Crack in the Box
I haven’t seen Javier for days. When I’m driving home, I can usually spot him after midnight lurking on Los Angeles Street near Fourth, or haunting Little Tokyo... stalking tourists, begging for coins during the daylight hours. Sometimes he’s on Olvera Street behind the Perpetual Adoration Chapel, just hanging out. That’s his usual geography, but I’ve also spotted him on Winston and Wall streets at 4 a.m., standing on the sidewalk with the eyes of a wild cat. And there was that time I caught him wandering Alameda and Seventh streets in the late morning after a decidedly rough night, trying desperately to break out of a sketch with a Happy Meal.
Javier likes to listen to Mexican metal bands turned up loud on an off-brand CD player he bought wholesale in the Toy District. He likes Mana and Molotov, but not El Tri, Jaguars or what he does in cars with men for money. “No me gusto. Solo lo hago por la roca,” he says, when I finally catch up with him. He squints his eyes to convey the pain he feels about what he’s become. But he’s a liar. He’s numb. His pathetic grimace is part of a manufactured posture that he can slip in and out of at will. But I give him five bucks anyway.
Mostly what the slight 14-year-old from Sinaloa with the harelip scar who smells like a restaurant dumpster likes is smoking crack. And like a lot of people who live by the rock, that’s what he’s doing downtown. It’s where the drugs are. Where the crack is. An area that soft-spoken, veteran police Lieutenant Lionel Garcia calls “the box.” It’s an informal term in cop-speak that means the floating area of most concentrated crime in any given precinct. According to Garcia, the man with all the numbers, the box on Skid Row is currently between Fifth and Seventh streets from Los Angeles Street to Central Avenue. The epicenter of the box is Fifth and San Pedro.
The box is a drug supermarket where gang members from all over L.A. and the surrounding area come to sell crack and heroin. They sell it to the homeless who are there to take advantage of the centralized services, and to anyone else who wants to take advantage of the vast inventory and rock-bottom dope prices available at the country’s largest swap meet of despair.
The box is where addicts and people with psychiatric disorders sleep on the sidewalk. It’s where people openly use drugs, turn tricks for five dollars in Porta Potties and partake in other drug-related activities. The population of the box is overwhelmingly black. The crack’s in the box and so is Javier.
The Super Dope Cops
The LAPD’s Central Division regulates the box. The narcotics cops make more than 5,000 drug arrests here annually. I met two of the LAPD’s finest on the roof of the building where I live on Skid Row. They let me tag along with them.
Nobody looks up from Skid Row. From up on the roof the constant parade of dealers and addicts reads like an anthill to the naked eye as they wander the streets trying to connect with each other. But even if these creepy crawlers did look skyward they wouldn’t be able to see me or the super dope cops I’m kicking it with. These undercover narcos are experts at concealing themselves from view as they survey the crack traffic on the street below through powerful binoculars.
Chris Luna and Rick Kellogg are two buttoned-down, pumped-up, clean-cut drug cops who could moonlight as Chippendale’s dancers. They spend a good part of most days staked out in this precision ballet of elevated perspective as radio waves carry their lofty intelligence to stealthy uniform cars lying in wait on the mean streets below. It’s a coordinated, meticulous dance that is second nature to them. There’s an element of performance in the way these guys work. They’re everything that makes boys want to be cops... Not Javier, probably, but other boys. Boys with papers and parents and futures and whatnot.
Aside from the fact that they look like superheroes (Rick won first place three years running in the police bodybuilding competition) and spend their time in a toxic cesspool of mental illness and drug addiction, Chris and Rick appear to be relatively normal people. Chris, a 29-year-old single father, worked seven years in South-Central before relocating to Central Division a year ago. He’s more verbal than his partner Rick, a very intense 37-year-old single father with eight-plus years at Central, including two in narcotics. Rick is the kind of guy you’d trust with your life, and Chris does. These guys are working on Skid Row because they believe they can make a difference.
Chris breaks it off for me. “There are more random gangs from all over the Southland here in Central Division than I could believe when I first got here. I literally couldn’t believe it. You have rival gangs who could never ever look at each other without it escalating to some form of violence, and they’ll be selling dope right next to each other in Central. It’s a safe zone. It’s business. Hold on a second ...”
Rick and Chris spot a deal in progress down on the street and home in on the action while we chat. Their binoculars are not LAPD-issue. These guys spent a grand each out of pocket for the super-dope spyware.
“You’ll get a lot of buyers from all over Los Angeles in the downtown area because they know they’re gonna find dope,” Chris continues. “They don’t have to wait for someone to pull up. They know if they want crack cocaine to go to Fifth and Crocker, or Fifth and San Pedro, or Fifth and Main. If they want heroin, go to Broadway. We do so many arrests here in Central... we do 80 to 100 arrests [monthly] in our squad, the eight or 10 of us... so we do a thousand a year.”
Rick radios the details of the buy going down to the street units. “Going toward to market,” he says. “Male white, green over blue talking to male black in black pants, blue Adidas T-shirt on a red bike. Bindles out. Standby. I got him. I got an exchange. He’s got the bindle in his right hand. I think they’re arguing about the size of the rock.” Chris zooms in. “Rock’s going in the left hand,” he says. “Okay ... buyer’s completed the transaction ... is looking at the rock in his left hand.”
“I got eyes on the seller,” Rick assists.
A squad car rolls up on the buyer. Two cops hop out and handcuff him, a black man in his 40s. “Dealer’s in custody,” Rick relays the news from the radio.
You can just tell these super dope cops love their job. They want to be here doing this.
“Our mission’s to target the street-level drug dealer. We fully believe that narcotics is the root of all evil in downtown L.A.,” Rick says with the conviction of a man completely committed.
“It’s blatant enough out here on the street and they know that undercover and uniformed officers are watching,” Chris says.
He schools me on the current exchange rates on the crack market as applied to the pancake-size piece they took off the dealer they just busted. “That cookie you saw is probably a couple of ounces. They can cut that up into 50 to 75 rocks at five bucks apiece. They can double or triple their money for powder by cooking it up. Generally what you’ll find is our dealers will carry these plastic bindles of either eight rocks or 16 rocks. Wholesale, they’ll buy the eight rocks for 20 bucks and sell each rock for five dollars and double their money. What our resident user-slash-dealer will do is buy the wholesale pack of eight for 20 bucks. They’ll smoke four and sell four. They’ll have their 20 bucks and they’ll do that all day. It’s business. That’s all it is. And going to jail is not a deterrent. It’s kind of like paying business taxes ... it’s part of the deal.”
I think of Javier and wonder if he buys the eight-for-20 bulk rate or pays retail. He could have bought one $5 rock with the fin I gave him. I ask Chris and Rick if they know him.
“You have a lot of kids in their teenaged years who were crack babies when they were born,” Chris says. “You’re looking at people who are close to being adults who were born addicted. What’s that hotel over there on Wall and Winston, the Bixby? There’s a hotel there and there’s literally families ... moms and aunts with a bunch of kids. There’s one kid there who’s a juvenile. I’ve arrested him for sales. He’s like seven-two. Biggest kid I’ve ever seen in my life.”
No, not the big kid, I tell him. The little one with the harelip scar and the dirty fingers. Chris says he knows exactly who he is. In fact, he says he just saw him when he was going into the Criminal Courts building.
Boss of the Box
Shot-caller Captain Andy Smith is Chris and Rick’s boss and the ascendant master of all Skid Row cops. A true-blue straight shooter from Iron Mountain, Michigan, Smith is a steely eyed, smooth-operating ultra communicator with a tight rein on a mission from God (who takes his human form in the person of LAPD Chief William Bratton, who handpicked Smith).
“The selection of Smith is because he is who he is,” Chief Bratton tells me, calling from the back seat of his city-assigned automobile, on his way to a fund-raiser. “He’s a relationship builder. He worked in a very difficult command in our business. Commander of the 911 centers with almost 700 civilian employees, with all types of issues and problems. He did an extraordinary job there and he is a caring person.” Hey, not a bad recommendation from the big boy. Andy Smith must really be the shit.
Smith speaks mostly in abbreviated, minimal cop speak with a glaring Midwestern accent. It’s endearing. “This isn’t the captain of 77th [precinct],” he says, “where you have 42 gang homicides a year to date. Isn’t captain of Rampart where there’s these El Salvadorian and South American gangs running around and that kind of problem. We have a completely different problem here.”
I flank the fashionably baldheaded, fit and trim 40-something commander through the Central Community police station on Sixth Street. It’s a tight operation; demi-military ... all “good morning sir”s and “good morning captain”s as we hustle down the fluorescent-lit hallways through the rank and file. Past the watch commander, past neatly dressed Asian women laboring intensely at nice big computer screens in the crime-analysis center. Past Officer Brown, a kid at his first day on the job who has just made his first arrest and looks better equipped than our boys in Baghdad in a Kevlar vest with a service revolver; a green, beanbag shotgun; a Remington 12-gauge shotgun; a 50,000-volt Taser; and four walkie-talkies.
“Realistically, the crime in Central is really pretty low,” Captain Smith says. “Most of it is somebody smashes a window in a car that’s parked and takes the CDs ... that kind of stuff. We have 13 murders this year to date, almost all of ’em narcotics-related.” And Bratton says even that is down 12 percent since Smith has been on the case.
One of the new pressures on the precinct is the well-documented revival of downtown.
“It really is happening,” Smith says. “Ten thousand new units coming on in the year. That’s 20,000 people. In a population of what we say is about 42,000. That’s a huge jump and it’s only gonna get bigger faster. One of the problems is that a lot of folks who are hanging out here aren’t necessarily homeless. They’re down here because, as one of the folks put it, ‘This is Mardi Gras on crack all the time.’ You can come down here and party. You can come down here and buy dope. You can come down here and hang out. You can come down here and have sex. Do whatever it is you wanna do ... kind of a party atmosphere ... if your standards are real low about where you’re gonna hang out and party.”
I follow Smith to the rear of the station where the major organs are housed. It’s a huge space with lots of desks pushed together and separated into sections. Smith introduces me to some well-dressed homicide detectives who smile and nod, but the water runs a little too dark in homicide to conceal the ominous juju with a perfunctory smile and a dry-cleaned suit. These are the guys who see the really gruesome stuff on a regular basis. They stare at me like mediums scanning my psychic blueprint for past-life evidence. It’s intrusive and unnerving. Still, they’re nicely dressed, for detectives that is. It’s not Brooks Brothers at the Pentagon, but it’s not Supercuts and Ross Dress for Less either.
“We had a homicide here about a week and a half ago, Thursday night,” Smith tells me, explaining how the constant buzz of the crack Mardi Gras adds up to real crime. “Two o’clock in the morning. Two people get into a dispute over a bicycle. The bicycle isn’t there, but there’s a perception that someone steals someone’s bicycle ... whatever. One individual picks up a homemade knife — a blade of a knife wrapped in twine — and stabs another individual in the heart. The guy ends up dying four hours later in the hospital. We got out there when he was still conscious and breathing. We figured out who did it. Caught the guy. The guy, this suspect, lives in Azusa. He’s an Azusa-13 gang member. He was just down here to party. He has a home. He lives with his mom in Azusa. There’s a lot of that. A lot of folks come here, a lot of gang members come here, cuz there’s an unlimited supply of narcotics buyers.”
Oh, now I get it. Skid Row is like Vegas for gang bangers. And unless they get popped by the super dope cops... what happens on the Row stays on the Row.
Captain Smith has an undeniable humility. He comes off as a humanitarian with a gun and baton. As we leave the station and hit the street for a little stroll around the ’hood, we walk head-on into a squad-car pursuit. Smith pulls his baton and subdues a really big, psychiatric-patient-looking guy who’s ranting at top volume until backup arrives in the form of five cops charging out from the station like cartoon superheroes, led by an all-business, handsome young up-and-comer named Albert Gonzalez. Smith handles the whole thing without dropping his professional demeanor or my tape recorder, which I handed him and which he held within 10 inches of his chin during the entire commotion to get it all on record. Straight-up super dope cop move.
When that’s handled, Captain Smith and I stroll down San Julian Street past a smiling 2-year-old in cornrows pointing a pink balloon-animal Tech-9 at us. I ask Smith if he knows Javier, the kid with the harelip scar. He says he’s not sure and laments how tragic it is with all these skid-kids down here, then he picks up a soggy football from the gutter and tosses it with a teenage kid standing on the sidewalk behind the Union Mission among a bunch of families. He breaks off his plans for fixing City Central. It’s a good plan, I guess, a lot about clear units and D.A.s and DEAs and the FBI and multifaceted this and that, and I swear to God I believe he’s gonna do exactly what he says.
Then we head up Fifth Street and things start to get weird. A large black man in stinky clothes approaches Smith. “What are you up to, captain?” he asks. Then the man goes into a story about his frequent urination problem due to his medical condition, which resulted in a ticket for peeing in MacArthur Park, and on into a paranoid rant about his signature being forged, his existing warrants and some other less intelligible ramblings before Smith interrupts and advises him to bring his documentation by the station. Smith says he’ll help him investigate, and we’re on our way. But before we get more than a few feet I run into my old neighbor, Maria from Silver Lake. The former chola hottie is completely strung out and sleeping in the streets, but she wants to hug and I oblige, which gets a raised eyebrow from the Cap and some angry muttering from her new boyfriend, a Hispanic guy who has recently pissed his pants. Maria tells him we’re just friends and I give her my number, but when I ask where her kids are she gets a little Tourette’s and accidentally tells me to go fuck myself. I don’t bother trying to explain the relationship to the captain, and off we go.
Again, we don’t get more than a few feet before we’re interrupted, this time by a really ripe-smelling border brother who recognizes Smith and initiates a conversation about soccer and their favorite teams. And I think the guy might have a crack pipe palmed. Captain Smith starts to wrap up our talk as we head back to the station. “In my interview for commander — and I say it to my officers in roll call — I said what this department needs is a little less Dirty Harry and a little more Sheriff Andy Taylor. Remember Mayberry RFD?”
I tell him I do remember, after which my friend Otis ... I mean Demetrius... a guy I know from Hollywood who is “on a run,” and who is completely gacked and hasn’t bathed in more days than the captain’s soccer buddy (who is now freely brandishing a crack pipe), steps to me and, like Maria, wants to hug. I oblige him too, introduce him to the captain and we continue on our walk. I don’t think things will be quite the same between me and Captain Smith, but oh well.
Choc in the Box
Kitty-corner from Homicide is the Gang Unit, where Detective Coordinator Bryce Spafford is using a computer program that randomly assembles a photo lineup of some young thugs. It could easily be cover art for a new release by The Game. Senior Officer Robert Quecada and Investigator Adrian Lopez flank Spafford. All three coifed cops look like they could play themselves in a movie... suits and ties with a lot more flavor than the heavy homicide regalia.
Spafford tells me about the unspoken gang-truce zone for the purpose of drug commerce. Meanwhile, Quecada pulls up a Web site for the Snowman Cliq (www.snowmancliq.com), rappers from Watts with alleged drug-dealing ties, then plays the video for the track “Get Them Chips,” which shows some really cool, young black guys lip-synching in front of a “caught on tape” SWAT-team drug raid in their ’hood. The track is tight. The message seems clear: “Sell my weed/Sell my weed/Sell my rock/Sell my rock/Gotta get my chippy on... San Julian is the block/Where I used to sell my rock.” One of the Snowman Cliq’s rappers, a guy called Choc Nitty, got busted and apparently the bio info on the Web site was used to help encourage him to take a plea. These cops are real high-tech.
In the interest of getting the broad perspective, I’m meeting Choc Nitty and KP from Snowman Cliq. They suggest the Pig’n Whistle on Hollywood Boulevard, a place front and center to the slow parade of German and Japanese tourists, as well as some more local talent pretending to be somebody, as opposed to San Julian Street where people are pretending to be nothing.
At first sight these 20-something rap stars in the making from Watts read more like a potential hip-hop cash cow in search of a distribution deal, tour support and radio promo budget than Skid Row crack dealers. We take a table in the backroom and I consider asking if Javier, with the harelip, is one of their clients down in the box. I decide not to, as I have no evidence that Choc Nitty is anything but a talented rapper. I do tell him how much I like his music, especially “Get Them Chips,” and the video with the drug raid as a backdrop. I inquire about his association with the super dope cops in Central Division and ask if he knows Officer Quecada.
“Nah. I don’t know what officer you talking about,” he says. “I don’t do much talking to polices so it’s like, nope.”
Choc looks you in the eye and speaks slowly with a deep and sullen delivery in a vernacular that takes extreme liberty with the language, transcending Ebonics proper, poised in the dominion of poetry. It’s compelling. He and his partner KP are undeniably charismatic.
“Well, basically, you know, man ... people who are hustlers, they go where the money at, just like anybody in the business,” Choc says. But I’m not sure what business he means. “It’s not just drugs, narcotics and everything ... I heard about Saint Julian ... I know people who selling drugs down there, you know? Everybody doing they thing. Getting how they live. I go down there and gamble. I shoot dice. I’m a hustler, so I get it anywhere I can get it. Simple as that.”
I tell Choc that the cops say he’s a drug-dealing gangster and that he picked up a case and ... oh yeah, I ask, “What does ‘chippy’ mean? You know, from ‘Get Them Chips,’ the song on www.snowmancliq.com? It says ‘I’m gonna get my chippy on.’ What does that mean? Chips?”
Choc takes a beat. Looks at me like I’m nuts.
“My chippies,” Choc says. “Chips is money. Cheddar. Whatever ... dollar signs. Whatever money is to you, that’s it.”
“And what about the case?” I ask again.
“Yeah,” he says. “They put me in jail for something. I don’t even know what I’m talking about, man. They just put me in jail. They say I was selling narcotics, whatever. They know I’m a gambler. They know I shoot dice. But they try to get me for narcotics... I don’t know. I was in jail for that. I fighting that case right now and getting that right. Well, I already fought the case and I’m doing my probation and due to the travelin’, I ain’t feel like keep going to court ... so with this music stuff, I’m just doing that and maintaining that. We don’t have nothing to do with all the drugs ... Saint Julian. I don’t know nothing about that. I don’t get down like that. They just trying to find some people they can blame it on.”
Well, that’s not very nice. And Captain Smith seemed like such a standup guy. I wonder why the super dope cops are picking on Choc Nitty anyway. Whatever. I wanna hear more about all the stuff that Snowman Cliq is doing in Watts.
“Phenomena is the soundtrack for For Real, the DVD documentary we put out,” says KP, a handsome, wiry young player with big brown eyes, cornrows and a genius for self-promotion.
“D.J. Jamar, he directed it,” KP continues. “DVD is real hot. We got big rappers on there as far as with appearances: Busta Rhymes, 50 Cent, Lloyd Banks, G-Unit and Floyd Maywether, the boxer. We got people on our DVD or whatever that we mess with. So it’s not just regular rap. You know what I’m saying? We rapping and we from the ’hood or whatever. Downtown? That’s a whole ’nother story.”
“We finishing up the We Are Taught To Survive album, which stand for WATTS,” Choc adds. “We got a DVD documentary coming for that too. I’m working on my album, Choc Nitty: The Listen and Learn Album. They can learn from my mistakes. Listen and learn what I’m tellin’ 'em. KP and Six [that’s 6 Reasons, the third member of the Snowman Cliq] are working on their projects right now. We looking for a distribution deal for For Real. A lot of people need to see that. Everything that’s on it is for real. The second documentary is called For Real: Part 2 cuz everything you gonna see again is for real. We got for real people, major stars ... We mess with a lot of major stars. We got like, 8-40, we got Chingy, we got Too-Short, we got 50 again, The O.G. Unit; we got Prodigy from Mobb Deep. We got some of these people on there. We got Money Mike; we got Fabulous on there from the Street Family.”
“Whoa, that’s a lotta hip-hop star power. And what about you, KP? Do you hang out on ‘Saint Julian Street?’” I ask.
“Nah, not at all,” he says. “You couldn’t pay me to go down there. Cops call us gangsters, man. We just make music. The [song] everybody’s talking about — sell my weed, sell my rocks or whatever — you know, everybody like the song. But basically at the end of the song it saying, you can sell baseball cards, be a basketball player, lawyer, doctor, however you getting it ... that’s what it is, man. You know what I’m saying?”
“One Time” in the Box
Veteran narcotics detective Burt Feldtz knows San Julian Street like the back of his hand. He’s been on the job down here since 1990. Feldtz looks like an undercover cop. He wears undercover-cop jeans and an undercover-cop T-shirt and has undercover-cop hair. A stoic presence, the detective looks like a young Doug McClure. Not The Virginian young Doug McClure, more of a Cannonball Run II Doug McClure... without the paunch.
I’m riding shotgun with Feldtz, heading north on San Pedro toward Fifth Street in an unmarked squad car doing chase for the narcotics detail on a weekday afternoon. This is the street-level counterpart to Chris Luna and Rick Kellogg, the super dope cops with their eyes in the sky.
“If we didn’t go out and arrest the narcotic sellers and the buyers, the downtown area would be a total mess,” Feldtz says. “Downtown L.A. has always been like a free zone. We don’t have drive-by shootings where one gang is retaliating against a different gang. It’s kinda like a free zone where any gangster from any clique anywhere in the city of L.A. can come down here and sell narcotics and not really have to worry about someone doing a drive-by on them.
“Obviously you have a lot of people who are using down here. It’s just like feeding the ducks at the park. You know what the ducks want. They want a piece of bread. Same thing here. They want rock cocaine.”
Feldtz has a sort of detached cynicism that, coupled with his age, plus time in the box, imbues him with a clearer perspective than most.
“You’d be surprised... people who are vice presidents of companies, teachers, writers, actors, entertainers, everybody. Showing up in nice cars to buy narcotics. I think the homeless get a lot of the blame. It’s Joe Schmo citizen, too. It’s soccer mom. It’s everybody that’s coming to buy dope. It’s the whole society that’s coming down to buy dope. It’s not only the homeless.”
A disheveled black man rides close to the car on his bike and taunts us. “I know what time it is,” he says.
“‘One time’ means police,” Feldtz says. “That’s what they call us, ‘one time.’ A lot of times we can be actually hands-on arresting somebody, and less than 50 feet away from us they’re still making a transaction or smoking rock cocaine with us right there. They really get into their thing and they ignore everything else that’s going on.”
The radio squawks the details of a sale around the corner on Crocker Street. Feldtz puts the pedal down with the calm of a seasoned veteran.
“As soon as they say they are able to recover the dope, then we go out and get the dealer,” he tells me. “We’re trying to keep the narcotics to a steady roar. We see it quite a bit where 14- and 15-year-olds are selling narcotics down here. South L.A. gang members will use some of the younger people, because how the system works is we wind up releasing them to their parent.”
Radio squawks again. “Two males black, blue shirt, right front pocket. North side from Towne and Fifth Street. Red checkered shirt, blue jeans. The other one's got a blue T-shirt with a white T-shirt underneath and blue jeans. Both male black.”
We join two squad cars as they pull up on the sellers. Two clean-scrubbed, young black men are under arrest in front of the Salvation Army on Fifth Street and Stanford Avenue. Feet spread, hands on the wall waiting to be cuffed. Feldtz shows me the prize. A big bag of crack and a big bag of cash.
A block away two more squad cars pull up on the buyer. Another black man. A little older.
“It’s not like TV,” Feldtz says. “We don’t get excited. It doesn’t have to be all hostile. It’s a way of doing business out here. For the most part we’ve learned to treat ’em with respect. There’s no reason to demean them.”
Chief Bratton concurs.
“What I don’t think is often understood is that the role of the police down there is to protect that population as much as it is to protect populations throughout the city,” he says. “And that population is more susceptible to predatory behavior because they are among the weakest and most helpless in society because of drug addiction or schizophrenic condition or the advent of alcohol or ... they’re easy prey unfortunately.”
I’m humming the hook from “Get Them Chips” as I walk down a long hall on the 17th floor of the courthouse building at 210 W. Temple St. It’s like a gallery and the current installation is a series of visual-aid/trial-art collages featuring big blown-up photos of dead gangsters that take up the wall space on both sides. Gotta get my chippy on...
Janet Moore is the director of central operations at the D.A.’s office. She looks like she could be a producer for Oliver Stone. Tom Higgins is the head deputy district attorney in the complaints division and recently ran for D.A. but lost to Steve Cooley. He might run again. Higgins has got a mind of his own, and he and Moore know all about gangs and dope and crime and time served (or not served, as the case may be) for all those gangsters getting their chippy on whom Captain Smith and his crew keep sending over from the box.
Moore and Higgins dwell in the hyperachieving, ultra-competitive world of the D.A.’s office. They’re bringing their “A” game at all times. You can smell it. It’s not a comfortable place and they are not comfortable people.
The super dope cops told me all about the connection between gangs and drugs and crime, and Moore has some sure-shot solutions for all that. “One of the things we have done here,” she tells me, “is that we have a marvelous tool to combat gangs, which is penal code section 186.22. It addresses a variety of issues, but it gives us some tools to really hammer a gang member who is involved in criminal activities for the benefit of the gang.”
Moore’s talking about additional sentencing options for crimes committed by gang bangers. Higgins jumps in, “If you are committing a crime for the benefit of the gang, in addition to the penalties there are enhanced penalties. It gets them off the street for a longer time.”
The cops were too polite to say that the courts are a revolving door, but there is a general consensus in the police department that the people they arrest on drug charges don’t serve any kind of meaningful time, and that is a big part of the reason why the ceaseless drug market in the streets of City Central seems to go on forever.
Higgins doesn’t exactly disagree.
“As far as what appears to be a revolving door,” Higgins clears his throat, “I would say that 800 to 900 cases a month come through here that are dope only, whether they be possession, possession for sale or sales. That’s the city this side of the hills. It does not include the Valley. We have nine stations plus some special units coming in here. And out of those nine stations we get 800 to 900 dope cases a month out of a total volume of about 2,200, 2,300 a month. It varies. About 40 percent of these people are on probation.
“We’re just recycling the same people back out there,” Higgins continues. “The cops are seeing the same people that they arrested two weeks ago.”
“Basically you put people in jail and they’re doing three to seven days. That is a problem and we do try to levy jail time and probation sentences and send people to county [jail],” adds Moore. “But Proposition 36 substantially changes the way that we do business in drug cases. It was a big societal shift from punishment and incarceration over to rehabilitation.”
Proposition 36 is the initiative that was passed by 61 percent of California voters in November 2000. It allows people convicted of nonviolent drug possession to get treatment instead of incarceration, often even if it’s a third pop. Prop. 36 costs $120 million annually, though it was supposed to save California taxpayers $1.5 billion over five years. I think I might have voted for that one myself, but I missed the part that said the streets would be overrun with crack-smoking junkies and dope fiends.
“The mentality of this building the 30-plus years I’ve been in this office is, ‘Move the calendar,’” Higgins says. “That’s the building as a whole. Individual judges and D.A.'s see it differently, I would hope. But the predominant culture of the building is move the calendar and justice rides in the back seat. The bottom line, what defense attorneys and prosecutors talk about 99 percent of the time is, ‘How much time is he gonna get?’ The closer you get to no time, the quicker the case goes away. Even with Prop. 36, when you get to the fourth one, it’s goodbye time ... or it’s supposed to be, but it’s not.”
And in no time, there are gonna be even more second- and third-time drug arrestees hanging out in Cooleyville. I asked Bratton if, given the system’s abysmal failures, there’s really anything to be done about a free-range drug market. What can cops do about the box anyway?
“There is an ability with more resources to basically deal with that drug market,” Bratton says. “And we will, once given those resources, much as we did in New York. We have to deal with it effectively so we can, in fact, deal with the behavior issue. Can’t do that right now with the resources I have. Let me make it perfectly clear: We are getting more resources, but we’re not getting anywhere near what we need. We’re getting a thousand cops. I need 4,000. So that 1,000 cops spread around the whole city means that Smith will get probably around 40 or 50 additional cops over the next couple years. That’s not a lot of cops. There’s no quick, easy solution to the problems on Skid Row. What we’re trying to do is put people in there who enjoy dealing with problems, believe they can make a change and are trying to make a change. That’s the most we can hope for.”
Out of the Box
It’s been a little while since I descended into the underworld of the super dope cops in the box. A lot has happened in the meantime. My friend Alex got kicked out of rehab for kissing a guy named Ray, and I found out that the angry paparazzo who hit my car lied about having insurance. And then Captain Andy Smith called to tell me that Officer Rick Kellogg was dead. They found him at home a couple weeks ago, shot with his own gun. Rick and his partner Chris Luna were both up for promotion.
Detective Ron Hodges, the head officer in charge of Central’s narcotics unit, said, “Rick Kellogg was one of a kind. He will never be replaced.”
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I asked Captain Smith if there was anything that would have tipped him off, even in hindsight, that this was going to happen.
“No investigation. No complaints. No psychiatric evaluation,” Smith said. “He was clean as a whistle. In my 17-year police career I’ve seen 12 or 13 suicides. People I knew. What other job has that side effect?”
I found out that Rick’s son is 14 years old. Same as Javier.
Lately, they’ve been shooting a big movie on Olvera Street. The intrusive production must really be fucking up Javier’s routine because I saw him begging on the street with a Styrofoam cup last night when I was getting some sushi over by First and San Pedro. He had on some filthy khakis and a black Eco T-shirt, stinking to high heaven. He was so high he couldn’t even talk. Kept pointing to his mouth and shaking his head but no sound would come out. His pupils as big as irises, he ran as fast as he could to the end of the block, then back. He was even skinnier than before, skin and bones. Apparently he hasn’t been getting his chippy on at all... Whatever.