For anyone out there who thinks cops lack creativity when it comes to crime fighting, I offer you the Skunk Squad of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.
Lt. Shaun Mathers and his special assignment unit in Compton kept seeing the same old problems -- prostitution, drug dealing, arson, etc. -- in abandoned buildings and other gathering places. They’d round up the bad guys night after night, but the perps were back in no time, and citizens kept screaming for the cops to do something.
In a brain-storming session, Lt. Mathers, Deputy Scott Gage and others got a wacky idea that seemed ridiculous at first -- maybe they could drive loiterers away with an unpleasant odor. No one even took it seriously until Gage bought a few stink bombs in a novelty store, and curiosity led him and Mathers to the Internet to search for something even smellier.
If this sounds as if it could have been a plot from “Leave It to Beaver,” maybe it’s because Lt. Mathers is the younger brother of that show’s star, Jerry Mathers. Lt. Mathers reports that The Beav was quite amused by the story that follows.
Deputy Gage discovered something called Liquid Fence, an animal repellent that smelled like rotten garlic. The deputies ordered it by mail and tested it at crime scenes, but the odor faded too quickly to be effective.
Next they ordered a repellent developed by scientists in New Zealand. It’s called Skunk Shot, and crime-fighting may never be the same.
Lt. Mathers’ crew knew it was onto something when Deputy Gage’s wife called him at work to say a package had arrived by mail. Mathers got on the phone and asked her to open it, then heard a horrified scream.
“It contaminated my whole garage,” Gage says of the Skunk Shot, a synthetic gel that comes in a small tube and reeks of a skunk’s best work.
The Skunk Squad decided to try the repellent in an abandoned, burned-out motel at 1510 S. Long Beach Blvd. During a two-week stretch in January and February, Mathers’ crew had made 30 arrests there.
On this particular visit, Mathers’ unit arrested six people, including three who had been arrested in the same location the day before. After the perps were carted away, the deputies reached for the Skunk Shot and went to work.
“A small amount of the olfactory nuisance was placed on the armrests of two abandoned couches,” Mathers wrote in a report. “The odor of the product became immediately apparent.”
Three hours later, the Skunk Squad returned and found the dilapidated motel empty, a rare sight at the illicit late-night flophouse. The deputies went back again two hours later, and it was still evacuated.
From Mathers’ report: “It appears that, at least for that short time,” Skunk Shot “was able to do what fences, gates and barbed wire,” along with multiple arrests, “had been unable to do.”
The high command was impressed.
“If it’s one less place you have to worry about,” says Capt. Cecil Rhambo (real name), “it’s worth it.”
Especially since deputies are at high risk when entering boarded up properties in nearly total darkness. Sheriff Lee Baca, a proponent of creative crime-fighting strategies, couldn’t have been more pleased when I filled him in on the details of Mathers’ operation.
“Crime, in and of itself, is a nasty odor,” quipped the top cop. “We’re in a time when people don’t want to hear excuses, and if we can come up with ways to fix a problem -- ways as ingenious as this -- my hat is off” to Mathers, Gage and deputies Dan Drysol, Matt VanderHorck and Brad Molner.
Mathers has since moved on to a desk job at headquarters, but he rejoined his former crew one day last week and made me an honorary member of the Skunk Squad.
Our first stop was at that abandoned motel on Long Beach Boulevard. This time Mathers and Gage rousted two squatters, one of whom was cleaning his crack pipe. Then Gage donned rubber gloves and smeared Skunk Shot, which looks like Vaseline, around the room.
In the interest of public service, I stood there as the odor permeated the place and clocked through my sinuses, at least until my eyes crossed and I was ready to gag.
My mind reeled as I thought of all the places I’d like to dab this stuff. Gang hangouts. Drug corners. Hollywood pitch meetings.
“It’s non-toxic, non-flammable, non-staining,” Gage said, and neither the deputy nor the criminal gets hurt. “There’s no down side to this.”
Except that Skunk Shot doesn’t work as well in breezy, open areas. Even in tighter spots, it usually wears off in a couple of days.
In another unit at the motel, the Skunk Squad became engaged in a war against an industrious crew of squatters who fought back with air fresheners.
“We’d hit ‘em with Skunk Shot, and they’d come back with Glade,” Mathers said.
A day or two after being driven away holding their noses, the squatters would return with all manner of auto air fresheners and aerosol cans, trying to overpower the skunk odor. Outside the unit, I found an empty can of Airwick, Country Berries scent.
Hey, better to trade foul odors than speeding bullets.
“I wish I had paid a lot closer attention in chemistry class,” says Mathers, who figures there must be a way to brew an even more offensive, longer-lasting odor.
After fouling the motel, my Skunk Squad partners and I rolled to a notorious underpass at Rosecrans and Tamarind. For months, deputies had made hundreds of arrests there to no avail. And then, a few months ago, they brought out their stinky new friend.
On our arrival, no one was there.
“I credit Skunk Shot with cutting the crowd by as much as two-thirds here,” said Gage, who has been buying the stuff online and paying out of his own pocket. It costs $12 a tube, and you can skunk about five locations per tube. Gage, going above and beyond the call, has already spent more than $100.
Unfortunately the odor isn’t wretched enough to scare criminals straight. It just pushes them along. But it’s more effective than relying on bureaucracy to clear abandoned properties, and it brings relief to neighbors, even if it comes at a cost.
When the Skunk Squad arrived at an abandoned apartment complex on Spring Street near Compton Boulevard, I went next door and talked to Marlon Terrell and Joe Manley.
“You get people doing their dope in there,” said Terrell as deputies brought out three squatters in handcuffs. When I explained the place was being skunked by deputies, Manley said he’d rather smell a skunk than worry about having a bunch of freeloaders next door.
David Garcia, who lives on the other side of the apartments, said he’s afraid squatters are going to burn the block down. After Deputy Gage applied Skunk Shot, I led Garcia in to have a whiff.
“Woahhh!” he wailed, reeling back on his heels.
Garcia wanted to know where he could buy some Skunk Shot.
“Look what you’ve done,” Mathers said to me. “Now we’ve got vigilante skunkers.”
In the last stop on our shift, the Skunk Squad returned to the abandoned motel where the repellent had been applied two hours earlier. The place still reeked, and we found not a soul.
Crime doesn’t sleep in the naked city. But it’s on the run in Compton, and holding its nose.
Steve Lopez writes Sunday, Wednesday and Friday. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.