they rock.

* If a fellow student rats you off for buying $20 worth of "chronic" in the back of a classroom, don't bother trying to convince the furious vice principal that you are a Los Angeles County sheriff's deputy. Run.

"I just said, 'Later!' " recalled Tim, a 29-year-old deputy, and sprinted for the door.

Tim and Araceli, 30, both of whom spoke on the condition that their last names not be used, don't look like authority figures--a quality that helped them make dozens of drug buys at Redondo Union High School in Redondo Beach in the fall, resulting in 17 arrests.

"The sharpest 40-year-old in the world isn't going to cut it," said Lt. Rudy Jefferson, who organized the operation.

Both deputies were plucked from the academy in July, saved, at least temporarily, from the less-than-popular jail detail to which all new deputies are assigned. They were chosen for the delicate undercover assignment because they were promising recruits, yes, but also because, more than a decade after they graduated from other Los Angeles-area high schools, both could pass for hormone-addled 16-year-olds.

"It's still tough to get a drink," said Tim, a thin blue-eyed blond.

If their looks have changed little, fashions, haircuts and the connotation of the word "chronic"--slang for marijuana--have undergone severe transformations. And before registering for school in September, the two spent the summer studying the habits of the beach city teen in its modern form.

"I'm 30, trying to convince a 16-year-old that I'm 16," said Araceli, a diminutive, dark-haired woman dressed this recent day in her back-to-school wear: a T-shirt, open flannel shirt, black jeans and giant hoop earrings.

They devoured the most recent issues of Seventeen magazine. They became mall rats, hanging out in food courts, at Levi 501s displays, at The Gap. And they watched hour after hour of MTV, working hard to speak more like Beavis and Butt-head and less like cops.

That's another reason for getting such undercover officers right from the academy: they haven't soaked up even a couple of years of cop jargon. In the midst of a drug buy, it's important not to say "10-4."

The operation was initiated at the behest of Redondo Union School District officials and local police, who suspected the campus had become a center for teen drug sellers. But, like any well-managed narcotics operation, all information was given on a need-to-know basis, and only a handful of school district and police personnel knew there would be deputies on campus. None of them knew the names or faces.

Names didn't matter anyway. Tim and Araceli had both acquired new ones, as well as new personal histories, identification cards, "home" phone numbers and parents. On registration day, their "dads," two sheriff's detectives, took them to school and signed them up for class.

They were going back to high school. And in many ways, the second time was not only easier, but more fun.

Tim, dressed for school on a recent day in a Quicksilver T-shirt and Vans sneakers, rediscovered his love of spit wads and airplanes. Araceli had no qualms about skipping her first-period physical science class day after day, as that was a prime time to buy dope in the parking lot.

Although dating--he's married and has a baby, she's engaged--and after-school activities were out, there were the always popular pep rallies.

"It was pretty awkward to stand up and say 'Class of '97!" Araceli recalled.

There was still the homework, book reports and in-class presentations. But grades, this time, were not so important.

"I can assume that I got two Fs and three Bs," Araceli said with a grin.

"I think I got an A in . . . badminton," Tim added with some pride.

Much of the real work came in the back rows of classes such as Adult Living, Introduction to Algebra and U.S. History. Because, the two said, more often than not, that is where the drug dealers operated--under the noses of teachers without the time or training to act as police.

There was the student who worked like a traveling salesman, opening up an eyeglass case to display a variety of illicit wares. There was the tried-and-true backpack method: you leave the twenty bucks in mine, I leave the pot in yours.

You had to be careful, though. Said Tim: "I had a kid tell me, 'You'd better watch out for narcs.' "

The back of the classroom was also as good a place as the parking lot or bathroom for ingesting the goods.

"I watched a girl snort a line," Tim said. "I saw kids take a shot of vodka. It's all more open now."

It was an in-class deal that nearly sank the operation in its first weeks.

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