Pubdate: Thu, 21 Nov 2002
Source: San Francisco Examiner (CA)
Copyright: 2002 San Francisco Examiner
Author: Richard Byrne Reilly


Have the gloves come off?

In recent months, undercover narcotic cops have launched an all-out
war on small-time street dealers selling crack and heroin to a
seemingly never-ending clientele in the seedy alleys and streets of
The City's overlooked neighborhoods.

For years, those kinds of crimes and criminals were a low priority.
The crimes are relatively minor and the conventional wisdom was that
they clogged up the jails and courts. But years of looking the other
way led to increasingly brazen dealing and a diminishing quality of
life that sparked a backlash among voters and city officials against
smaller street crimes.

The recently passed Care Not Cash initiative, complaints by business
organizations and mandates by new Police Chief Earl Sanders to target
street crime are all related.

Under Sanders, the department's narcotics officers are now going out
on monthly daylong buy-and-bust sweeps of the street dealers.

Monday, the latest sweep, involving about 30 undercover cops, DEA
agents and state narcotic officers, got under way at vice
headquarters, a nondescript bunkerlike building on The City's eastside.

1 p.m.: Briefing

Lt. Henry Garcia goes over buy-and-bust operations targeting the
Mission and Tenderloin neighborhoods. There is no particular target:
undercover officers will just blend in with the street scene, buying
small amounts of drugs with marked bills. After the buy, the initial
officer will walk away and use pre-arranged signals to alert other
officers to a successful buy. They will move in for the arrest,
seizing the marked money as evidence.

Garcia, a veteran cop who sports horn-rimmed glasses, goes over the
radio frequencies, the call signs and confirms that all communications
are encrypted. Cops check their weapons, tune their radios and double-
check batteries for juice.

Almost in unison, they begin to head for the doors.

"Good luck," Garcia says.

2 p.m.: Everyone in place

The officers, who are all men except for a woman from a state agency,
split into two groups and drive off in an array of unmarked vehicles.

By 2 p.m. sharp, they are in place and checking in by radio with their
street names: "Scrappy," "Nasty," "Monkey" and "Lab" among them.

Fifteen minutes later, the radios crackle to life. Nasty has made a
buy at 6th and Minna, and the officers' vehicles take off, tires squealing.

2:15 p.m.: First bust

Within two minutes, it is over. A woman sold two rocks of crack to an
undercover officer, then ran inside a nearby store when officers move
in. Capt. Tim Hettrich, head of the SFPD's vice unit, says she is
probably from the East Bay, one of many who take BART to San Francisco
daily to ply their trade because of The City's reputation as a soft
touch on this kind of crime.

But things are changing, Hettrich said.

"There's a much higher emphasis placed on narcotics now," Hettrich
says. "The upper previous management had very little experience with
drugs and operations like this. And you're now seeing closer
cooperation with the feds on drug cases."

2:30 p.m.: "Where's the wagon?"

The arrests start happening about every 15 minutes. A radio call goes
out: "Where's the wagon? ... We need you at 6th and Minna for prisoner
transport." "Copy that."

A woman is taken to the women's jail at 7th and Bryant streets. Like
the others arrested, she will be processed and officially charged with
conspiracy to sell crack cocaine to an undercover cop, a felony. It is
up to the DA's Office to prosecute or let her walk.

"One of the chief's objectives is cleaning up 6th and Market, making
sure tourists don't have to deal with the filth," said an investigator
who declined to be named. "Every one of these cases is a good one,
cops are putting their lives on the line. But we're also wary, mainly,
will the DA let them go free?"

After one buy, Nasty is attacked, and he and another officer drop the
man to the ground and handcuff him. He is later charged with felony
assault of a police officer.

At one point, a 15-year-old rear ends Hettrich's unmarked sedan in a
run-of-the-mill traffic accident, and tries to walk away. But today,
officers surround the driver, learning he has no ID, no driver's
license, no insurance. The car belongs to a friend's cousin, he says.

"I don't care if the pope's in town, or if your great-grandfather
comes back from the grave. You're going to jail," an angry cop tells
the hapless kid, who is carted off to a juvenile facility for processing.

2:30-7 p.m.: "Spit it out!"

Scrappy buys two rocks from a guy with gold-capped teeth, and a search
uncovers $200 worth of rock cocaine while a sidekick sports a thick
wad of cash. He tells the cops his name and that he has taken BART
from Richmond to sling rock.

"Now you see what were dealing with," says a narc from the corner of
his mouth.

As dusk falls, the arrests come faster, about one every five or ten

At 5:45, a narc buys two crack rocks from a suspect who ducks into a
head shop at Jones and O'Farrell streets to change a $20 bill. In a
second, cops are on him, but he manages to swallow nearly 20 plastic-
wrapped rocks in a desperate bid to get rid of the evidence. "Spit it
out!" the cops demand, and they come tumbling out onto the carpeted

8 p.m.: "You need people like us"

The buy-and-bust operation finally begins winding down. Cops have made
33 arrests in both neighborhoods.

Radios again crackle to life, and some cops agree to meet for dinner,
while others head to the vice station. Most have been working since 7

As the cars head home, one veteran cop expresses doubts that many of
the cases will end in convictions and jail time for the accused.

"In order to clean up these streets, you need people like us to go
after the dealers, and you need people to prosecute them," he says

"Some of the judges, and (District Attorney Terrence) Hallinan are
supposed to be solutions to these types of problems. But the reality
is, they're part of the problem."
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