Inglewood police take over North Market Street in 20 minutes.
Half a dozen unmarked cars speed down a block lined with small homes and closely packed apartment complexes. A teen-age girl on the sidewalk calls a warning--"Homeboy!"--to the young men who deal drugs in front of a pale blue apartment house.
The dealers scatter, slipping through doorways, hurrying down driveways. A chalk drawing of Santa Claus left over from Christmas grins from a dirty window as plainclothes officers with drawn guns sprint into a building and stalk through carports.
But for the most part, police don’t want the dealers tonight. They want the street.
A block east, evening rush-hour traffic roars by on La Brea Avenue, one of Inglewood’s busiest thoroughfares. Behind a La Brea warehouse, Police Lt. Larry Carter and two narcotics investigators sit in a van filled with recording equipment. Other officers are finishing Chinese dinners eaten off the hoods of cars and preparing two vans that will serve as a temporary jail.
The white-haired Carter has the serene look of a veteran symphony conductor about to take the stage. He receives word over his radio that officers have picked up an 18-year-old Market Street resident, one of the area’s top dealers, who police feared could interfere with the night’s operation.
“We’re going to need a password,” Carter says into the radio. “Come up with a good password that lets us know when there’s a deal about to happen.”
Back on the 700 block of Market, the police cars have disappeared. Three newcomers have set up shop in place of the dealers who run one of the city’s busiest open-air rock cocaine markets. The three men look bleary-eyed and roguish in caps, T-shirts, jeans. One of them holds a beer can. They watch expectantly when a passing car slows down.
“Check it out,” one of the three, a husky man propped against the building, murmurs into a microphone hidden under his jacket.
“That’s a good password right there, what you just said, ‘Check it out,’ ” Carter responds.
The three men are undercover officers. For the next five hours, the Inglewood narcotics unit will conduct an elaborate form of street theater known as a “reverse sting.”
It is the latest effort in an 18-month campaign aimed at the demand side of the rock cocaine economy in Inglewood. Police have periodically taken over the “rock houses” and street areas where drugs are sold, then posed as sellers and arrested buyers. Billboards throughout the city warn “Behind Your Rock Could Be a Cop,” a message intended for both local buyers and those who come from as far away as Orange County.
While police agencies concentrate their drug enforcement efforts these days on the pushers--particularly the big-time traffickers--Inglewood officials make no apology about devoting considerable resources as well to catching small-time users.
“Society looks at users as the victims,” Carter said. “Well, they’re causing the dope traffic to be out here. There can’t be sellers without them. The users are responsible.”
Carter and Inglewood Police Chief Raymond Johnson went to Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner last year with the proposal to reverse the usual police undercover drug efforts, in which officers pose as buyers. As a result, Inglewood police and the district attorney’s office conducted Los Angeles County’s first street-level “reverse sting” in March, 1987, making 50 arrests in two days.
Since then, more than 300 people have been arrested in 14 Inglewood stings, and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and other police agencies around California have experimented with similar efforts.
“Inglewood has absolutely been the pioneer in this,” said Michael Tramberger, director of special operations for the district attorney. “They’ve taken it further than anyone else.”
Not as Risky
On this night, Sept. 15, the department invited a reporter to observe the Market Street sting. Other than Carter, who heads the unit, the officers involved asked that their names not be used.
Several of the undercover officers acknowledged that the reverse stings are not as important--or as risky--as direct efforts against dealers. But they said periodic stings serve the dual purposes of reclaiming neighborhoods from dealers and scaring buyers away.
And by the end of this particular Thursday evening, a police officer and a suspect will narrowly avoid injury in an incident that shows how dangerous street theater can be.
The “seller” in the shiny jacket is the star. He paces in front of the building. He whistles occasionally. When cars slow down, he spreads his arms as if to say: “What do you need?”
Undercover officer use the gestures that real dealers use, but take pains not to mention or display drugs, actions that could be interpreted as entrapment.
The two other officers pretend to be the seller’s partners or lookouts. Their real role is to protect him and help arrest pedestrian buyers.
Two additional undercover officers act as “advisers.” They wander the street, ready to move quietly to prevent passers-by or residents from interfering.
‘Can Be a Pain’
“Street stings can be a pain,” Carter says. "(To stage) a successful street sting you need two things: a good seller and great chase cars.”
A deal takes place. A young couple drives off with a plastic bag containing marble-sized chunks of bona fide “crack” or “rock,” the potent, smokable form of cocaine. As the car pulls away, the seller relays a license number and description of the young couple to Carter and to the two-man teams roaming the area in unmarked chase cars.
The couple’s car heads north on La Brea. Three unmarked police cars maneuver into position ahead and behind. The chase cars stop, doors fly open and, amid the traffic, officers holding pistols descend on the occupants of the trapped car, shouting: “Police! Where is it? Where is it?”
The officers pull the couple from the car. The woman looks dazed. Her hair is in braids. She is eight months pregnant.
Because of her condition, the officer in charge of the field jail gives the woman a court date and lets her go.
“She told me, ‘I might have my baby by then, officer,’ ” he says. “I told her, not if you keep smoking that rock cocaine you won’t.”
The challenge is to retrieve the drug before suspects get rid of it. Some try to eat the evidence, so Inglewood police use extra-large plastic bags that are hard to swallow. Because moisture does not hurt rock cocaine, other buyers remove it from the bag and conceal it in their mouths.
Although police testimony and retrieval of an empty bag are enough to file a possession charge, obviously the best evidence is the cocaine itself. So Carter warns his men that if they consistently fail to retrieve drugs, “We’re going to shut down shop. We’re not in the business of selling dope.”
The district attorney’s office had to obtain a judge’s order to permit Inglewood police to use real drugs--a pound of confiscated cocaine--in the stings.
The cocaine has been tested twice for authenticity. It will be tested again after being retrieved from the people who buy it.
“We probably have the cleanest dope around,” Carter says.
An early evening rush keeps the seller busy. Unlike previous stings, which have caught affluent customers from the beach cities and beyond, the buyers are mainly from Inglewood. They buy $10 and $20 rocks. Most will spend a maximum of a night in jail unless they are wanted on other charges, and will probably be instructed by a judge to undergo counseling.
The prospect of light sentences is not much solace, however, at the time of arrest.
A 54-year-year-old grandmother cries and asks the police not to tell her family. A terrified 24-year-old accounting clerk presses his face against the side of the jail van and prays out loud. A gaunt, visibly strung-out man approaches the dealer without noticing an unmarked police car in the middle of the street. It takes three officers to handcuff him.
The amplified voices echo in the command van a block away. Carter and his men listen intently as another buyer asks, “Who got it?”
He wants a “dime,” a $10 rock. But he only has $8.75.
“Oh, you got pennies, too, huh?” the undercover officer says, agreeing to a discount.
“Let me put it in my mouth in case there’s police around.”
“Actually, I’m a police officer. You’re under arrest.”
Minutes later, a chase car deposits the handcuffed prisoner at the field jail. He faces the van, trembling. He described himself as a Vietnam veteran on disability. He is 38, short, chunky, his bushy hair peppered with gray. The scar on his back came from a bayonet, he said.
Asked if he has previous arrests, he says: “Yessir, once, back when I was growing up in Memphis, Tenn. We were nine kids and we didn’t have nothing to eat, and I stole five pounds of ham out of a cafeteria.”
Later, leaning against the glass of the dark van among silent, manacled prisoners, the man blames his misfortune on a woman. She promised him sex in exchange for crack cocaine. He knew of three rock houses in the area, but Market Street, where he has seen as many as 15 dealers working at one time, was closer.
The man claims that he has been drug-free for two years. As for the police, he says he has “no animosity against people for doing their job. I chalk this up to my own stupidity. I didn’t used to buy from strangers.”
And he says: “I’m never gonna buy drugs no more.”
In an apartment near the drug sellers’ turf, a Mexican teen-ager watches out the window with mild interest.
He says he often sees the buyers filling the street at night, the dealers hiding their stashes in bushes and in the tailpipes of parked cars. The police should do this more often, he says.
Each morning he goes out to look for day labor. Each evening he comes home and sees the dealers.
“I come from work and I see them out there working, too,” he says in Spanish, sitting in a barren apartment dominated by a couch and a television showing a Spanish-language newscast. “Their work is different. Little work, lots of money . But it doesn’t last long. They’re crazy. I try to stay out of their way. I want to move.”
Other neighbors are more assertive. When they realize that the evening’s new “seller” is a cop, they give him a three-page handbill denouncing the dealers by name and calling for neighbors to band together.
The letter, distributed by “Inglewood Block Clubs,” reads in part: “Call the landlord or owner of the building. Tell them about the drug problems that some of his tennants (sic) are causing. Ask him to have dealer evicted. . . . Crack dealers, the police will be watching you. Plan on a long vacation. In jail.”
After the flurry of arrests, things slow down. A chase car waits in a dark alley. The officers sit low in their seats, postures cultivated over long hours.
On the radio, the three undercover officers hanging out on Market can be heard discussing commute times.
Another voice comes over the radio. An officer asks someone making a food run to buy him M & M’s--"not the big kind or the small kind, medium-sized.”
In the chase car, the conversation touches on the addictive power of crack and the intensity of the drug problem nationwide. The officer behind the wheel says he feels that a federal solution will be necessary. “I’ve arrested everybody from low-life dirty bums to executives in prominent companies,” he says. “This is how bad it is: I’ve been selling undercover and had people I’ve arrested before come up to me and ask me for a ‘dove’ (a $20-rock). Then I arrest them, and they say, ‘I knew you were a cop, but I needed it bad.’ ”'
An animal the size of a small dog moves across the alley in front of the car. At first glance, it resembles a swollen rat. The officers sit up.
“What the hell is that?”
“That’s a possum,” the driver says.
The silhouette scuttles behind a garage holding something in its jaws.
The driver advances the car and illuminates the animal with the spotlight.
“Look at that thing.”
Lt. Carter wants 20 arrests. He has 17 prisoners and it is close to midnight. Someone suggests jokingly that the unit drive to another hot drug area and grab three buyers.
Then the “seller” says the password. The officers in the van listen as a young man in a gray compact makes a buy. He warns the undercover officer that he has seen police nearby and describes a chase car and the men inside. He drives off.
The chase cars converge.
“South on La Brea. This guy’s going in circles. East on Hyde Park.”
One ahead and two behind, the chase cars ready the trap at the tree-lined intersection of Hyde Park Boulevard and Edgewood Street. They stop the cars in the middle of the street, blocking the gray compact.
But the suspect throws his car in reverse and speeds backward toward the stopped police cars as officers emerge. He crashes into the side of one car, narrowly missing an officer who dives back into the front seat.
Officers run toward the suspect’s car, pointing their guns. The car stalls, and there is yelling and the screeching of tires as more officers arrive. Then, from the suspect’s car, there is an explosion that sounds very much like a gunshot.
A semicircle of plainclothes officers tense behind their guns, trying to figure out where the shot came from, their energy and firepower concentrated on the man at the wheel of the battered car. His empty hands are spread wide to his sides like a Crucifixion figure. He is bathed in light. He screams: “Don’t kill me!”
A voice orders the driver: “Turn the car off. Turn the car off.”
“I’ll do it,” another officer snaps at the driver. “You don’t move.”
They haul the driver out and pin him face down in the gutter. They talk fast, swearing, discharging an surge of adrenaline.
No one fired, they realize. The apparent gunshot was the suspect’s car backfiring. Stanley Wallace, 28, has come very close to getting himself blown apart for a bag of rock.
“He’s lucky to be alive,” an officer says, holstering his gun.
“I could see his hands,” another says. “That’s the only reason I didn’t cap off a round.”
There is an upended baby seat in the back of the suspect’s car. Wallace is almost hysterical as the officers search for the drugs. They find the plastic bag but not the cocaine. They shine flashlights in his mouth to see if he swallowed it.
“I didn’t buy nothin,” he says, not knowing that the sale has been tape recorded. “If it’s illegal to buy drugs, how come that dude’s out there selling?”
“ ‘Cause people like you are out there buying,” comes the response.
When asked why he tried to escape, he insists that he did not know the men were police officers, although the officers he described to the undercover seller are among those who stopped him.
The street has filled with curious residents and police. The officers go over the crash scene, preparing for several hours of report writing. One officer is sent to the hospital for a whiplash injury. Carter gives the word: the sting is over. Eighteen arrests isn’t bad.
Charged With Assault
Wallace will be charged with assault on a police officer with a deadly weapon--his car--as well as possession of cocaine, charges on which he is now awaiting a preliminary hearing.
Minutes after his arrest, he sits handcuffed in the back of a police car.
He leans forward and gets the attention of one of the officers.
“Thank you for not killing me, man,” he says with tears in his eyes. “Thank you for not killing me.”