Pubdate: Tue, 22 May 2007
Source: Victoria Times-Colonist (CN BC)
Copyright: 2007 Times Colonist
Author: Rob Shaw


On Yates Street, the 'go-to' spot for drugs downtown, deals happen in
the blink of an eye. A few times a year, the cops try to clean it all
up. This time, the Times Colonist's Rob Shaw was there.

Times Colonist

You won't find it on a map, but there are two Yates streets in
Victoria. One is the Yates of coffee shops and restaurants, bustling
with shoppers and tourist traffic. To see the other, keep your head up
and your eyes on those people you might normally avoid -- the ones
walking aimlessly, resting in locked doorways or, suspiciously,
waiting near the bus stop for a bus that never arrives.

Yates, between Government and Blanshard streets, is what police call
Victoria's go-to spot for cocaine and marijuana. "It's just like
heading down to the open-air market," says Const. Conor King, a police
drug expert and member of the department's Strike Force squad, which
focuses on drugs, surveillance and undercover operations.

A deal on this street happens so quickly you can blink and miss it.
There are palm swipes of cash for baggies of drugs, and a cast of
characters known as middlemen herding potential buyers to the bigger
dealers on the block.

Two or three times a year, Victoria police try to clean the street by
arresting the dealers. They acknowledge it's only a temporary fix, but
they say it can have a filter-down effect to reduce petty thefts,
break-ins and robberies downtown.

Their most recent effort was called Project Rock This Way, a reference
to the dominance of crack cocaine, bought in quantities called rocks.
Drug users typically smoke the heated vapour of a rock to get an
immediate euphoric high, which often lasts for fewer than 15 minutes.
It is highly addictive.

Between April 12 and 27, as part of the project, around 10 undercover
police officers set traps for street dealers. This weekend, they
obtained arrest warrants for 16 people on 19 charges of trafficking a
controlled substance.

"It was a success," said King, one of the lead planners of the
project. "We arrested some of the persons we set out to target, and
there were a few surprises, too."

The Times Colonist went with police to witness some of the

Making a drug purchase on the street is all about eye contact,
explained one of the department's most senior female undercover
officers, who conducted many of the project's street buys.

Using that technique on a day in mid-April, it took only minutes for
her to find a potential dealer hanging around a bus stop on Yates,
between Douglas and Broad streets.

This is a busy spot for drugs, police say, because dealers look
inconspicuous among the waiting passengers. As well, the bus stop is
near a pay phone. Many of the middlemen are living on the street --
when they get a customer, they use pay phones to call the bigger
suppliers on their cellphones. In return for the customer, the
suppliers give the middlemen drugs or cash.

Sure enough, once the undercover cop makes contact with the middleman,
he gets on the phone to set up a meeting with a bigger supplier.

"That guy will be a level up on the food chain," says Sgt. Dave Bown,
the officer in charge of Strike Force.

The middleman escorts the cop to near the Cineplex Odeon Theatre, at
the corner of Yates and Blanshard, where a man in a dark blue track
suit with fashionable white stripes comes strolling down the street.

He puts a large brown medicine bag on top of a garbage can and starts
pulling out drugs. It happens fast -- $40 in cash gets a rock of crack
cocaine. The dealer gives his phone number to the cop and walks away.
Deal finished. Bown smiles. "Perfect. That's how it's done."

Back at Victoria police headquarters, officers are very pleased with
the buy. They've identified the track-suit trafficker as a 26-year-old
"big man on the block" who uses a group of street people as his eyes
and ears for deals, says Const. Brent Keleher, a downtown bike officer
who is co-running the project with Strike Force.

The police officers feel track-suit man is a good catch. Not only
because he's the big man on the block, but also because he's currently
serving weekend time at the Vancouver Island Regional Correctional
Centre for possession of a prohibited weapon. Weekdays, he peddles
drugs downtown.

Just a few weeks prior to Project Rock This Way, the track-suit
trafficker was stopped by officers who thought he had drugs. They
found a knife -- 90 per cent of low-level dealers carry weapons,
police estimate -- but no drugs. He has more than 30 prior convictions
for assault and weapons offences, but only one for trafficking. With a
limited history in drugs, officers expect he'll shoot through what
they call the revolving door of the justice system.

"But these are the guys you really want to get," says

Police don't arrest him after the first buy. They first process all
the evidence and fill out the paperwork, and decide to hit him again.

The same undercover officer calls the cellphone number she got during
the initial buy. At first, the big man on the block is hesitant about
the deal, suggesting, ironically, that he has to be careful because
the cops busted him recently.

Eventually he agrees to meet again near the Odeon Theatre. This time
the female officer buys $20 of heroin. She also buys $40 of crack cocaine.

Officers follow the track-suit trafficker to an alcove near the Casa
Nova Cafe on Johnson Street, where he makes a hand-off motion to
another man who comes out of the Street Link shelter.

A squad of uniformed bike officers moves in and arrests track-suit man
and his girlfriend. They don't find any drugs. Later, the Strike Force
members surmise he may have been carrying the crack cocaine in his
mouth and swallowed the baggies. It's an old street technique to evade
police, because the baggies are resistant to the stomach's acid and
the whole package can be discharged from the body later.

Nonetheless, they charge the man with two counts of trafficking drugs.
As well, police charge the middleman, whom they have arrested numerous
times before.

"We see the same faces over and over again," says King. "But the goal
of this project is to put a dent in the repeat offenders."

"Will someone else come along and take their place? Sure they will,"
added another of the department's deep undercover officers, who spends
much of his time dealing with drug issues. "But you will see a
short-term effect in the downtown core.

"The streets will be cleaner."
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