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Sweeping injunction targets "commuter drug dealers" in downtown L.A.

April 7, 2010 | 11:16 am

In an aggressive new tack in the city's crackdown on drug-dealing on skid row, L.A. prosecutors on Wednesday announced a criminal injunction targeting "commuter dealers” who come into downtown from other parts of town to sell their goods.

The L.A. City Attorney's Office said this is the first time they have aimed an injunction at drug dealers rather than gangs. The injunction would ban 80 drug dealers from entering skid row, and would allow prosecutors to ban up to 300 additional dealers who police identify in the future.

A protester interrupts a skid row press conference with LAPD Chief Charlie Beck and other LA officials during announcement of a new injunction. Credit: Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times

The 80 men and women already identified are affiliated with 31 gangs and have come to a “mutual understanding” to forgo rivalries, keep the peace and share business, according to Peter Shutan, the deputy city attorney.

The ban still requires a judge’s OK, but it has already reignited the debate over the role of police on skid row, where distinguishing between addicts and dealers can be difficult.

Critics say that some of the people included in the injunction may be addicts themselves who sell drugs to support their own habits. Skid row is the last stop for many, they say, and the bans could end up separating addicts who sometimes carry or sell drugs from the rehabilitation services they need.

Of particular concern to the activists is the part of the injunction that would allow police and the city attorney to ban up to 300 more people — now identified in the injunction simply as “John Does” — so long as they can prove to a judge that the people targeted are dealing drugs.

“If you see a guy committing a crime, you arrest him, you don’t put him on a list and say, ‘I think this guy is going to commit a crime,’ ” said gang expert Alex Alonso. “Now if a ‘John Doe' is hanging out with one of the 80 people on that list, he better watch out. He could get served, he probably will get served.”

Alonso said the injunction would give the police too much discretion in skid row, an area that has been home to the city’s most concentrated police presence since 2006, when Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and then-LAPD Chief William Bratton deployed 50 extra officers there as part of the controversial Safer City initiative. Dozens of undercover narcotics officers were deployed to the same area.

In 2009, the LAPD made 3,638 drug arrests on skid row, according to the LAPD. Roughly 38% of those were for sales activity, and 45% were for possession.

The city attorney’s office says the injunction is designed to protect people like Iris Mingo, a skid row resident and former crack user who says she has been sober for 18 months. Mingo says she faces temptations every time she walks out of her door because dealing is so rampant in the neighborhood.

“Now I’m free, but don’t think it don’t come up on me,” said Mingo, 56. “It can be very trying.”

Several social service providers welcomed news of the injunctions. Although banning the 80 alleged dealers will likely create “a vacuum” that new dealers will fill, getting current dealers off the street will give former drug addicts a better chance at recovery, said Andy Bales of the Union Rescue Mission.

“This is the best news we’ve had in a while,” Bales said.

Although skid row arrest rates have soared and most crime rates have plunged — LAPD statistics show that property crime dropped 44% and violent crime dropped 40% between 2005 and 2009 — the drug problem persists.

At the Union Rescue Mission early Tuesday morning, one man died of a suspected heroin overdose in the shelter’s overflow dormitories. The same morning, another man died of a suspected overdose at the Midnight Mission across the street.

Much violence on skid row is drug-related.

Last year the area was rocked by a double homicide that police say was linked to the drug trade inside the Lamp Lodge, a respected facility that provides shelter and counseling to the homeless.
Commander Blake Chow of the LAPD’s Central Division called drugs “probably the biggest threat to the community right now.”

The injunction, Chow said, would help police “protect the homeless from the predators coming from other parts of the city.” Of the dealers, he said, “we can arrest them and arrest them and arrest them, but what we need to do is keep them away.”

Gary Blasi, a UCLA professor who studies homelessness, said injunctions might allow police to stop anyone on the street without probable cause so long as they look like one of the 80 people on the the list.

The ban if approved, would not take effect for months. The people listed in the junction will have a chance to challenge it at a preliminary hearing that will be held in the next few weeks or months, said Bruce Riordan, the city attorney's director of anti-gang operations.

Another two to three months after that there will be another hearing in which a judge can choose to make it permanent.

Violating the injunction would be a misdemeanor offense.

-- Kate Linthicum

Photo: A protester interrupts a skid row press conference with LAPD Chief Charlie Beck and other LA officials during announcement of a new injunction. Credit: Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times