From a block away, an unmarked police cruiser shadowed a dump truck as it turned onto a dark street in South Los Angeles.
Shawn Massey, a veteran officer with the Los Angeles Police Department, wheeled his vehicle onto a parallel street and darted into an alley connecting the two roadways. Shutting off his headlights, he and his partner waited for the dump truck to pass.
The two officers were part of a city task force formed to crack down on people who illegally dump refuse in neighborhoods south of the Santa Monica Freeway.
The task force includes city prosecutors and about a dozen LAPD officers and investigators from the Bureau of Street Services. Officials say it's one of the most aggressive law enforcement efforts in a decade targeting illegal dumping.
"We want to get the word out to the public that we're serious about this," LAPD Deputy Chief Kenneth O. Garner told task force members as they prepared for their first operation last month.
The operation was launched after The Times reported in June that violators freely dumped trash in South L.A. alleys, where the refuse -- sometimes including dead animals -- festered for weeks before being removed. The newspaper documented the problem in videos and photographs.
The effort represents a change in strategy for the city. In the mid-1990s, the LAPD conducted similar patrols but cut back in recent years so officers could focus more on violent crime. Policing alleys was left largely to street services investigators, who have authority to make misdemeanor arrests if they catch someone dumping. But because those investigators are unarmed, they tended to steer clear of some of the toughest neighborhoods unless they have a police escort. Arrests dropped from 359 in 2002 to seven so far this year.
As arrests declined, investigators turned to issuing more administrative citations to people implicated by evidence found in the rubbish. In such instances, "we have reason to believe you were involved -- either you did it or maybe know who did it," said Gary Harris, who oversees street services investigators.
Suspected violators are summoned to a hearing in which the city tries to recoup investigation and cleanup costs.
The suspects, however, are not legally compelled to attend the hearings or pay the city any money, officials acknowledge. In fact, the city has recouped $5,300 from the more than 2,000 citations issued so far this year.
Cynthia Ruiz, president of the Board of Public Works, which oversees the street services bureau, said her panel last month requested that the city attorney consider revising the administrative process to include mandatory fines of up to $1,000.
In the meantime, officials are counting on the LAPD-led task force to beef up enforcement by catching illegal dumpers in the act. Garner, acknowledging that violators have been operating with virtual impunity, said his officers would keep at it until the problem was controlled. A $500,000 state grant will help pay for surveillance operations by street services investigators and community outreach programs.
"We need to make some arrests and set some examples," said City Councilwoman Janice Hahn, who represents Watts, where blighted byways are filled with items such as household rubbish, old tires and construction rubble.
But unless judges start cracking down as well, more arrests may not result in the strong message that Hahn and others say is needed.
Illegal dumping is a misdemeanor that can result in a maximum of six months in jail and a $1,000 fine. But street services officials say they are not aware of a single conviction resulting in jail time or the maximum fine.
"They're going to get a slap on the wrist and told not to do it again," Harris said in a recent interview.
Lenient sentences were the last thing on Massey's mind as he watched the dump truck cruise by the alley. He was out to make arrests. "We've got to do something," he said.
Lean and straight-talking, Massey has been with the department for 14 years and knows the streets of South L.A. He works out of the Southeast Area station as a senior lead officer, which means he's the department troubleshooter for business owners and residents.
He and his partner, Officer Arturo Gonzalez, began tailing the dump truck again. They had already run a registration check on the license plate. The vehicle belonged to a man who lived in Carson. That, along with the fact that the truck was slowly crisscrossing the same streets, led Massey to suspect that the driver might try to dump a load of trash.
"That's my hope, but it's just as likely that he would be down here trying to find a hooker," Massey said, slowing down on Broadway near Imperial Highway to get some distance between him and the truck. "We've already had four or five hookers pass us by."