Stalking Dealers in Coyote Gulch : Foot Beat Takes to Cars to Keep Pressure on Pacoima Drug Traffickers

Times Staff Writer

At night, Coyote Gulch is a no-man's land where there are only three reasons for being: buying, selling or busting.

The product here is PCP. A menthol cigarette dipped in phencyclidine hydrochloride halfway to the filter goes for $10. The buyers are those cruising by in their cars. The sellers are the teen-agers standing in small groups hawking their product, then running to and from the cars delivering it. And the busters are the cops on the Pacoima foot beat.

Coyote Gulch is Los Angeles police slang that goes back further than anybody can remember. The gulch actually is a cul-de-sac in San Fernando Gardens, a 448-unit public housing project off Pierce Street. Around the corner is a spot the cops call Mota Alley, where the product is marijuana. Nearby is Bump Alley, where cocaine is dealt. After that, there are North Gulch, West Gulch and other places like them.

The gulches and alleys make for some of the most drug-plagued areas in the San Fernando Valley, and they are the beat of the six-man patrol, a unit that began on foot three years ago next month.

Back to Tradition

At the onset, the patrol was designed as a step back to traditional law enforcement, with uniformed officers walking through a small area of housing projects and along a stretch of shops on Van Nuys Boulevard. These were the places hardest hit by the street-level drug trading and crime, and police say that, if they were taken back from the drug dealers, the core of the problem would erode.

To be sure, the patrol in three years has become an increasingly recognized presence in the area, whereas open street dealing is less so. But, in that time, police--and many Pacoima residents--also have seen the drug problem slowly spread from those core neighborhoods to nearby residential streets.

The foot patrol has been forced to move along with it, and, in effect, covers so much territory now that its officers are on foot only when they are chasing down suspected dealers.

The three-year evolution has brought a sense of accomplishment and frustration. Some officers and residents fear the unit has begun a job it can't finish.

"We measure our success by looking at the streets," said Sgt. Cary Krebs, supervisor of the patrol. "It is a matter of degrees. We have cleared up the supermarket atmosphere that was in the projects.

"But a lot of the problem has moved out into the other neighborhoods. So to say the problem has been cleared up is actually a misnomer. There is still a tremendous narcotics problem here."

Pressure Points

Krebs' words reflect what is becoming an axiom for the Pacoima beat: Applying pressure in one spot doesn't end the problem. A problem seemingly may disappear one day, only to reappear another day when the pressure is off or move to a new spot where there is no pressure at all. And you don't have to be a police officer in Pacoima to see that.

"Some nights it's dead out there--that's when you know the police have come around," Max Waller, president of the residential council at San Fernando Gardens, said of the drug dealing. "And then, some nights, it's a drive-through drug store. The police make their raids, which we're thankful for, but the dealers just come right back and do their thing, start selling again."

Not only do the dealers keep coming back to haunt the projects, but some have moved into neighborhoods of single-family homes where, until recently, the police pressure was not as great.

So, on most days, the patrol officers have more ground to cover than they could do on foot. As Capt. William Pruitt, supervisor of patrol in the LAPD's Foothill Division, put it recently, it is a "motorized foot beat."

"We just don't have the time to have these officers walking down the street," Pruitt said. "They are totally committed to chasing thugs and drug dealers all day long."

Pruitt is concerned that the commitment has stretched the patrol too thin. But, he said, the constraints of staffing and money leave him no alternative but to use the unit as his best and only resource against the problems.

"We have totally gone off target," said Pruitt, who noted the primary reason for establishing the foot beat was to provide a more visible police presence and build community relations in the area. "I've had to set a higher priority on the drug situation," he said.

On one recent day, the beat officers were in three patrol cars moving through the sprawling San Fernando Gardens. Entering the projects from different streets, they stayed in contact by radio. Small groups, mostly of teen-agers, stood watching the patrol cars move by. Some younger children waved, others stared defiantly at the officers. Between the buildings, there was the sound of whistling--the warning call of the "players," as the dealers here are called.

Krebs, in one of the cars, turned down the road police call Mota Alley and saw a group of young men a block away scatter and run back through the courtyards. The officers from the other patrol cars were waiting for them, having maneuvered into cutoff points. Three runners were stopped and searched, only one arrested. An officer named Mike Cherry had witnessed him dropping a bag of marijuana as he ran.

A silent crowd gathered near the stopped police cars and watched. Once the player was handcuffed and put in the back of Cherry's car, the patrol moved on.

On Van Nuys and Bradley Avenue, the officers stopped a man they had arrested only a week before. Out on bail, he was carrying crack cocaine. That won him a seat next to the first player in the back of Cherry's patrol car.

"That's two in row for you, my man," Cherry said to the man. "This time you might not be getting out so quick." The man didn't reply.

It was only 2 p.m., and the patrol moved on, north into blocks of single-family homes near the Simi Valley Freeway and then back toward the projects, hitting the hot spots, the places where drugs are dealt on street corners and out of homes.

By late afternoon the back seats of two of the patrol cars carried prisoners. In all, it was a routine day for the patrol, part of a routine week that would result in 53 drug arrests, more than half of them for selling the illegal substances.

In the Foothill Division, which covers most of the northeast Valley from Sylmar to Tujunga, officers made 3,156 narcotics-related arrests last year, up about 8% from 1986. Police said most of those arrests were made in Pacoima by the beat officers, the only unit targeting drug traffic in the area.

Police say the drug activity, primarily centered in neighborhoods along Van Nuys Boulevard between Laurel Canyon and Glenoaks boulevards, is at the heart of nearly all crime that burdens the area.

"Dope is the seed," Krebs said. "If you have dope, you have burglaries, robberies, stolen cars, violent crime."

Last year in Pacoima, there were 23 murders and 871 aggravated assaults, according to police records. There also were 486 robberies, 854 burglaries and 797 auto thefts.

No statistics can say how many of those crimes were related to drugs, but police say the availability of drugs in an area breeds lawlessness. They say property crimes occur when people become desperate for money or property to trade for drugs. They say people are injured or killed during those robberies and drug rip-offs.

The officers point to drug and crime statistics to illustrate why the patrol no longer is the traditional community relations beat it once was.

"There is no other unit that can work narcotics problems in our area on a day-to-day basis," Krebs said of the patrol. "There is only us. So you just can't take the time to walk through the projects and wave to everybody and do the public relations thing. There is too much else to be done."

Patrol supervisor Pruitt said he doesn't foresee a change in that strategy. Progress in the drug battle comes slowly and doesn't last long.

"We are making it riskier for the dealers," Pruitt said. "They are not standing on the streets as much, but they are standing in the shadows. The problem is, if you take your finger off of it for one week, it then takes two more weeks to get the drug traffic down. It is a cycle we cannot seem to break."

Not breaking the cycle weighs heavily on both police officers and the people in the community who don't break laws.

A woman who lives in a neighborhood near the intersection of Van Nuys and Glenoaks boulevards said police patrols are too few and far between to make any permanent inroads against a drug-dealing operation near her home. Fearing retribution from the dealers, she did not want her name used.

"It is a game," the woman said. "The police come out," and the dealers go. "The police go, and they come out. What can be done but put police there all the time? Anybody can tell you that's not going to happen. And, if it did, the drug people would just find another corner to perch on."

Cherry has been on Pacoima's so-called foot beat since it started. As he patrols the projects and streets of the neighborhoods, he often hears his name called by children and adults. There are hellos from people happy to see the police. Many of the people he arrests know him by name too.

Cherry said his time on the streets has given him a real feel for the community and for its frustrations. At the end of his watch each day, he knows he can leave the problems of Pacoima behind for his home in Simi Valley. It bothers him that so many other people can't.

"The main downer on the beat is the cycle," he said. "You put these people in jail, they do their time--a few months, two years, whatever--and they get out, and they are clean, no drugs in their systems. But they come back to the same streets and fall right back into the drugs. It's a cycle. What future do you have if you can't get out of it?"

Despite those frustrations, Cherry has remained on the beat while most other officers are rotated in and out each year. The 15-year police veteran stays by choice, turning down opportunities for other assignments.

"It sounds corny, but I care about what happens here," he explained out on patrol one day. "If you care about something, and you believe there is a light at the end of the tunnel, then you want to see it through. I think that, if you didn't care out here, you wouldn't survive."

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