Orlando police vehicles converge on a small, dingy apartment building at the corner of South Street and Albany Avenue. Officers jump out and dart toward two men hanging out on a street corner.
Two "dime" ($10) bags of marijuana fall to the ground as two men stand next to two cars parked in the yard.
"I did not drop that," claims a 23-year-old man on probation for cocaine possession and resisting arrest. "Just please don't take me to jail."
Minutes later, officers find a loaded 9 mm Smith & Wesson semiautomatic pistol wrapped in a sock under a window air conditioner. Stolen in 1999, it is a weapon that could have been used in many crimes.
Crowds of staring neighbors say they know nothing, but a gun is off the street.
It is 8 p.m. and just another Wednesday night in Orlando's Parramore neighborhood, just west of downtown, where street drug dealers cater to drivers from across Central Florida looking for pot and crack cocaine.
Earlier this month, an Orlando Sentinel reporter rode back-to-back nights with Orlando police and Orange County sheriff's tactical officers who work high-crime zones where murders and other violence have increased during the past two years.
Orlando Sgt. James Brooks and his men wearing black shirts, fatigue pants and gloves are trolling local "fishing holes" known for drug-dealing, shootings and resident complaints.
Since September, when the agency handpicked a group of aggressive officers to take on the west side, they have arrested more than 1,500 suspects and recovered more than 100 guns. Orange County's tactical units, which have targeted west-side neighborhoods in its jurisdiction since January 2006, have made more than 3,800 arrests and seized 200 guns.
Yet the "fishing" remains plentiful, officers say, because of remorseless young offenders, residents afraid to help police and public apathy.
"I don't think people know what goes on in Orlando," said Brooks, a no-nonsense, 25-year veteran. "I guarantee you if you transported this problem to other parts of the city, the community reaction would be different."
While heading to the location of a raid, officers in a van joke to stay loose. They compare stories about suspects who pulled guns on them, their frustrations with the courts and their run-ins with teens who have no education and poor prospects.
"They call me an `Uncle Tom' and don't even know what it means," said Officer Keith Stubbs, who is black.
`Not bad for a night's work'
About 9 p.m., OPD's tactical-patrol caravan turns on to Barley Street, a modest subdivision of old, one-story concrete-block homes off Ivey Lane. A half-dozen young men wearing baggy shorts hang out on the corner. One flees, darting between homes. A half-dozen officers give chase on foot while patrol cars circle.
Ten minutes later, Charles Davis, 21 -- recently released from jail on charges of resisting arrest and driving without a license -- is arrested a few blocks away. A .40-caliber pistol is found in a trash can near where the chase began.
A few miles north on Old Winter Garden Road, another tactical unit stops a sport utility vehicle with illegally dark windows. Officers say they smell marijuana inside. A search reveals five baggies of pot and a 9 mm pistol.
The driver, Jody Hayes, 29, is a convicted felon with numerous drug arrests. Passenger Joshua McCarthy, 19, was sentenced in April to two years of probation for carrying a concealed firearm.
Handcuffed and sitting on the ground, Hayes has an answer when asked why so many people carry guns: "You look at someone wrong, they're liable to do something to you."
That may be what happened about 10:30 p.m. when Jhymy Jean Gustin, 16, got into an argument with four men at Lee Avenue and Anderson Street in Parramore. A hooded man shot him in the head with a .45-caliber pistol, a witness told police.
Later, two tactical officers see four men hiding, then drive off from a nearby South Street home. A stop of the vehicle leads to the arrest of Julius Martin, 17, on charges of first-degree murder. A .45-caliber pistol is recovered in the home.
Five hours of work netted 11 arrests, three guns, four ounces of pot, a little crack and some prescription drugs.
"Not bad for a night's work," Brooks said.
Minor-crime arrests help
Across town the night before, sheriff's Sgt. Jim Deleu and his officers are one of five teams working Pine Hills and South Orange Blossom Trail. A 13-year veteran with a shaved head, he likes to quiz suspects about their lives. He encourages his officers to make arrests, even for minor offenses.
"If we arrest them for the smallest crime, we may stop a crime," Deleu said. "We get their fingerprints and photographs. And we may stop a homicide."
On this night, the sheriff's teams will arrest 23 people -- mostly on narcotics charges, recover two stolen cars and seize a variety of crack cocaine and prescription drugs. Deleu calls it an "average" night.
The evening is a nonstop series of encounters with suspicious people on the street and drivers with drugs, most of whom have a history of arrests, been on probation or served stints in prison.
Poor child-rearing blamed
Steve Dix, one of the deputies who works the area, attributes much of the crime to poor child-rearing.
"One parent doesn't have enough time to raise their kids," Dix said. "The streets are raising their kids."
Deputies target South Orange Blossom Trail, which has open-air drug and prostitution markets, young thugs who peddle drugs and commit robberies around Pine Hills apartment complexes, and crack dealers who operate out of cars and cheap hotels.
One of the biggest problems is crack-addicted prostitutes who keep drug dealers in business and lure men to the Trail with offers of quick, $20 sex.
"Prostitution is not a victimless crime," Deleu said. "They are setting people up to get robbed. They are supporting crack dealers. It's like a big web of crime."
Many of the Trail dealers and thugs wear dreadlocks, black shirts and baggy black pants, making it difficult for investigators and witnesses to identify suspects. Many also are emulating rap singers espousing the "thug life," he said.
Deleu proudly shows off a few convenience stores on West Colonial Drive and a nearby, small neighborhood off Walkup Street where business owners, landlords and residents worked with deputies to drive drug dealers away.
"There are a lot of good people in Pine Hills," he said. "There has to be more [community] influence to make it extremely unpopular for kids to commit crimes. They have to say, `That's enough.' "
On South Orange Blossom Trail, it's a freak show with male and female prostitutes. One man, the size of a football lineman, wears hot pants and high heels.
While tactical officers dealt with a driver possessing illicit prescription drugs, an Oklahoma tourist approached Deleu to complain about prostitution and drug dealing at his $30-a-night hotel.
"I don't think they were playing Monopoly," said Jeremy Blankenship, 32. "I had no clue where this hotel was."
By 1 a.m., a few prostitutes still loiter on the Trail. Deleu smells marijuana on two men, ages 22 and 18, who walk into an all-night convenience store and questions them. Both have been in and out of jail.
The older one said a gunman tried to rob him a few days earlier, but he had no money.
The younger one, unemployed and kicked out of school, shrugged his shoulders about his long list of arrests starting with battery at age 9 and attempted murder when he was 14.
Princess Willis, a 42-year-old restaurant worker and mother of three who lives off the Trail, said the older man typifies crime on the sin strip.
"This area is poverty stricken," she said. "It's not the kids. These kids were born crack-addicted. His mother was a crack-addicted dancer and hooker. They're a product of crack and the '80s."Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times